As expected, Turkey’s parliament today authorized the government to take military action against jihadists in both Syria and Iraq, but Ankara has yet to say what, if anything, that action will be. With ISIS on its border, though, we might find out soon:
Kurdish fighters backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting Wednesday to prevent the besieged border town of Ain al-Arab from falling to the Islamic State group fighters. “There are real fears that the IS may be able to advance into the town… very soon,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned, with the jihadists within three kilometres (two miles) of the strategic town.
Or an attack on the tomb of Suleiman Shah, a Turkish enclave in northern Syria, might be what finally draws Ankara into the war:
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Tuesday that the militants were advancing on the white stone mausoleum, guarded by several dozen Turkish soldiers and perched on a manicured lawn under a Turkish flag on the banks of the Euphrates. The tomb was made Turkish under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France ruled Syria. Ankara regards it as sovereign territory and has made clear that it will defend the mausoleum if it is attacked.
Jamie Dettmer relays the suspicions of diplomats in Ankara that “Turkey will limit its military role—doing a bare minimum as a NATO member to avoid embarrassing the Western alliance but not enough to undermine the anti-Western narrative that thrills Erdogan’s Islamist supporters and other religious conservatives in the country”:
“As much as Turkey enjoys the protection of NATO’s Patriot missiles against the Syrian regime, Ankara is perhaps not willing to appear an active member of a war operation against what was initially a Sunni insurgency movement in Syria,” according to Marc Pierini, a former ambassador of the European Union in Ankara. “Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never wanted to appear to be aligning itself with Western policies.”
Erdogan’s domestic critics say he has to some degree helped the rise of ISIS, as well as other Islamic militants. At the very least Turkey has turned a blind eye to them as they emerged in the Syrian civil war and increasingly formed the vanguard in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some critics argue that Turkey’s intelligence agencies have gone farther and actively channeled arms supplies to the jihadists.
Koplow also explores how the spillover effects of the conflict in Syria stand to influence Turkey’s domestic politics. For one thing, the government’s non-response is alienating the country’s Kurdish population, threatening to undo what had been a fairly successful rapprochement:
Many Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even for empowering the group through its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy. The more half-hearted the Turkish government has been about getting rid of ISIS, the harder it is to successfully conclude the Kurdish peace process. In southeastern Turkey, funerals for Kurdish fighters who have been killed fighting ISIS across the border are a regular occurrence, and they contribute to growing discord between a naturally restive population and the Turkish government. The ongoing battle between ISIS and Kurdish fighters for the town of Kobane on the Syria-Turkey border — and Turkey’s apparent reluctance to get involved for fear of empowering Kurdish militants in Turkey — is inflaming passions and contributing to antigovernment rhetoric in ways that will reverberate well beyond this particular fight. …
An economy burdened by refugees, renewed unrest among Turkish Kurds, resurgent nationalism, and policy run by unaccountable intelligence services makes for an unstable brew. ISIS has presented the United States and the entire Middle East with a new set of problems, but its immediate legacy may be an end to what has been a remarkable period of Turkish domestic stability.
(Photo: A Turkish soldier stands on a hill in Suruc, Turkey on October 2, 2014, facing the Islamic State (IS) fighters’ new position, 10km west of the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab (Kobani). By Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)