TSG IntelBrief: Behind Turkey’s Thinking on the Islamic State
October 9, 2014

Behind Turkey’s Thinking on the Islamic State


Bottom Line Up Front: 

•  Turkey holds fire while the fate of Kobani hangs in the balance

• It is not just an issue of taking on the self proclaimed Islamic State; the ouster of the Assad regime is a key objective, as well as containing Kurdish ambitions for greater autonomy

• Turkey is ready to take its place as a regional leader, but only on its own terms

• Turkey’s policy, however, is not risk-free, and invites international condemnation and acts of retaliation.


As the world watches the battle for Kobani from a distance, Turkey can see, smell, and hear the action. But despite the proximity of the fighting between the defending Kurdish inhabitants of this Syrian border town and the forces of the so-called Islamic State (IS), Turkey is in no hurry to intervene.

There are plenty of reasons for this, and although Turkey’s position may be uncomfortable, it is perfectly logical. First, as the Turkish Government has repeatedly made clear, it has no interest in active participation in the coalition against IS unless there is a clear strategy for achieving regional stability. President Erdogan repeated this in a speech in New York during his visit to address the UN General Assembly on September 24, as did Prime Minister Davutoglu in an interview with CNN on October 6. In Turkey’s eyes, regional stability is not possible for so long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria.

But for Turkey there is another aspect to regional stability: the future of the Kurds. Turkey has become quite comfortable living alongside the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which, under the leadership of Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party, shares Turkey’s interest in political and economic stability within agreed borders. However, the Kurds in Syria are more closely aligned with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated military branch, the Peoples Defense Units (YPG), which have been leading the battle for Kobani and fighting IS attacks elsewhere in Northern Syria.

The PYD and YPG are in turn closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), headed since its foundation in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, and regarded by Turkey, the US and the EU, among others, as a terrorist organization. Ocalan has been in prison in Turkey since 1999, but he is still the leader of the movement and has threatened to suspend the current ceasefire, in existence since March 2013, unless Turkey intervenes to help save Kobani from the hands of IS by mid-October. Kurdish-led riots in some Turkish cities protesting the government’s refusal to move the army across the border have led to the imposition of a curfew in parts of the southeast of the country, an ominous echo of the confrontational days of the 1990s.

Turkey has made clear that in its view, international intervention in Syria should target all terrorist groups, not just IS. Although Turkey has not specified what it means by that, it is pretty clear that it considers PKK an appropriate target. This is a risky strategy if it turns out that the movement still has the capacity to launch a terrorist campaign inside Turkey. With parliamentary elections due in 2015, and Erdogan keen to see new legislation adopted that strengthens the role of his presidency, he has to show voters that he can continue to lead Turkey towards a still more prosperous future, not back into the dark days of the last century.

Until their release on 20 September, the 46 Turks and three Iraqis, held hostage by IS since their abduction from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul in June, had provided Turkey another reason not to intervene in Syria. The deal to set them free, rumored to involve Turkey allowing between 150 and 200 IS fighters, including foreigners, to cross the border into Syria, does not seem to have included any informal ceasefire agreement. But perhaps more than in any other country in the region, the Turkish public is divided about the importance of attacking IS. Some opinion polls suggest that within Erdogan’s party, there is more distrust of US policy in the region than concern about the intentions of IS. This is a reflection of Erdogan’s utter determination to see the back of Assad, whatever the cost.

So how will this play out? Turkey is conscious of the fact that it is one of the strongest and most influential countries in the region, and alongside Iran, the most populous. It believes – correctly – that its engagement in the Syria-Iraq imbroglio is essential for a satisfactory conclusion. But at the same time it is frustrated that it cannot do more to determine the direction of the fight. Like the US, it recognizes the weaknesses of the Free Syrian Army, and like the US, it sees the long-term threat posed by IS – though it seems it is less concerned about the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – having tried to dissuade Washington from designating it as a terrorist organization. But unlike the US, it wants to shift the focus away from the opposition and on to the Syrian Government.

Although the overthrow of the Assad regime would almost inevitably lead to a long period of instability in Syria, Turkey does not care. With its current mood of Ottoman revivalism, it appears to see a central role for itself in bringing a new order to the region that Sykes-Picot ultimately failed to achieve—and it cannot quite understand why everyone else does not agree.


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