U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan talk at the beginning of a meeting in Ankara September 12, 2014. (Reuters)
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When Washington takes its bombing campaign against Islamic State fighters into Syria, the most it can probably hope for from one of its closest allies in the region will be grudging consent.
Turkey, a NATO member with a big U.S. air base and long borders with both Iraq and Syria, has made clear that it is still unconvinced by U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans to bomb Islamic State fighters in two of its neighbors.
While Washington won backing last week for a military coalition from 10 Arab nations – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including rich rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar – Turkey attended the talks but did not sign up.
President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, architects of a foreign policy which envisages Sunni Muslim Turkey as a regional power, are reluctant to engage in action they fear could strengthen their enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq.
“It’s a very complicated balancing act. Turkey is trying to satisfy its U.S. partner without extending full collaboration. They will come under intensifying pressure but will find it very difficult to block U.S. strategy,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey analyst at the London-based think-tank Chatham House.
“It’s a coalition of the unwilling and the apathetic. Turkey and most Arab countries supposedly part of this coalition are deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions in the region.”
Turkey’s role is likely to be limited, U.S. and Turkish officials say, to stemming the flow of foreign fighters crossing its borders, helping cut off Islamic State’s finances and providing humanitarian and logistical support.
There are no plans, Turkish officials have said, to allow the U.S. air base in the southern town of Incirlik to be used for air strikes. Pro-government newspapers have welcomed Ankara’s reluctance, drawing parallels to 2003, when Turkey’s parliament rejected a U.S. request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq.
“Turkey has to play the long game, and right now the strategy disclosed by the U.S. government does not give confidence that the region will be stabilized,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.
“Just hitting ISIS won’t solve anything … The recent history of Western intervention has amply demonstrated this. Look at where Libya stands today, at where Afghanistan stands today, at where Iraq stands today,” he said.
“Islamic State is actually a bigger threat to Turkey than to the United States, so there is every incentive for Ankara to be part of this coalition. But right now there is no big overlap about its strategic direction.”
When Islamic State fighters surged into northern Iraq in June, they captured 46 Turkish hostages in the city of Mosul, including diplomats, soldiers and children. Turkish officials say the plight of the hostages is one reason they are reluctant to sign on publicly to a campaign against the fighters.
But government officials make little secret that their misgivings about U.S. action go deeper than concern for the captives. Davutoglu said last week U.S. action alone would not be enough to bring stability.
Some of Erdogan’s critics both at home and abroad say the Turkish leader, a moderate Sunni Islamist, has yet to accept that movements like Islamic State are as big a threat as Assad, a member of a Shi’ite-derived sect backed by Shi’ite Iran.
Turkey has been one of the leading backers of the opposition to Assad in Syria’s civil war, leaving it open to accusations that it turned a blind eye to the rise of radicals among Assad’s mainly Sunni Muslim opponents, including Islamic State fighters.
It has maintained an open border policy on the Syrian frontier, allowing refugees out and arms and foreign fighters in, in the hope that Assad would quickly fall. With Assad clinging to power and rebels increasingly radicalized, Erdogan’s critics say the policy backfired, creating a new threat.
Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone told a media call in Washington last week that Turkey, in its eagerness to bolster Assad’s opponents, had worked with groups in the past like al Qaeda’s Syrian branch al Nusra Front, which Washington considered “beyond the pale”.
CONDUIT FOR AID
Ankara rejects any suggestion that it is to blame for Islamic State’s rise, and pins responsibility firmly on Assad, for policies that drove Syria’s Sunni majority to radicalism.
“Our position is clear, we are against all forms of radicalization and activity which may affect the stability and prosperity of our region,” Davutoglu said on Tuesday during a visit to Cyprus.
“Those who accuse Turkey … must know that the main responsibility for all these massacres in the region is the Assad regime, which killed its people and opened the way for radicalization … as well as the sectarian policies in Iraq.”
While Turkey is unlikely to allow its bases to be used for U.S. air strikes, it can still play a role in U.S. plans by serving as a conduit for aid to other Sunni opponents of Assad, which Washington sees as a counterforce to Islamic State.
Ankara has long called for Washington to do more to help the “moderate” Syrian rebels. One Western diplomat said it was wise of Washington to emphasize that role in dealings with Ankara.
“Backing the Syrian opposition is key to legitimizing the operations (in Ankara’s eyes). So far the U.S. is reading this situation very well,” said the diplomat, adding Erdogan would ultimately not want to jeopardize ties with Washington.
U.S. officials say they still have a lot to discuss with Turkey, even if it will not lend its bases for an air campaign.
“There are several issues. One is the foreign fighters. Their border has been quite porous. There has been improvement but additional improvement needs to be made,” said an official traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry last week.
Another issue is cracking down on oil smuggling, which Washington says is one way Islamic State fighters earn funds.
If bombing worsens the refugee crisis, much of that will fall on Turkey’s shoulders. Erdogan spoke this week of plans to establish a “buffer zone” along the border, a suggestion that Ankara plans to control future refugee flows more closely.