As new Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu was sworn in late last month, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had come perilously close to the Turkish border, advancing on the city of Azaz.
Former Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has drawn criticism for what is perceived by the West as his lax policy towards Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and other extremist groups who use Turkey’s southern region as their main portal in and out of Syria. Now, with ISIS encroaching on its border, the challenge of increasing security in the region falls to Davotoglu.
We asked Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, to weigh in on the government’s changing response to ISIS, and the challenges faced.
Syria Deeply: Are you seeing signs of change in how the government deals with ISIS?
Gokhan Bacik: For months now, we’ve been seeing some signs of change, mainly because of the new prime minister. The government is realizing that ISIS is becoming a threat. The major reason for that is that the U.S. has entered the fray and begun bombing ISIS in Iraq, and is pushing hard on the issue. And then other leaders have stepped up – even the leader of Hamas has now declared that ISIS shouldn’t be compared to Hamas. So it’s become a serious issue in Turkey, and Turkey is starting to feel like it should be a part of the process.
Typically, going back six months, Turkish officials’ reaction to ISIS was silence, or they’d say not to exaggerate the ISIS threat. But after the U.S. dramatically changed its position, I think Turkey is in the process of recognizing that this is now a serious issue – both because of Turkish-American relations, and because of growing security concerns here at home.
This will create an opportunity for Davotoglu and the new government to prove that they are following a different path on Iraq and Syria in regards to what ISIS is doing. The government is not going to be happy to be out of an anti-ISIS coalition. When you look back at pro-government Turkish media, they have traditionally been silent on ISIS, and even some marginal pro-government Turkish media has declared that ISIS is not a terrorist group. But it’s more frequent to see criticism of ISIS, and even the terror label, in the press these days. Davotoglu has a different approach to ISIS than Erdogan does.
Syria Deeply: What will we see the government do next? Will they increase the role of the military along the border?
Bacik: This is the most critical point for Turkey, because ISIS is very close to the border now. We’ll need to wait a month or so to understand how the Turkish government will change its border protection. One way would be to increase the role of the army, but if it becomes more visible in the region, Turkish Kurds won’t be happy to see it raising its profile, constructing military stations and the like. So it’s a dilemma.
Secondly, the PKK is trying to market ISIS as the opposition, in order to increase its legitimacy as a fighting force. They say it’s the Kurds and the PKK who defend the Turks from ISIS. So I think it may take another month to see the new Turkish strategy, and how it plans to protect itself from ISIS.
We can’t forget that 50 Turks are currently being held hostage by ISIS, so it’s not easy for Turkey to activate any military troops or units while those people are in captivity. At this stage, Turkey will try to become part of any U.S.-led strategies to counterbalance ISIS’s advance. I don’t think we’ll see military action for the time being, because any radical development has consequences – if something happened to the Turks held by ISIS, it would be a big hit for the new government to absorb.