The Implications of Turkey’s Turn Toward Fighting ISIS
The Implications of Turkey’s Turn Toward Fighting ISIS
Interview / Europe & Central Asia 7 minutes

The Implications of Turkey’s Turn Toward Fighting ISIS

This interview with Crisis Group’s Turkey and Cyprus Analyst,  Didem Aykel Collinsworth, is adapted and republished here with permission from Syria Deeply and Katarina Montgomery, Syria Deeply’s Digital Producer.

In a significant expansion of its role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey agreed to let the U.S.-led coalition use its territory to launch attacks and train moderate Syrian rebels.

The move comes after weeks of complaints that Turkey hasn’t done enough to combat ISIS, as it swept across Syria and Iraq and seized nearly half of the strategic border town of Kobani.

Didem Akyel Collinsworth, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, explains how and why Turkey has stepped up its cooperation with the international community in the fight against ISIS and what it can do in the future to contain the spillover from the fighting in northern Syria.

Syria Deeply: Turkey will now allow the U.S. and its allies to use its bases against ISIS. Why this move and why now?

Didem Collinsworth: Actually, Turkey said that agreement has not been reached yet. But it has already been taking steps to allay its Western allies. The agreement to train moderate Syrian rebels on its soil, the 1 October motion at the parliament to allow cross-border military operations into Iraq and Syria, and to allow foreign troop deployments on Turkish soil, were all such steps recently taken. From a public opinion perspective, the motion was to show some proactive steps towards ensuring the country’s safety and was a defensive rather than an offensive move.

The perception that Turkey was not assisting the coalition enough against IS has tarnished its image in Western media and there have even been comments calling into question Turkey’s NATO membership. These steps also show its Western allies that Turkey is not standing on the sidelines and that it is still a valuable ally.

Many of the reasons why Turkey has been shying away from direct military intervention and involvement in northern Syria are very understandable. Allowing use of its bases is one way that Turkey can contribute, but even before that, Turkey has allowed the use of its air space, opened up humanitarian assistance corridors to northern Syria, and shared information with allies.

To what extent is Turkey collaborating with the international community in the fight against ISIS? Would Turkey still consider committing troops to Syria?

I still think it’s possible for Turkey to take part in such an operation under an international umbrella, but there are reasons for its reservations.

The decision in Turkish parliament about cross border operations into Syria and Iraq is mainly a defensive measure in case there is an attack from these territories on Turkey. Direct involvement in the war in Syria would be extremely unpopular domestically. Turkey is still in an election cycle until Summer 2015, and the government’s goal is to keep everything normal until then.

Turkey is more vulnerable to spill over from the crisis than the other allies. Unlike the U.S. and European countries, Turkey shares a 900km border with Syria and experiences regular direct spill over from the conflict.

Direct military involvement against ISIS poses many security threats for Turkey. There is the obvious risk of retaliation from ISIS, which has a network inside Turkey. ISIS has infiltrated many Turkish cities, and it operates at many points along the border in northern Syria. The Europeans and Americans are talking about the risk of foreign fighters returning to their homelands and carrying out attacks, Turkey is also seeing this risk in combination with potential ISIS attacks on Turkish tourist resorts, which would devastate Turkey’s tourist economy, which accounts for 10% of its national economy.

Any kind of unilateral intervention into northern Syria might also be seen by the Syrian regime as aggression, and Turkey could face retaliation from the regime itself. Moreover, it’s very difficult for Turkey to maintain a prolonged operation inside Syria on its own. If it had an international mandate and support, there could be grounds to say Turkey would take part in this effort. Turkey has said it could join a U.S. or NATO-led operation, but such an international move is unlikely, and in any case, it does not eradicate the risk factors particular to Turkey.

What does the fight in Kobani mean for Turkey? How does it impact Turkish security interests?

Any increase of ISIS control on Turkey’s border is a clear threat. Turkey is very much aware of the risks a radical organization with radical beliefs and methods poses on its border.

At the same time, the state still sees Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, elements as the largest domestic security threat. That mentality hasn’t entirely changed in Turkey, and therein we see the dilemma of which way to go – you can see this reflected in Turkey’s policy. Turkey has not yet made peace with the PKK insurgency. There are talks going on between the government and the PKK since late 2012, but so long as a peace agreement is missing, there cannot be the necessary trust between the Kurdish insurgency, whose sister organization is fighting ISIS in Kobani and Rojava, and the government to allow them to cooperate against ISIS.

The key here is for both the government and the PKK to move as fast as possible with the peace process and confidence building measures, so that there are the grounds to cooperate in Kobani and elsewhere. It’s very difficult for Turkey to accept arming Kurds in Kobani, which are mostly PKK- linked, in the current circumstances where there is a three-decade-old history of a deadly conflict.

Last week [week of 6 October] pressures from Turkey’s Kurdish population erupted in riots that killed dozens of people. How will Turkey quell those pressures? How does it plan to handle those dynamics from here on?

I don’t agree with comments that the country is descending into civil war, but it was definitely very worrisome. We saw things we haven’t seen since the 1990s – tanks on the streets in southeastern cities, curfews in six provinces, street fights among gangs with very different views (nationalists and the Kurdish Hizbullah against the PKK, for instance).

Despite the very harsh rhetoric from both the pro-Kurdish groups and the government, the peace process has not been called off and neither has the cease-fire (which has been in place since March 2013). This is because both sides still see gains from the lull in hostilities. It has benefited the Kurdish national movement, both its political arm and the PKK. They’ve gained international and domestic legitimacy and strengthened their structures in the southeast. For its part, the government doesn’t want funerals to be on the front pages of the newspapers when it’s in the middle of an election cycle. It’s clear that they want the peace process to continue.

Turkey can’t deal with the Syrian or Iraqi Kurds in a sustainable way until it makes peace with its own Kurdish insurgency. The PKK will always be a tool for outside powers as long as Turkey can’t resolve its issues by itself.

This weekend U.S. officials said that Turkey would monitor the flow of foreign fighters across its border with Syria. How might that work? How much of a transit point has Turkey been until now?

At the beginning of the war, like the rest of the world, Turkey wasn’t aware of the extent of the jihadi threat in Syria. In an effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quickly, it allowed support for a wide array of opposition elements. In the last year, Turkey has realized the increasing threat jihadists pose to its own security and has changed its policies accordingly.

The real question is about the successful implementation on the ground, particularly at the border crossings. There is no way to say that there hasn’t been a jihadist breach of a 900km-long border. Turkey admits that it’s a very porous border that is very difficult to control and that it can’t stop people with legitimate travel documents if they aren’t on an international wanted list from crossing. They can’t control all illegal crossings either. There are lots of such points, where people walk through the barbed wire, for instance.

Hence, so far the efforts to control jihadi breaches of the border haven’t been entirely successful, and there is more both Turkey and the international community can do to prioritize monitoring and make sure that there is absolutely no tolerance for jihadi breaches of the border, both from Turkey to Syria and vice-versa.

It’s very important that Western powers collaborate with Turkey on this, particularly in terms of information sharing.

Turkey has long pushed for the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, something the U.S has been reluctant to pursue. Why is this so important, from Ankara’s perspective?

Turkey sees this as important from a security perspective and also for refugees. Turkey had to take in 160,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in late September. It bears the bulk of the burden in terms of refugees coming in from northern Syria and it feels like it shouldn’t have to bear this burden on its own. Turkey feels that it is accepting the refugees on behalf of the international community.The buffer zone would also be a safe zone for these refugees.

To establish a buffer zone, you need a no-fly zone. From a logistical perspective, Turkey can’t pursue a buffer zone alone. It could only be possible through an international effort, which simply isn’t there at the moment. It would be very difficult for Turkey’s military to have a sustained campaign by itself to secure this buffer zone. Another problem would be the location – where would you draw the boundaries and according to what? Turkey would need an Arabic-speaking military in order to implement such a policy, which it doesn’t have. So there are all sorts of problems with the implementation of the buffer zone.

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