One of the keys for the campaign was the strategic importance of Turkey -- a NATO member that was supposed to be a major partner in the coalition. It has thus far resisted, choosing instead to pledge readiness “for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism” while simultaneously railing against the strategy of ignoring the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in favor of targeting specifically Jihadist rebels fighting him.
Turkey’s concern is that the American strategy is in effect solidifying the legitimacy of Mr. Assad following the United States decision last year to accept a chemical weapons deal rather than bomb Mr. Assad after an alleged chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. Particularly with revelations that Mr. Assad may still have some chemical weapons--and has used them even following the Ghouta attack -- it appears as though the United States has given up on the goal of toppling Mr. Assad. Some of the rebels in Syria see the same thing: Jaysh al-Islam purportedly released a statement recently that stated the “Syrian people feel that the international community is not serious about overthrowing Assad regime” and the “ambiguous position of the coalition that listed groups other than ISIS as targets gave an impression that all opposition groups may be targets.”
Now following a recent prisoner exchange, Turkey appears to be changing its stance somewhat. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has stated that Turkish troops (with international permission) could operate in Syria, for, according to him, the “logic that assumes Turkey would not take a position militarily is wrong.” An Ottoman tomb in Syria, guarded by elite forces, has been allegedly encroached upon by Islamic State fighters and Turkey is adamant that an attack on the tomb would mean war. Mr. Erdogan has slowly started to clamp down on fighters pouring across his border into Syria, an issue he had previously turned a blind eye to, though he was outraged at American Vice President Joe Biden’s comments regarding the problem.
The truth is, Turkey has allowed fighters into Syria and everyone knows it. These men come from all over the world and have been cited by many world powers as a potential threat should they attempt to return to their homelands after fighting in Syria. At the same time, Turkey has shown a remarkable amount of support for Jihadist elements, providing medical treatment with little questions asked as to the allegiance of those admitted to Turkish hospitals. A lack of clampdown on the black market has allowed the Islamic State to profit immensely from smuggling oil. This Turkish approach seems dangerous (because it is) but serves two Turkish interests, in that it is
- destabilizing Mr. Assad, for extremist groups, with the Islamic State at the forefront, have captured swathes of land that, whenever Mr. Assad decides to war with the extremists, will prove difficult if not impossible for the Syrian government in its current capacity to recapture; and
- weakening the Kurds, who have agitated for their own governance throughout the entirety of modern Turkey’s existence and, though interested in diplomacy at the moment, still pose a significant threat to Turkey’s stability.
The former point, about Mr. Assad, is fairly straightforward given above comments on the subject, but the latter one, regarding the Kurds, is a little more complex. Surely, the Islamic State is a threat to the stability of Turkey in that the group aims for a global caliphate. Turkey’s secularism (even as it erodes under Mr. Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism) is incompatible with the Islamic State’s hardline policy. The Islamic State has taken Turkish citizens at the consulate in Mosul captive and, rather than use them as bargaining chips, could have just as easily executed them.
But Turkey is not banking on the Islamic State surviving for long. For all of its expansion, the Islamic State certainly has its share of problems: ostensibly fighting nearly every combatant in the area and holding land through fear tactics is not exactly a recipe for stability (nor does the Islamic State intend for it to be). The Kurds, however, will be around for a while and their designs for an independent state are well known. Those dreams of autonomy, shared by Kurds across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, are powerful -- despite their own internal divides, these Kurds across 4 countries essentially want the same thing.
Given the success of Iraqi Kurdistan in repelling the Islamic State, there is a prospect of renewed Kurdish vigor across all the Kurdish areas. The Peshmerga are undoubtedly the most competent opponent toward the Islamic State and its successes likely inspire others, the type of inspiration that Turkey would rather its own Kurds (or the Syrian ones fleeing across its borders) would not draw from, be it on the battlefield against Turkey or at the negotiating table.
At the moment, it seems, Mr. Erdogan perceives the Kurdish issue as more pressing than the Islamic State one. However, the calculus may be shifting. Allegedly, Turkey and Iraq are planning coordination on striking the Islamic State, and the United States, in particular, has made no secret of its desire to integrate Turkey into the plans. As the Islamic State assault on Kobane begins, Turkey may be realizing that the Islamic State is not exactly the best pawn to be playing chess with.