Turkey is slowly starting to reveal how it intends to fight ISIL, both inside the country and beyond. Last weekend, Turkish security forces arrested three suspected ISIL fighters including one Belgian national of Moroccan origin with alleged ties to last week’s attacks in Paris.
While the European Union is moving quickly to tighten border controls and the United States and its anti-ISIL coalition allies are devising new military plans to bomb ISIL positions in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s response to the crisis has been slow and scattered. Considering the outsize role Turkey continues to play in the ISIL saga as a primary transit country into and out of Syria, this is disconcerting.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister-turned-president, spent the last decade crafting a foreign policy propelled by the notion that Turkey was an emerging regional superpower. In 2011, Mr Erdogan threw Turkey’s weight firmly behind the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, betting on former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi’s ability to lead a post-Arab Spring Middle East. Concurrently, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) developed a verbose anti-Bashar Al Assad stance regarding the civil war in Syria. As such, Turkey became the leading proponent for regime change in Damascus and engendered a close relationship with the rebels fighting Mr Assad’s forces.
Many in the Turkish opposition and a growing number of Western analysts have argued that Turkey has turned a blind eye to ISIL as a result of its regional foreign policy decisions, thus allowing the group to consolidate strength in Syria through a steady flow of fighters, weapons and stolen oil across the Turkish border.
During 2013 and 2014, one could walk around southern Turkish cities such as Gaziantep among ISIL and Al Qaeda fighters. Fighters would regularly travel to Turkey to receive medical treatment and supplies. The presence of extremist fighters wasn’t confined to the border areas. I reported on a clothing store in Istanbul’s Bagcilar neighbourhood in 2014 that was selling ISIL T-shirts and other paraphernalia to eager Turkish and foreign customers.
The end of the peace process with the Kurds this summer has left many questioning what Turkey’s priorities are in Syria, because the Kurds have proven to be an extremely useful fighting force confronting ISIL on the ground. For Ankara, the US relationship with the Kurds in particular seemed to suggest a shift towards what the Turkish government sees as a hostile enemy carving out its own territorial foothold in Syria.
Turkey has the ability to close its borders with northern Syria to deprive ISIL of critical resupply routes for fighters and goods. Turkish officials have placed travel bans on more than 26,000 people, half from Arab countries and a quarter from western countries, suspected of transiting the country to join ISIL. In sporadic raids on ISIL safe houses throughout Turkey over the past two years, hundreds of suspected militants have been arrested by security forces. Ankara also has the ability to downgrade its war effort against Kurdish forces in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Why is action slow to materialise? For one, Mr Erdogan’s political ambitions appear to have got in the way. As part of Mr Erdogan’s long-term power plan, he bet that his party would win a super majority in June’s parliamentary election. With such a victory, his party would have been able to rewrite the constitution towards a presidential system and grant Mr Erdogan sweeping new powers. Years of increasingly authoritarian leadership, the dismal situation in Syria and a sluggish Turkish economy foiled those plans.
The pro-Kurdish HDP party received a surprisingly high 13 per cent of the vote, which not only dented the AKP’s ambitions for a supermajority but also left the governing party without a majority mandate for the first time in its history. After a facile attempt at forming a coalition, snap elections were called and Mr Erdogan went to work. He called off the peace process after an attack by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a bloody war against Turkey for nearly 30 years.
Turkey’s focus on the Kurds is all the more astonishing considering that ISIL carried out two suicide bombings inside Turkey this year, including one at a leftist rally in Ankara that was the country’s worst terrorist attack to date. Bizarrely, Mr Erdogan blamed a number of competing elements for the Ankara bombing as opposed to singling out ISIL. “The Ankara bombing totally is a collective terrorist act, in which ISIL, the PKK, the Mukabarat [Syrian military intelligence] and the [Kurdish] PYD in northern Syria each played a role,” Mr Erdogan said during a rally with a right-wing trade union on October 22.
This type of delusional thinking, in which groups at war with one another are accused of coming together to attack Turkey, represents the desperation of Turkey’s leadership to rationalise its actions and make a case for a war against the Kurds. The Kurds are hardly free of blame in the current round of violence, having carried out many attacks on Turkish civilians and security forces, but that doesn’t diminish the much greater threat that ISIL presents.
The recent arrests of suspected ISIL militants is proof that Ankara has the ability to clamp down on ISIL. The movement of fighters between Syria and Turkey remains one of the most serious challenges in the fight against the militants.
The question is whether the political will exists in the country to stop the flow. Turkey is facing a choice: continue its war with the Kurds while isolating allies in the fight against ISIL or actively commit to international efforts to defeat the extremists. If Ankara chooses the latter and joins the coalition, Mr Erdogan will be forced to refine his dreams to lead a new regional order, at least for the time being. One thing is for sure, any solution to the ISIL problem is going to require Turkey’s cooperation, which, thus far, has been slow in coming.
On Twitter: @ibnezra