Turkey’s ISIS Crisis How the current government’s failed neighbourhood policies led to the current stalemate

When Obama on September 10 gave his speech  on the strategy outline of how to deal with the Islamic State (IS), this included the formation of a coalition in the Middle East as well as Europe. In the days after the speech US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled the respective regions to bring together all significant actors in a effort to defeat IS. Excluding Iran, with which due to still very restrained relations separate talks were announced, and Turkey, NATO member since 1952 and the probably most stable US ally in the region since exactly that year. This is, as by means of military contribution, including the important US Air Force base in Incirlik in southern Turkey, which is just some 340km flight distance from the capital of IS operations, ar-Raqqah away. Turkey’s new Prime Minister and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu pledged though to assist with humanitarian aid – given the fact that Turkey currently accommodates more than one million Syrian refugees nothing new – but Turkey also curbed up its effort to stop flows of weapons, capital and foreign fighters towards IS.

Turkey’s reluctance to get involved in the military struggle against IS as well as its recent domestic efforts to reduce the Islamic State’s influence are both directly linked to the events taking place in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the year and the rise and consolidation of IS (back then called ISIS). More so though since June 10, the day IS took over control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, taking 49 Turkish diplomats hostage, including the Consulate General. So while on one side fearing the consequences of IS actions in its neighbourhood, including possible terror attacks, mass migration from the respective countries, enormous trade reductions and the fact that a terror organization controls a number of border posts, Turkey also is a strong supporter of parts of the Syrian opposition that is deemed radical by the US . This includes the biggest Syrian opposition organization, the sunni islamist Islamic Front and its most prominent part, Ahrar ash-Sham, a Salafist organization which the US accuses of having ties to al-Qa’ida.

Turkey’s support for those groups highlights one of the problems with the United States partners in the region: namely the fact, that the Syrian President Bashir al-Assad is still considered the bigger enemy as IS, something that seems particularly true for Turkey, given the recent history of Turkish-Syrian relations that went from family friends of the Assads and the Erdogans to military skirmishes on the border. Besides those personal issues, Erdogans AKP government was a early supporter of western military involvement in Syria, a fact that took Turkey much room for manoeuvre once Obama was pointing out this was not going to happen. Thus for Turkey, as for other supporters of sectarian policies in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and on the other side Iraq and Iran, the only thing left was to support forces in Syria that are supposedly on the same side. While it is highly contested amongst western scholars and politicians whether to fight IS in cooperation with al-Assad  or without , for Turkey it is clear that Assad has to be removed.

Another fact that makes the issue even more sensitive for Turkey and in some sense also the US is that IS threatens Kurdish populated areas in Syria and northern Iraq. The peace process between the government in Ankara and Kurdish factions, mainly the PKK under its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, is in a critical stage. Fighters of the PKK, which in Turkey and abroad is still enlisted as a terrorist organization, have largely withdrawn from Anatolia into northern Iraq and Turkish forces in exchange stopped military actions in Kurdish areas. While those militants are still considered a significant threat by at least some parts of the Turks, they also play a critical role in the military effort in Iraq and to some extend in Syria to fight IS, as seen recently in the rescue of thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar. Even though Ankara and Washington are respecting the efforts of Kurdish fighters (mainly Peshmerga), including those of the PKK fighters, both countries still pursue a policy of limited autonomy of the respective Kurdish regions. Turkey does so out of fear to lose a large part of its territory, the US out of fear of a collapse of current Iraq. But both countries have significantly changed their approaches since the takeover of Mosul. The US is not only tolerating but pushing weapons shipments to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and has recently allowed KRG oil, which is pipelined into Turkey to be bought in the US . Turkey has sent humanitarian help to (Kurdish) refugee camps in Iraq and is key to stabilizing Kurdish regions.

In more general terms Ankara’s efforts in the region and beyond are a result of the foreign policy shift of the AKP government since the early 2000s. Under supervision of its spiritus rector, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign policy shifted from relative regional isolationism to some kind of liberal, some say  neo-Ottomanist and pan-Islamist , neighbourhood policy. First as foreign policy advisor, from 2009 to August 2014 as MFA and since then as Prime Minister Davutoglu pursued a radically more active foreign policy. The outline of his foreign policy was articulated in his magnum opus, Strategic Depth and basically promotes a more pragmatic foreign policy towards it neighbours (therefore later “zero problems with our neighbours” policy), especially former parts of the Ottoman empire and Turkic countries. His policies though for a number of reasons failed dramatically, a view which apparently is not shared  by a majority of AKP constituents and which in turn (although for sure not only) led to his appointment as Prime Minister. First of all there was the way in which these new neighbourhood policies were being applied.

Although showing unprecedented pragmatism in relations to e.g. Iran, Greece and even Armenia – former arch-enemies, Erdogan as the almost single leading political figure showed off a increasingly sectarian rhetoric. Turkey for one actively balanced against Shi’i actors, like the governments in Tehran and Baghdad by supporting Kurdish and Sunni forces respectively. Ankara also expelled unwanted Ambassadors, like the ones of Israel, Egypt and Syria, completely opposing the pragmatic “zero problems” approach. Secondly Ankara pursues its hegemonial foreign policy in a very “realist” environment, meaning that other actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and even Iraq also push for regional hegemony. Therefore Turkey actively contributes to an increasing militarization and the formulation of new and old conflicts, mostly along sectarian lines. Thirdly there are unpredictable and to some extend uncontrollable events that led to a complete failure of Davutolus policies towards the Middle East including the power struggles after the initiation of the Arab Spring and the two civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

Ankara therefore has little possibilities in Syria or Iraq and is a driven force. Any direct involvement in a fight against ISIS would not only endanger the 49 Turkish hostages but Turkey as a whole as it has more than 1150 km land boundaries with the countries. The recent consideration of President Erdogan to build a “buffer zone” between Turkey and its southern neighbours shows that not only Turkeys foreign policy elites are concerned, but the country as a whole. Turkey must find a way to walk this extremely narrow path of not provoking powerful regional actors too much and at the same time maintain good relations with the US and the EU. The foreign policy focus of Davutoglu and Erdogan turned out to be a big mistake, but by no means only due to wrong intentions. Turkey needs to find alternatives, for reasons of security but more important to keep up economic growth and domestic political stability.