A NATO ally stays on sidelines of fight against Islamic State
Few countries are in a better position than Turkey to help the United States fight Islamic State. The moderate Islamic country shares a 750 mile border with Syria, is a NATO member and a long-time ally of America. But don’t hold your breath for Turkey’s support.
For a long time, Turks have resented the “curse of strategic significance” related to its forming NATO’s southern flank. They felt it enabled the military to keep a watchful eye over their politicians. Likewise, it fueled the politicians’ sense of impunity that shielded them from the need for reform.
This was part of the reason why, at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Turkey refused to provide logistic support for the U.S.-led invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein. The chaos into which Iraq then descended after 2003 only reinforced the ruling AK party’s supporters of the validity of Turkey’s bid to go its own way.
The government calls this policy “zero problems with neighbors.” This self-explanatory catchphrase was introduced by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier and former foreign minister. It signaled the beginning of a new era in Turkish foreign policy, and troubles for Western allies that relied on it.
Today, Turkey remains wedded to this policy. Despite the threat of the Islamic State, the country remains just as skeptical of getting involved in Iraq as in 2003. The opinion columns of pro-government newspapers, like Yeni Safak, warn Turkey not to fall into the trap of a military alliance.
“The threat of IS terror is a pretext by racist Zionists to open up their stall in the Middle East,” writes one columnist. Others speak of the conspiracy to undermine a Turkey which has just begun to find its voice.
Tellingly, Turkey refused to sign the recent Jeddah Communique, which was endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the United States, stating that they will “stand united” on the threat posed by Islamic State and that they would all “do their share” in the fight. Unlike Turkey, none of the Arab nations who signed the declaration are NATO members.
Turkey’s rejection of its strategic significance is clear. Ankara won’t let America attack Islamic State from its airbases, nor will it agree to contribute troops for military operations. Still, America hopes it can change its mind. That was the reason behind a recent visit by Chuck Hagel to Ankara, where he met with Erdogan and other top Turkish officials.
But what if Turkey can’t return to its prior strategic significance, even if it wants to?
There is plenty of evidence that Turkey is overwhelmed with the problems in its backyard. Turkish intelligence, for example, was blind-sided in June when Islamic State forces seized the Turkish consul general and nearly 50 other hostages in the Iraqi city of Mosul. This has effectively prevented Ankara from taking a public stand against radicals, for fear of worsening the hostages’ situation.
Turkey is also struggling to stop fuel from Iraq and Syria being smuggled into the country by Islamic State, which uses the profits to line its coffers. Turkish officials maintain in private that they are doing their best to stop the flow of funds and fighters passing through the porous border, but its actions don’t always match its words.
To make matters worse, the conflict is causing Turkey to lose its edge in peace negotiations with the Kurdish Worker Party (PKK), its historic domestic enemy. The PKK helped rescue thousands of Yazidis fleeing an Islamic State advance from Iraqi mountaintops. As a result, members of a group it has condemned as terrorists are now being hailed as heroes, which badly reduces Ankara’s bargaining power.
Turkish foreign policy is in trouble and, while the country might pride itself on being an unwilling partner in this war, it is also an unable one.
That, of course, is scarce consolation for the United States.
Maybe one day, Turkey will seek to regain the strategic significance it once had. After all, when Islamic State is your neighbor, “zero problems” is hardly a sustainable policy.
But America shouldn’t expect that day to come any time soon.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama listens as he hosts a bilateral meeting with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales September 5, 2014. Larry Downing