Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or Why Turkey Changed its Mind

Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or Why Turkey Changed its Mind

By Zenonas Tziarras

Source: Reuters

When the international anti-ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) coalition was formed back in September 2014, Turkey was thought to be a pivotal participant. However, the international initiative divided Turkey’s political scene which appeared reluctant to follow in the footsteps of its traditional ally, the United States (US). Even after October 2, 2014, when the Turkish parliament voted on a motion that would authorize the government to conduct operations in Syria and Iraq as well as provide Turkish soil and military bases for allied operations, Ankara kept resisting any kind of meaningful military engagement of ISIS. Not only that, but it seemed to be turning a blind eye on foreign fighters crossing into Syria through its borders.

Turkey’s controversial stance became more evident when on October 13, 2014, it denied reports that it had granted the US access to the Incirlik air base for military attacks against ISIS. In the midst of this indecisiveness and reports of Turkish support to ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, Turkey has over the past months became a cause of concern for the international community and brought back memories from 2003, when Ankara denied the US access to Iraq through its soil. Today, after dramatic developments in the country and the region, Ankara took the long-awaited decision to allow the US to launch military strikes against ISIS from its soil and notably from the Incirlik air base which Americans have thus far been using only for humanitarian and logistical purposes. The question that remains is, why has Turkey resisted engaging ISIS earlier and what prompted it to change its mind?

Resisting Engagement

Perhaps the most important reason why Turkey avoided a direct confrontation with ISIS was the maintenance of its domestic security and stability. Its close proximity to Syria and Iraq as well as its geographically bridging position between continents made it a natural crossing and entry point into Syria and Iraq for ISIS recruits. At the same time, its predominantly Muslim population became an important recruitment tank and propaganda target group for ISIS. Within a short period of time from its appearance in the summer of 2014, ISIS managed to establish an organized and complex recruiting network in Istanbul and other cities.

Apart from recruits that were sent to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS, the result was the emergence of extremist clusters within Turkey itself that could conduct terrorist attacks at any time or retaliate had Turkey acquired a more active role in the anti-ISIS coalition. The same threat becomes increasingly salient because of the growing number of refugees – currently around two million people. Refugee camps can easily become safe havens for extremists that cross into Turkey as well as effective recruitment places.

Of course security concerns have not been the only causes behind Turkey’s delay. Virtually every domestic pressure group was against a military incursion into Syria, regardless of the political or military goal. Opposition political parties, business groups, and the public opinion, were all against a military escalation of the Syria and ISIS crisis; they did not want to see their country being engaged in a war. This was also one of the reasons why the Turkish incursion into Syria for the relocation of the Suleyman Shah tomb (a piece of Turkish sovereign land in Syria with historical importance) was so surgical and fast. Against this background, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could not put their political power at risk by getting more involved in the anti-ISIS coalition, especially with the 2015 national elections around the corner.

An equally important reason that could explain Turkey’s stance was of strategic nature. Ankara’s staunch refusal to engage ISIS coincided with the fierce fighting between ISIS and the Kurds, particularly over Syria’s Kurdish-majority town of Kobani, at the Turkish-Syrian border. Because the US was not willing to grant Ankara’s conditions for participating in the coalition (i.e. a no-fly zone over Syria, a buffer zone inside Syria and the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad), it seems that Turkey supported, via its non-involvement, an all-against-all war of attrition thereby working toward weakening the Assad regime, ISIS and the Kurds.

Change of Course

Since then, Turkey has been taking certain half-measures, such as training (moderate Islamic) opposition groups, in an effort to appease both its Western partners and domestic opposition parties that have been blaming the government for supporting ISIS. It was not until mid to late July 2015 that Turkey made a decisive move against ISIS. Not only did it allow the US to use the Incirlik air base (see map below), but it also conducted anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria even as it raided locations of suspected ISIS, Kurdish and leftist militants. This change in policy had a number of drivers.

Incirlink Directions

The Incirlik air base will prove to be a major asset in the US air operations against ISIS as it is much closer to the targets than other bases used thus far. This allows fighter jets to spend more time on the actual operation instead on travelling to or from the target as well as quicker operational reaction based on new intelligence.

To begin with the Kurdish issue, Turkey’s unwillingness to help the Kurds of Kobani against ISIS had a backlash against the government domestically as Kurdish protests erupted throughout the country. As such, the Kurdish peace process, and by extension Kurdish electoral support to the AKP, was put in danger as it was clearly reflected in the June 7, 2015 national elections where the pro-Kurdish party HDP got 13% of the votes for the first time in Turkish history. Soon after that, Turkey’s policy took another hit when Kurds won the battle for Kobani thus strengthening their presence along the Turkish-Syrian border – what is called Syrian or Western Kurdistan. The Kurdish victory meant that from now on Turkey should take (Syrian) Kurds seriously into account, for they constitute a significant regional factor that could well threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity as well.

From this perspective, and since ISIS failed to stop the Kurds, a change in strategy was imperative if Turkey wanted to prevent the consolidation of the Syrian Kurdistan. Its greater involvement in Syria may well be followed by the establishment of a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syria border (as was its initial condition for taking action) which would work as a buffer for both ISIS and the Kurds. Though we cannot know for sure, something like that could be a part of a give-and-take between Turkey and the US. On another note, it should be mentioned that the Turkish government is more justified and legitimized to take action at this juncture since its actions were taken right after an ISIS suicide attack in Turkey that killed 32 and wounded 104 people and the first cross-border exchange of fire between the Turkish military and ISIS. In this regard, it is no longer only in theory that ISIS constitutes a domestic national security threat.

Within this framework, the Turkish government’s decision to take action after these events also creates a “rally ‘round the flag” effect by which the government and specifically the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gains popular support. To be sure, these developments are directly related with the domestic social, political and economic instability that emerged since early June due to the inability of the political parties to form a coalition government after the national elections. The country seems to be headed to snap elections where the AKP will need all the votes it can get to regain its parliamentary majority,

The next reason is related with the broader Middle East geopolitical environment, its balances of power and Turkey’s role within it. The recent deal between West’s P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program is a highly significant development that will have a great impact on the international politics of the Middle East. It essentially seals the return of Iran to international affairs, which also means the strengthening of Iran and the increase of resources that it will be able to dedicate to the pursuit of its geopolitical goals. A side-effect of Iran’s empowerment would be the increase of Assad’s resilience. Moreover, Tehran has already claimed a central, if downplayed, role in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, Iran’s rival but West’s ally, Saudi Arabia, is becoming more assertive while, for the time being, its recent attempt to militarily counter the coup by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen seems to be successful.

In this light, Turkey’s change of course is also a response to the shifting balances of power in the region and to fears that it will lose its role and importance as a western ally and a pivotal state in the Middle East.

Epilogue – A New Paradigm?

Most of the drivers behind Turkey’s policy point to a rather defensive stance. Yet, it should be remembered that Turkey has been looking for a way to overthrow Assad since late 2011. The current conjuncture feels like the perfect storm of events that could push Turkey toward that revisionist and thus offensive goal. At the same time, it creates the necessary conditions on the domestic and international level for this policy change to be tolerated, if not accepted. Perhaps most importantly, it allows Turkey to mend fences with the US even as it takes advantage of its role and operations to accomplish its own goals. Because of the nature of this complex dynamic a new Turkey-US and Turkey-Iran friction in the near future is very likely, especially if Turkey’s efforts to overthrow Assad bear fruits.

This article was published in collaboration with The Europe Levant Observatory, Diplomatic Academy – University of Nicosia.

You can follow Zenonas on Twitter @ZenonasTziarras

The ICC Factor in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The ICC Factor in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Marianna Karakoulaki

Remaining true to his statements, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied and gained membership at the International Criminal Court (ICC) making Palestine the 123rd signatory of the Rome Treaty. The ICC bid came after a predefined bid for statehood at the UN Security Council in early December which was vetoed by the US. This move is seen as a more direct attempt to re-ignite the Palestinian issue which reached stalemate since the US-led peace talks collapsed in 2014. In return to the ICC bid, Israel withheld the transfer of Palestinian tax money to the Palestinian Authority as a punitive measure.

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Turkey’s Revisionism in the Eastern Mediterranean (Part II)

Turkey’s Revisionism in the Eastern Mediterranean (Part II)

By Zenonas Tziarras

Source: Today’s Zaman

Part I: Turkey in the Middle East: The Tacit Revisionist

In the previous article, it was argued that Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East “is obviously, yet tacitly, revisionist.” Specifically, examples such as the Syrian civil war were employed to highlight Turkey’s revisionist goals (i.e. regime change) and its efforts to rely on great powers (U.S. and NATO) in order to achieve them without getting too much involved. Continue reading

Iraq Could Threaten Obama’s Long Term Policies

Iraq Could Threaten Obama’s Long Term Policies

by Marianna Karakoulaki

On August 7th, Barack Obama made a statement concerning the crisis in Iraq in which he announced targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.” Although there are calls for ground troops, President Obama has excluded this option as ground troops might mean a new long term presence in the country. In addition to about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 130 troops have been sent in order to provide humanitarian assistance and assess the situation, 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil and one in Baghdad — working with Iraqi security forces.

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Why A Referendum in Crimea?

Why A Referendum in Crimea?

By Irina Savchenko

NB: This is an updated version of the article posted earlier on March 13th, 2014

referendum is to take place in Crimea on the 16th of March, 2014, about whether or not the Crimean peninsula will join Russia. This was announced a mere ten days before the referendum date. The timing is of the essence obviously; the question is, why now? Why suddenly Ukraine became a physical play-ground between the West and Russia? Is it due to the long tensions building up between the USA and Russia or due to the recent overthrow of Mr. Yanukovich? These and many other questions need to be answered, as Ukrainian future is being shaped.

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Power Struggle over Ukraine: Systemic Observations

Power Struggle over Ukraine: Systemic Observations

By Zenonas Tziarras

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The Syrian civil war and now Ukraine. These are only two examples of crises over which the United States and Russia have bumped heads recently. Some might be tempted to call this a “new Cold War,” but it’s really not. Yes, the geopolitical competition and power struggle might be obvious and similar. And even the race for maximizing the spheres of influence. But the ideological context is different and therefore there is no clash of politico-economic systems, not to mention that calling the current international system “bipolar” is simplistic, to say the least. What we have now is a primarily intra-systemic, capitalist, geo-economic competition fueled and exacerbated by identity politics, history and national security considerations. Continue reading

Omar Abdullah on BBC Hard Talk

Omar Abdullah on BBC Hard Talk

by Haifa Peerzada

The BBC Hard talk with Omar Abdullah was quite intriguing, interesting and definitely elicits some reflection. In the first instance, what caught my attention was that the host, Stephen Sackur attributed the talk to the Prospects for Peace in Kashmir after introducing Mr. Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. So the impression that it gave me in the first place was that there would be an objective analysis of this long standing dispute with its chief minister. I was in fact hoping for it to be one of the milestone talks by Omar Abdullah that would create ripples in India and the world. Another thing that made it interesting was the location of the talk. This talk was held in front of an audience at Delhi. Though everyone told me not to expect much of objectivity from a politician speaking in New Delhi about “Kashmir”, yet I thought I must still watch it and without holding any pre-conceived notions I watched it. Following are some of my observations about the talk, which I thought I could share with everyone.

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Turkey’s Imbalances and Identity Crisis

Turkey’s Imbalances and Identity Crisis

By Zenonas Tziarras

It was June, 2013. I arrived in Ankara, Turkey, right on time to witness the development of the protests that began at Istanbul’s Gezi Park and spread throughout the country’s urban centers, as well as to experience and participate in the social and political discussion that was taking place at that time. The purpose of my visit included the participation in a conference on Turkish foreign policy and some field research. That gave me the opportunity to speak and exchange views with students of International Relations, academics, experts, and diplomats. Continue reading

Withdrawal from Afghanistan or “Georgian Dream”?

Withdrawal from Afghanistan or “Georgian Dream”?

by Fuad Shahbazov

According to claims of Georgian authorities, the country is ready to provide Baku – Kars railroad for the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan after 2014.  Although   the railway project is not completed yet, the railroad will be constructed by the time the withdrawal of troops will begin. Experts think that, it is the cheapest and easiest way for the Alliance.

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Q & A with Marios Efthymiopoulos: US Foreign Policy, Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and North Korea

Q & A with Marios Efthymiopoulos: US Foreign Policy, Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and North Korea

Marios P. Efthymiopoulos is the CEO and Founder of the Greece-based international think tank Strategy International. Dr. Efthymiopoulos held multiple positions as a visiting scholar, researcher, lecturer, and analyst in the United States, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus. He has written extensively on NATO, Transatlantic relations, Greek foreign policy, the Eastern Mediterranean, cyber-security, and international security; at the same time he has contributed to TV and radio discussions and debates in the US, Greece, and Europe. Among many other scholarly publications, Dr. Efthymiopoulos has published two books in Greek with Sakkoulas Publications: “NATO in the 21st Century: The Need for a New Strategic Doctrine and the Expansion of NATO-Russia relations” (2008); and “Strategic Security and Transatlantic Relations” (2012). He is currently also co-editing a book on Cyber-Security due to be published in 2013 by Springer publications. In this interview with The Globalized World Post he talked with Zenonas Tziarras, editor of the magazine, about international affairs and security with specific regard to the recent bombings in Boston, the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as North Korea. The discussion revolved around policy-related subjects while the issues raised bear great significance for the current and future state of regional and international affairs. Continue reading