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Turkey: Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place in anti-IS Coalition

Turkey: Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place in anti-IS Coalition
A US jet lands on an aircraft carrier after bombing Islamic State targets. Turkey is home to the Incirlik US air base that has not yet been used against ISIS. Photo: AP.
By Alexander Whitcomb in Erbil and Deniz Serinci in Copenhagen

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Despite a vow to step up the fight against the Islamic State armies fighting across its borders in Iraq and Syria, Turkey is unlikely to go full throttle against the rebels, analysts believe. 

"We will give the necessary support to the operation,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York. 

“The support could be military or logistics,” said Erdogan, who was speaking after the IS released 49 Turkish hostages seized at Turkey’s consulate in Mosul, which the rebels stormed in June after Iraqi forces fled without a fight.

 “Obviously, Turkey is capable of making a major military contribution,” said Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for The Economist. “They have a 900-kilometer border with Syria and Incirlik military air base.” 

Yet, Turkey has not permitted coalition jets to take off from Incirlik for bombing raids on IS, the group also known as ISIS or ISIL. The first round of strikes in Iraq, which began last month, was launched from bases in Jordan and the Persian Gulf.

While France and five Arab countries have played direct or indirect roles in the US strikes against the rebels in Iraq and Syria, Turkey has remained on the sidelines, refusing to go beyond allowing the use of its airspace. 

Ankara is most likely to ramp up intelligence sharing and border control measures, analysts say. It may also begin restricting the flow of smuggled oil, a major source of revenue for the rebels, who are reported to be earning millions -- for a war they want to take to the world -- from oil smuggled across the Turkish border from seized facilities. 

That could be an important move, as the US strategy appears to include efforts to choke the group’s sources of revenue in both Iraq and Syria. Air raids on the IS by US and Arab coalition partners on Wednesday – the second round on the rebels in Syria – included an attack on oil facilities under IS rebel control in remote parts of the war-torn country, according to the Pentagon. 

After a meeting with Turkish officials, US Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience at a counter-terrorism forum that the NATO ally “will be very engaged on the frontlines of the effort,” now that its hostages were freed.

“Turkey is ready to conduct additional efforts along with the rest of us in order to guarantee success,” he said. 

But Turkish leaders remain skeptical that remote airstrikes alone can defeat a group that controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Substantial ground forces and urban warfare will be needed in order to wipe out the group, military analysts agree, while Western leaders are loathe to consider putting boots on the ground.

“Ankara has many problems with the US’ anti-ISIS strategy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “The issue for Turkey is that they feel as if the plan does is half-hearted and will not ultimately defeat ISIS.” 

According to Stein, Ankara wants any coalition to pursue a far more aggressive policy capable of defeating Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey views as the root cause of the chaos.

The Turks may also avoid increasing military involvement because of a fragile internal security situation, said Oytun Orhan, a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara.

“It is easy for the US or France to act against ISIS as they are living thousands of kilometers away from the region,” he said. “But ISIS controls some of the border crossings between Turkey and Syria, and more than one-third of the border is controlled by ISIS.” 

It is no secret that Turkey has long tolerated Islamic extremists crossing its border to join the fight in Syria. En route, the jihadis have left a broad trail of radicalized youth from the lower-class, which has remained excluded from Turkey’s rapid, decade-long economic rise.  
“They have a real constituency within the country. We need to examine why so many Turks are joining ISIS,” saidThe Economist’s Zaman. 

As a result, Turkey finds itself trapped; it is having to balance the external IS threat without provoking homegrown supporters or cells operating inside. 

Last March, an IS cell killed a policeman and two civilians in the central-Anatolian city of Nigde, leaving five more wounded.  Just over a year earlier, it was the IS that claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed 51 and injured 140 in Reyhanlı, near the Syrian border.

IS has publicly declared that Turkey is its next battleground. After turning a blind eye to the IS for the past three years, Turkey knows that the game has changed, but appears to be pulled by conflicting interests. 

"After the ISIS offensive in Iraq, the Turkish government will now probably seriously consider the border because it is ultimately going to harm Turkey itself," said Naser Khader, a Hudson Institute expert on Syria and Iraq in the United States.

The humanitarian catastrophe unleashed this month, after IS forces turned heavy weapons captured in Iraq against the Kurdish Kobane region in Syria, has also been a wake-up call for Turkey: Some 140,000 people flooded across the Turkish border from Kobane in a matter of days.

But even without going on the offensive against the rebels, Muslim Turkey is an important partner in a US-led coalition at pains to show that its war against IS not a war against Islam – which is what IS has tried to portray.

A recent French government statement referred to IS as “Daesh,” an Arabic reference to the group that avoids any mention of its self-proclaimed Islamic identity. British diplomats also have been referring to IS by its Arabic name.

At the UN General Assembly this week, US President Barack Obama told the world that the war has nothing do with Islam. “The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam,” he declared in his speech. 

Turkey, which has a huge minority of some 15 million Kurds who have been clamoring for decades for greater rights, has another problem in Iraq and Syria: it is wary of seeing Kurds there gaining greater power.

During the three-year civil war in Syria, Turkey allowed IS militants to cross in from its border not only to fight Assad’s forces, but also to contain Kurdish forces..

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been fighting IS in Syria from the outset of the civil war, is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade war for Kurdish rights with the Turkish government.  

Although Ankara and the PKK launched a peace process in March 2013, it has remained largely stalled. Turkey fears that further chaos would strengthen the pro-PKK forces in Syria, where the Kurds last year declared autonomy in the southeastern Kurdish regions. 

In Iraq, Turkey has paid for its backseat role in the war by alienating important allies.

Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, an autonomous enclave of three provinces in the north that has prospered while the rest of the country has reeled in violence and destruction, has been a key Turkish partner. It is where Turkey is investing for future oil and gas supplies to fuel its buzzing economy. 

For Erbil, Turkey is the largest trade partner and the outlet for its growing oil and gas exports.

But that cozy relationship was rocked after Turkey stood on the sidelines and refused to step in, as IS forces reached close to Erbil last month, forcing US airstrikes that are believed to have saved the day.   

“The US, France and Europe came to our rescue but our neighbor refused to do so, even after we asked for help. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdistan Region presidency, revealed to Rudaw in a recent interview.

“Turkey consistently reiterated that if the security of the Kurdistan Region is threatened they would intervene. Well, our security was under threat, but still we did not receive any support from Turkey,” he said.

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