7 Surprising Reasons Turkey is entering war on ISIL

By Juan Cole

The Turkish parliament voted by a large margin Thursday to allow Turkish troops to make incursions into neighboring countries if necessary to defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This authorization is necessary according to the Turkish constitution. Likewise, parliament voted to allow foreign troops involved in the fight against ISIL to be based on Turkish soil. This provision may allow the US to use its Incirlik air force base against the terrorist organization, which Turkey has so far disallowed.

These decisions are a significant turnabout from a month ago, when Turkey seemed reluctant to get involved. What is driving the ruling Justice and Development Party (Turkish acronym AKP) to join the American effort against ISIL?

1. Its European entanglements: Turkey has gotten enormous pressure from President Obama, French president Francois Hollande and UK PM David Cameron to join. For their part, they need the largest Sunni country in west Asia on their side to avoid having the campaign against ISIL look like a Christian-Shiite Jihad against Sunnis. Turkey values its NATO membership and will want to fulfill obligations to other NATO members. President Tayyip Erdogan also very much wants Turkey to be accepted into the European Union, and may figure that proving Turkey’s worth in fighting a Muslim extremism that seems threatening to Europe may gain him some good will in the EU. Also, Turkey fears that if the West does manage to inflict attrition on ISIL, the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad might benefit, but Turkey wants to see it overthrown. Being in the coalition allows Turkey to demand that pressure be kept on al-Assad to step down.

2. Turkey has backed the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army against the Baathist government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The former two organizations are dominated by a Turkey ally– the Muslim Brotherhood. (Turkey’s own AKP is mildly inflected with a rhetoric of political Islam and just passed a provision allowing middle- and High School female students in state schools to veil, a practice that had been forbidden by 20th century secular governments). In the past couple of years, ISIL has consistently defeated the Free Syrian Army. Turkey wants to build back up the Free Syrian Army “moderate” opposition to both the Baath (socialist Arab nationalist) government in Damascus and extremists like ISIL.

3. Turkey is hoping to persuade the United States to impose a no-fly zone on northern Syria near Turkey. Ankara is convinced that the Syrian Baath government deliberately uses its air power against the Free Syrian Army so as to allow ISIL to win their battles. A no-fly zone would level the playing field, perhaps allowing the FSA finally to make progress and widen its territory. (In my own view, it is highly unlikely that the US will agree to patrol Syrian skies with F-18s, nor would it be legal in international law).

4. Ahu Özyurt argues that Turkey’s business classes, which largely back the ruling AKP, fear negative fallout on investment and stock valuation if ISIL continues to be strong and to neighbor Turkey. She says,

“Economically, supporting the anti-ISIL alliance might be Turkey’s best bet. With every mortar shell hitting Turkey on Sept. 29-30, the stock market lost points and interest rates increased. Over the weekend, Fitch will most likely downgrade the outlook for Turkey.”

5. Newly elected President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had feared taking on ISIL this past summer because it had taken hostage some 40 Turkish diplomats at the Mosul consulate. Last week, a deal was reached for the release of the consulate officials and workers. Had they been beheaded by ISIL, it would have deeply harmed the political reputation of Erdogan and Davutoglu. They would have looked helpless and not in control. But now that the hostages have been let go and are out of harm’s way, Erdogan and Davutoglu no longer need fear looking like Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

6. Turkey has had fruitful negotiations with separatist Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) about having the latter cease attacks in Anatolia. The leftist PKK and its Syrian branch, the YPG, is now a major guerrilla force taking on ISIL and was largely responsible for rescuing the Yazidis trapped at Sinjar. The Kurdish town of Kobane is now under siege by ISIL, and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is warning that if Turkey lets Kobane fall, the PKK will cut off its negotiations with Turkey. (Tens of thousands of Kurds have recently fled into Turkey from Syria in fear of ISIL). Turkey doesn’t want to see the PKK and YPG strengthened, as they may be if they can claim sole credit for fighting off ISIL.

7. Tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire is in Syria, but is considered Turkish soil. It is guarded by Turkish special ops forces. If it fell to ISIL, that would make Erdogan and Davutoglu look bad, especially since they champion pride in the Ottoman, Muslim heritage of Turkey that had been viewed negatively by previous, secular Turkish governments.

Related video:

Reuters: “Turkey’s parliament approves motion to allow troops in Syria and Iraq”

17 Responses

  1. Turkey has done far more than back the SNC and FSA.

    “Turkey has directly supported al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, in defiance of America, the former US ambassador has disclosed.
    … this is the first time a senior American official – albeit one no longer in service – has said openly that Turkey was working with al-Qaeda. Ironically, the Turkish policy has been effective in one way – Jabhat al-Nusra is now seen as relatively moderate compared with its splinter group, Islamic State.”

    link to theage.com.au

  2. The PKK has not been ‘separatist’ since the 1990’s but many people keep using this word. Why? How about ‘armed movement fighting for Kurdish rights’? Just a suggestion, but stop with the ‘separatist’.
    There were not ‘fruitful negotiations’. The negotiations have not even begun, they are only talking to Öcalan. That there are no negotiations is actually one of the problems of this so called ‘peace process’. It’s a ceasefire and the Turkish government has done nothing to make it a peace process. The peace process is not about making ‘the latter cease attacks’, it’s about granting people their internationally recognized human rights, after which they are expected to lay down their arms. These differences really do matter, in my humble opinion.

  3. Concerning your 6. point, the no fly zone : it seems that the YPK and PKK aren’t happy with it either : the Kurds states that they are already holding this territorry and think that the real goal of Edogan is to prevent the founding of a Kurdish state (this is what wrote the French newspaper Le Figaro” today :
    /I Autre difficulté majeure qu’Ankara semble négliger: l’instauration d’une telle zone ne peut se faire sans affrontements avec l’Etat islamique et les Kurdes du YPG. Elle mettrait aussi en difficulté le fragile processus de paix mené en Turquie entre le gouvernement et le PKK. Le mouvement armé kurde a déjà déclaré qu’il considérerait comme une «déclaration de guerre» les tentatives d’instauration d’une telle zone qui passe, en majorité, par les territoires contrôlés par le YPG. /I

    /I L’«obsession kurde» /I

    /I «Malgré le processus de paix qui est en cours, Ankara souffre toujours d’une obsession kurde», écrivait, hier, le chroniqueur Cengiz Candar dans le quotidien «Radikal». «La motion a été préparée sous la pression des Etats-Unis, mais elle ne concerne que secondairement l’Etat islamique. Elle vise principalement le PKK et le YPG, qui sont pourtant en train de combattre contre les djihadistes.» ISTANBUL, NARÉ HAKIKA, LE FIGARO /I

    • Another No Fly Zone mystery is why the U.S. is unenthusiastic about it.

      I think U.S. misgivings about the Free Syrian Army are not that they are hopelessly weak, as Juan and many others keep reporting. I think the fear is much more that they will become too powerful and too Islamic too quickly if they have significant outside support. The U.S. and Turkey are at odds on the FSA. The U.S. is on a very deliberate go-slow track. Assad would quickly lose the northern half of the country if a NFZ is implemented, even in a narrow band.

      Most sensible people want to see some balance of power that leads to a negotiated settlement. Getting there is tricky, and everybody sees that proper balance differently.

  4. All you historians out there, does any of this (not just the Turkish rulers’ behavior) ring any bells? Headlines on August 1914 newspapers in capitals all across Europe, “It’s War!”

    • Sorry for the typo. Apparently my fingers were used to writing “Arab” after “Sunni” and my eyes didn’t see the egregious error.

  5. What is “surprising” about anything on this list?

    I’m not so sure that Erdoğan is all the keen to join the EU anymore.

  6. Thanks for this enlightening post. Your analyses help make better sense of what comes across the news transom. It’s both satisfying to know more (and better) and helpful to one’s sanity.

  7. Turkey is still suspect and continues its food dragging on Kobane from ISIL, whom they earlier allowed free access. Their priority still seems to revolve around oppressing any Kurdish rise (and Syrian end game), going even so far to make life difficult for Syrian Kurdish civilians and refugees (unlike other Syrian civilians) with tear gas, water canons, restricting humanitarian aid and resources, etc. before even considering to tackle or battle religious extremist militants in ISIL. I don’t think the Kurds are being paranoid in their accusations against Ankara.

    Kurds wary of Turkey role in fight against Islamic State
    link to bbc.com

    Islamic State steps up attack on Syrian town of Kobane
    link to bbc.com

    “Turkey’s prime minister seemed to give a categorical assurance. The Turkish government, Mr Davutoglu said, did not want Kobane to fall and would do whatever it could to prevent this from happening.

    But here on the border, Kobane is still under attack, with shelling by Islamic State militants once again hitting the eastern edge of town, and a strategic hill just above. A few hundred metres away, a squadron of Turkish tanks sits idle. There are no signs of any imminent Turkish move to stop the town falling.”

  8. All 7 points certainly make sense. But they give no insight into the fundamental unknown: does Turkey intend to fight ISIL, or just posture publicly while continuing to play a double game? If we look at deeds not word, it’s not encouraging.

    I’ve seen reports that Turkey continues to treat wounded ISIS fighters in their hospitals, then releases them.

  9. A Turkish columnist wrote a very moving Op-Ed arguing Turkey “must abandon its nationalist legacy and reimagine itself as a joint Turkish-Kurdish entity …. it is a mistake to assume that a weakened Kurdish presence means a stronger Turkey or that Turkey’s own peace process is disconnected from the fate of Kurds outside our borders.”
    link to nytimes.com

    Most analysts are sounding a skeptical note about possibility of Turkish-Kurdish cooperation. All is uncertain and murky.

  10. The author is a Middle East scholar who’s obviously aware that Turkey is not Arab. It was an editing mistake. Buck-up and read on.

  11. 1) Ayayayayay Juan: you are getting to the conservative side; al-Assad will not leave unless the “West” invades and defeats him….NOT likely at all right?
    Please explain to me what does it mean “pressure” top Turkey? Verbal? Money offers?? Entrance to the EU? (quite unlikely)….and Erdogan is another fundamentalist, right?
    2) Really? What the hell is the “moderate” resistance against al-Assad? I don’t think they exist anymore, do they? Again al-Assad is not going anywhere!
    No comments on the others….. I mean no fly zone? Really!
    I hope the Kurds become a State and then Turkey can feel comfortable. I’m not a Kurd nor a Muslim nor an Arab but I’m sick of the killings of children and inno0cents. GET OUT OF THERE and let them solve their “caca” that the invasion of Iraq by the USA created!! and please don’t ask me to “your comment is awaiting moderation” Tank you!

  12. I am not concerned that his comment is printed but its content needs to be addressed. ISIL/ISIS is largely censored in the West and the reasons for American involvement almost certainly have nothing to do for concern with Iraqi human rights. Isil publishes with beautiful graphics in Arabic, I have their annual report but I cannot read it. It needs to be translated into English and Posted. I will post here or mail if there is any interest in this. Even if they are the modern day Nazis we need to know what they say and think about their own actions and deeds. We may decide they are totally reprehensible but lets see this from their own words.

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