Turkey’s new-found resolve towards ISIS

Friday 31/07/2015

Reports of Turkey’s first military firefight with the Islamic State (ISIS) last week that left one Turkish soldier and one militant dead have been greeted with headlines about an important “turning point” and “game changer”. Indeed, the immediate implications for US-Turkish cooperation in the fight against ISIS has led to greater intelligence sharing and Ankara lifting restrictions on American jets flying from Incirlik, the closest military base to ISIS targets in Syria.

Given that Turkey shares the longest land border with Syria it was always seen as inevitable in Ankara since the beginning of the uprisings against President Bashar Assad that there would be some spillover. The initial rise of ISIS that gained international atten­tion with its capture of Mosul and Turkey’s consulate led to months of diplomatic negotiating that saw all Turkish citizens returned unharmed in contrast to the regular beheading of Western hostages.

Ankara’s initial reticence to condemn ISIS was consistent with Ankara’s view that ISIS was just like any other opposition group in Syria. Turkey continued to view the Assad regime as the greatest threat to regional stability despite what Washington and other Western allies were saying. As the media focused more of its atten­tion on ISIS, Turkey was stung by Western complaints over foreign fighters transiting through its territory to join ISIS instead of focusing on where these foreign­ers were originating from and the difficulty of securing the Turkish- Syrian border. Initially, there was sympathy within Turkey for ISIS, which was seen as fighting for the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. But particularly in the last year, Ankara’s patience has begun to wear thin, with voices in Turkey calling for the re-establishment of a “proper” caliphate in Istanbul.

ISIS and its propagandists came to be seen as insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conserva­tive Muslim AK Party, which was trying to rule democratically and make Turkey an important regional power beyond its Otto­man roots. The latest overt aggression by ISIS against Turkish forces is seen as the last straw and has mobilised popular sentiment against ISIS. Arrests of suspected ISIS members and sympathisers in Turkey’s south-east over the last month raised the stakes as government officials began to publicly consider action in Syria.

However, these discussions mostly centred on questions of how to defeat Assad by creating a no-fly or buffer zone where Turkey’s Syrian refugees could be resettled, along with containing the newly emboldened Syrian Kurds who Ankara feared would inspire Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

As fighting along the border and the disunity among the Syrian opposition have grown, Turkey has been slowly dragged into the conflict, culminating in last week’s incidents between Turkish soldiers and ISIS terrorists.

Ankara now has made clear its anti-ISIS stand, which no longer leaves room for strategic ambigu­ity. But Turkey’s new position is complicated by domestic political dynamics, a peace process with the Turkish Kurds that is on life support, and the fact that Syrian Kurds have been the most effec­tive ground force against ISIS even as Ankara regards the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as its main enemy.

Turkey’s greatest assets remain its considerable economic clout, military power and international alliances, including membership of NATO, which Ankara has called upon to protect its sovereignty and to directly coordinate in confronting ISIS.

Turkey’s unilateral air strikes and shelling have already killed more ISIS terrorists in the last week than the country’s military had killed in all the previous years combined. This means that further international cooperation will be necessary. This is being greeted as a welcome sign in Washington and many regional capitals that had been frustrated by the slow Turkish response to ISIS.

Despite the sometimes sensa­tionalist political rhetoric of its leaders, Turkey’s bureaucracy and military provide an effective and measured response that is now being seen. When combined with the broader anti-ISIS coalition that Turkey has always been a member of, albeit focused more on the humanitarian rather than military side of the equation, this spells disaster for ISIS.

As Turkey has demonstrated in the past against the PKK in Iraq, it is willing to go it alone and do whatever it takes based on its own calculations of threat, but is most powerful when coordinating with its international and regional allies. Hopefully, Ankara’s new-found hostility towards ISIS will lead not only to the terror group’s defeat, but also to a new order in the region in which Turkey will continue to be a critical player.