Turkey Prefers Behind-Scene Role in Anti-IS Coalition

Turkey Prefers Behind-Scene  Role in Anti-IS CoalitionTurkey Prefers Behind-Scene  Role in Anti-IS Coalition

Turkey is the big Muslim power that sits atop raging conflicts in Iraq and Syria, so it might be expected to take a leading role in the NATO coalition announced this month to take on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Instead it has told allies that it will quietly stay behind the scenes, keeping its soldiers out of combat operations and even declining to allow NATO to use its bases or territories to launch air attacks.

This reticence has roots in two dilemmas: ISIL holds dozens of Turkish hostages, including diplomats, and Turkey is wary of boosting its rebellious Kurdish minority in the battle against ISIL in Iraq, Today’s Zaman wrote.

Turkey’s position is complicated by its eagerness to topple the Syrian government, which led to its tolerance of anti-Assad militants taking refuge on its side of the Syrian border. The same action may have given ISIL some breathing room in Turkey. More recently, it has been forced to confront the threat the group is posing.

Western concerns that Turkey was tacitly tolerating ISIL have been allayed by Turkey’s strong statements of condemnation of the group and steps to rein it in, including kicking out suspected ISIL sympathizers.

 Asking for More

But while expressing public support for Turkey, NATO allies are quietly saying they would like more action from their ally.

They would chiefly like to see Turkey tighten its border controls, stem the flow of fighters passing through Turkey from Western countries and the Middle East and crack down on the oil smuggling from Syria that is financing ISIL. They could also benefit from closer intelligence cooperation and possibly the use of the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey as a base from which to launch strikes against the group.

Western governments have been alarmed by the fact that ISIL has managed to smuggle Iraqi and Syrian oil across its borders. Turkey has cracked down, but analysts say Turkey has simply not been able to police the more than 700 miles of border with Iraq and Syria.

Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were in Ankara last week on successive trips to press Turkey on its role through meetings with officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But they failed to win pledges of support for combat operations -- at least publicly. Both expressed understanding for the delicate position Turkey was in.

Turkey also declined to sign a US-brokered statement by Middle Eastern countries last week repudiating the ISIL group and pledging to fight it.

 Kurdish Conflict

Along with fears over the fate of the 49 hostages seized from the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Turkey also finds its hands tied in terms of combat with the group because of its three-decade-long conflict with the Kurdish minority, fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Last year, Kurdish rebels declared a cease-fire and began withdrawing fighters from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq, but tensions have risen recently as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has accused Turkey of not boosting Kurdish rights quickly enough.

Government officials say they now see signs that Kurds from Turkey are crossing the border to help PKK militants in Iraq and Syria fight ISIL. The government may also have concerns that Turkey’s Kurds, bolstered by Western arms and emboldened by battlefield success, could harden their demands on the Ankara government.

In interviews, Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, say that they took steps against ISIL months ago when they recognized it as a threat to Turkey. They say that Western countries were slow to respond to Turkish requests for lists of suspected ISIL group sympathizers, but Turkish authorities have now assembled a watch list of more than 6,000 names.

Teams of security officials operating at Turkish airports and bus stations have interrogated more than 500 people over the last four months and have deported 107 to their countries of origin, according to one official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. Officials also say they are fighting oil smuggling, but face challenges across a more than 900 kilometer (550 mile) border with Syria.

 “Strategic Blindness”

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, concedes that earlier in the Syrian conflict, Turkey was slow to recognize the threat from ISIL, looking the other way in what he called “strategic blindness.” He says that Turkey used every instrument it had to promote regime change in Syria, including turning a blind eye to extremist militants. But it has since changed its policy.

“The fundamental reason the behavior changed,” he said, “is the fact that Ankara realizes much more clearly that [ISIL] is a security threat to Turkey.”