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Why Would Erdogan Hesitate to Join US in Fight Against ISIL?

Why Would Erdogan Hesitate to Join US in Fight Against ISIS?
Turkey might finally decide to join the anti-ISIL coalition, led by the US. Radio VR is discussing it with Turkish journalist and political analyst Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere and Gareth Jenkins Senior Associate Fellow with the Silk Road Studies Program and Turkey Initiative.

Turkey might finally decide to join the anti-ISIL coalition, led by the US. Yet, its somewhat hesitant stance has led many to question its readiness to fight the ISIL. Radio VR is discussing it with Turkish journalist and political analyst Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere and Gareth Jenkins Senior Associate Fellow with the Silk Road Studies Program and Turkey Initiative.

Turkish Parliament is set to vote on whether the Turkish army can also operate outside of Turkey.  Earlier this week the country’s government filed a proposal to the Parliament “to ask permission from parliament… to send the Turkish Armed Forces if necessary to foreign countries for cross-border operations and interventions, and to position foreign militaries in Turkey for the same purposes.”   

“That is more or less the formality, says Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, journalist and political analyst, because the governing party has an absolute majority and it is a rather homogeneous group within the Parliament. The more delicate question therefore is – how Turkey will participate in the war against the IS? Is it only, for example, allowing the US military and other NATO members to use the military infrastructure within Turkey, to use the airbases for flights over Syria, or is it a more active participation of the Turkish military on the Syrian territory?

And as far as I understand, there’s been some doubts voiced by various Turkish experts as to whether this participation is going to be in the interests of Turkey itself.

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Yes, until recently there has been the situation that there were the Turkish hostages in the hands of the IS and, therefore, Turkey said they cannot risk the lives of these 46 Turkish citizens. They are liberated now, but it doesn't mean that the IS does not pose a constant threat also to Turkey. There are estimated sleeping cells of the IS sympathizers and inactive combatants within Turkey. There are the IS potential combatants who travel through Turkey to Syria and who are several days or weeks within Turkey.

So, there is always the risk of terrorist attacks or of taking other hostages within Turkey or, for example, also outside Turkey there is the mausoleum of the grandfather of the first Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. That is very close to Kobane, where the current clashes between the IS and the Kurdish fighters occur. And there are only 35 Turkish soldiers that could easily be taken hostage again by the IS. So, there is a constant danger of terrorism threatening Turkey by the IS, even if there are no hostages in their hands.

And as far as I understand, the hostage crisis has also given rise to a lot of speculation, as to how and why the IS has liberated the hostages?

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Sure! And even President Erdogan confirmed that there were the negotiations between the Turkish state and some state institutions, maybe, also with the foreign help, and the IS. And then, there is a lot of speculation on what was part of that deal. Some say that the arms were delivered to the IS from Turkey as a response to liberating the hostages. Others said that there was a logistic help. But there might also be a deal on how Turkey should act in the near future and not be militarily participating in the coalition.

I don’t expect that in the near future Turkey will pose its soldiers on the Syrian territory. But it could help the coalition logistically with its infrastructure, or it could also use its air force, in addition to the other armies, to also fly over Syria.

And I think you’ve also mentioned the IS posing threat to Turkey. What kind of threat?

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: It is not a secret that there are hundreds or, maybe, thousands of sympathizers of the IS within Turkey. There were the new of the so-called cells in the cities in Istanbul, Ankara and Konya. That is to say that there are hundreds of NGOs that support the IS in collecting money, but also by recruiting new fighters in several cities. And if there is an attack by the Turkish military against the IS, then its leadership could easily tell these cells and sympathizers in Turkey to do terrorist attacks or to take hostages within Turkey. So, that is a Damocles’ sword that hangs over Turkey, if it becomes active militarily against the IS.

So, what is your forecast? 

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: I'm pretty sure that this permission will be given in the Parliament, but there are question marks on what that means in the near future. If the Kurds are not helped in and around Kobane, then this is the question of time when the IS will take this strategically very important city that would link an area to the IS to control hundreds of kilometers on the Syrian soil. For the Kurds, it is also symbolically very important to hold this Canton, which is one of the three in Syria.

So, if the Kurds are not helped militarily by weapons or by fighting actively against the IS, be it by Turkey or by any other of the coalition, then it is a question of time when the will be overrun by the IS, which is military a lot stronger and has better weapons. If the international coalition wants to prevent that, then they need to actively help the Kurds in and around Kobane.

But is the strategy which is being employed now, efficient? 

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Sure, lots of mistakes have been done in the past. But if we look at the current situation, then these airstrikes have already helped the Kurds, at least a little bit. Without anything being done in the last week, maybe, Kobane would already be in the hands of the IS. So, if you want to do something now and for the coming days, then there should be an increase in the help towards the Kurds of Kobane, otherwise this will be the IS’s territory in the near future.

And how come ISIL has emerged so strong and so quickly? 

Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Why this group has become so strong militarily? It is because of the chaos and the vacuum that was created both in Iraq and in Syria, that it could overtake an existing military infrastructure of other groups, be stronger than them and get lots of weapons of high importance from the Iraqi military, from the Syrian military  and from smaller groups. Plus, a constant support of the rich, be it countries or businessmen of the Gulf states, who have supported the opposition against Bashar al-Assad. So, this is the result of the year-long policy of support and of the extreme situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria”.

However there is one more detail which makes things even more complicated….

Says Gareth Jenkins is a Senior Associate Fellow with the Silk Road Studies Program and Turkey Initiative: 

So, it looks like Turkey is still hesitant whether it should join it or not, why?

Gareth Jenkins: I think because its priorities are different to most of the rest of the world. Of course, what the US-led coalition is trying to do at the moment with these airstrikes, is to degrade the IS’s military capabilities and to halt its advances in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, particularly President Erdogan has always been a lot more concerned about the Assad regime. And their priority is getting rid of Assad. It doesn’t mean that they like the IS, but that is their priority.

So, what Turkey’s been talking about a military action, I think is different to the military action that is taking place. What Turkey really wants is a buffer zone in Syria and military action to create and support that buffer zone, including a no-fly zone. And, of course, that can only really be against Assad, because the IS doesn't have any aircraft and there is no point in having a no-fly zone against them.

But I think that’s where the confusion is coming from. To a large extent, I think Turkey and the rest of the world are looking at fighting two different wars. Erdogan is still very keen on getting rid of Assad, he sees Assad’s retention of power as a humiliation, because he’s so often called for Assad to be overthrown. Whereas, of course, most of the international community is now more concerned about the IS than it is about Assad; even the ones who were opposed to Assad.

There are speculations about the nature of relationship between Turkey and the IS…

Gareth Jenkins: Yes, it is very complex, in fact. I mean, when you go back over the last couple of years, there have been some contacts between Turkey and the extremist groups in Syria in particular, mainly with al-Nusra rather than the IS. And, of course, the IS and al-Nusra split up in the last few days, al-Nusra has said it is going to support the IS against the US-led airstrikes. But Turkey’s contacts really were with al-Nusra rather than the IS. And there weren’t so much active support, but more tolerance of al-Nusra and other extremist groups using Turkey as a platform for their campaign to overthrow Assad.

There were some more restrictions introduced since early 2013 that banned some of the kind of bases, not in terms of military bases, but in terms of kind of propaganda organizations. These organizations had places in Turkey which they were using particularly for forwarding foreign militants who came to Turkey, and then across the border to fight against Assad. The restrictions that were imposed forced those organizations to do more than kind of thing across the border, actually inside Syria.

But I was in the border area a few weeks ago and the restrictions still weren’t very tight. On the official border crossings there were people checking documents etc, but when you went up into the mountains…and the west of the Turkish-Syrian border actually runs through the mountains, which have these old smuggling routes and are relatively porous, unlike the east, where it is mostly a flat terrain. So, you went up into the mountains, in some of the villages there were foreign jihadists sitting around in the village, waiting to be smuggled across.

So, even though Turkey has distanced itself to a certain extent from the jihadists, it probably still hasn’t done enough to send a sing to the rest of the world in terms of clamping down. And also, extraordinarily, really, when we have tens of thousands of websites which are blocked, the Turkish language websites supporting both al-Nusra and really extremist ones that are supporting the IS are still able to operate with impunity. So, no attempt has been made to close those down.

So, you have this kind of very confused and mixed policy by Turkey, where, yes, it has made some movement, it has imposed some restrictions, but they still fall a long way short of what, I think, most of the rest of the world  would like to see.

And how about those hostages? What is the real story?

Gareth Jenkins: We don’t know. I mean, they were held for over three months and there were negotiations right from the very beginning between Turkey and the IS. At the same time as those Turkish hostages were released…and they were released, it wasn’t a rescue operation or wasn’t Turkey’s intelligence organization somehow getting them out of Iraq, they were released by the IS. And at the same time some IS prisoners, who were being held by a Sunni organization which has very good relations with Turkey, those IS prisoners were handed over to the IS.

So, it does look that prisoner exchange was part of the deal, but it seems almost certain that there was a package and that prisoner exchange is part of the package. The rest of the package we don’t know. Turkey has very strongly denied a ransom and it is probably telling the truth, because the IS has so much money, particularly now from the illegal oil export, that it doesn't really need the money. But what else was given in terms of whether anything kind of material given or whether some other commitments were given, it remains unclear.

But it is a very ambivalent relationship anyway. I mean, the IS publically says that the Justice and Development Party Government in Turkey is an apostate regime, which means that it is a legitimate target for attacks. And yet, at the same time, both sides are being reluctant to antagonize the other. There is a lot of concern in Turkey, and I think it is soundly based, I think it is their right to be concerned, about possible attacks inside Turkey by the IS sympathizers, if Turkey takes a very strong stance against the IS.

And at the same time, the IS doesn’t want to antagonize Turkey too much, because even though it now faces some restrictions in Turkey, they are not really very stringent. So, it doesn’t want those restrictions to be increased and for the border to be completely sealed, or for its propaganda and recruiting efforts in Turkey to be completely closed down.

So, there is this ambivalent relation between the two. I mean, it is not as clear-cut as there being an alliance, it is not that. But both have reasons for not wanting to antagonize the other too much.

So, if I get you right, it is still unclear whether the IS poses any real threat to Turkey?

Gareth Jenkins: I think, potentially, it does. These organizations anyway, like Al Qaeda, it is more like a franchise very often, where you have sympathizers that will carry out an attack on behalf of the main organization. And there is a real danger. There certainly are enough IS sympathizers in Turkey to be able to carry out an attack. And, of course, it could be two different kinds of attacks. One could be against the Turkish state. And more likely, it would be an attack by the IS sympathizers in Turkey against a foreign target: a foreign company, foreign diplomatic representatives, foreign citizens, non-Turkish citizens.

And I think that threat is very real. In May 2013 we had an attack, which everybody assumes, although the Turkish state still denies it, it still blames it on Assad, an attack in Reyhanli on the Syrian border where 53 people were killed. And since then there have been numerous intelligence reports of possible attacks by the IS sympathizers inside Turkey.

So, I think the threat is real. And I think that Turkey is right to be concerned about it. But the other question, of course, is how Turkey’s past policy actually helped make the IS and the other Islamist extremists as strong as they are today. So, to a certain extent the genuine threat that Turkey faces now is a result of its past policies”.

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