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The Implications of Turkey’s Turn Towards Fighting ISIS

Didem Aykel Collinsworth, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, on why Turkey has stepped up its cooperation with the international community in the fight against ISIS.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

In a significant expansion of its role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey agreed to let the U.S.-led coalition use its territory to launch attacks and train moderate Syrian rebels.

The move comes after weeks of complaints that Turkey hasn’t done enough to combat ISIS, as it swept across Syria and Iraq and seized nearly half of the strategic border town of Kobani.

Didem Akyel Collinsworth, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, explained why Turkey has stepped up its cooperation with the international community in the fight against ISIS.

Syria Deeply:Turkey will now allow the U.S. and its allies to use its bases against ISIS. Why this move and why now?

Collinsworth: The agreement to train moderate Syrian rebels on its soil, the latest motion at parliament to allow cross-border military operations into Iraq and Syria, and to allow foreign troop deployment on Turkish soil, were all important steps recently taken.

From a public perspective, the moves show that Turkey is taking proactive steps towards its safety, so in that sense it was a defensive move.

Recent developments have tarnished Turkey’s image in Western Media and called in to question Turkey’s NATO membership. These steps shows its Western allies that Turkey is not just standing on the sidelines and that it is still a valuable NATO ally.

Many of the reasons why Turkey is shying away from direct military intervention and involvement in northern Syria are understandable. Opening up the bases is one way Turkey can contribute, but even before that, Turkey took steps that didn’t jeopardize its safety. Turkey allowed the use of its air space, opened up humanitarian corridors to Syrian refugees, and allowed information sharing.

Syria Deeply: To what extent is Turkey collaborating with the international community in the fight against ISIS? Would Turkey still consider committing troops to Syria?

Collinsworth: I still think it’s possible for Turkey to take part in an international umbrella, but there are reasons for its reservations.

The resolution in Turkish parliament was passed as a defensive measure in case there was an attack from Syrian territories on Turkey. Direct involvement in the war in Syria would be extremely unpopular. Turkey is entering an election cycle, and the government’s goal is to keep everything normal until then.

The direct involvement with ISIS poses many security threats for Turkey. There is an obvious risk of retaliation from ISIS, which has a network inside Turkey. ISIS has infiltrated many Turkish cities; it operates along the border.

Any kind of unilateral intervention into northern Syria might have been seen by the Syrian regime as aggression, and Turkey could face retaliation from the regime itself. It’s very difficult for Turkey to maintain an operation inside Syria on its own. If it had an international umbrella around it, there would be grounds to say Turkey would take part in a larger international effort. Turkey has said if it was a U.S., or NATO-led effort, it would be more acceptable, but that doesn’t necessarily eradicate the risk factors related to retaliation on Turkish soil.

Turkey in some senses is more vulnerable than the other allies. Unlike the U.S. and European allies, Turkey shares a 900km border with Syria and experiences direct spillover from the conflict.

Even though the Europeans and U.S. are talking about the risk of foreign fighters returning to their homes and carrying out attacks, Turkey is also seeing this risk in combination with the direct impact of the spillover fighting, and potential ISIS attacks on Turkish tourist resorts, which would devastate Turkey’s tourist economy, which accounts for 10% of its national economy.

Syria Deeply:What does the fight in Kobani mean for Turkey? How does it impact Turkish security interests?

Collinsworth: Any increase of ISIS control on Turkey’s border is a threat. Unlike popular belief, Turkey is very much aware of the risk ISIS poses. It is not blind to the risk of a radical organization with radical beliefs on its border.

At the same time, the state mentality sees PKK elements as the largest domestic security threat. That mentality hasn’t entirely changed in Turkey, and therein we see the dilemma of which way to go – you can see this reflected in Turkey’s policy. There is definitely a dilemma that Turkey has not yet made peace with the PKK insurgency. There are peace talks going on, but so long as the peace agreement isn’t reached, there wont be the necessary trust between the Kurdish insurgency, whose sister organization is fighting ISIS in Kobani and Rojava, and the government.

The key here is to move as fast as possible with the peace process and confidence building measures with the PKK, so that there are the grounds to cooperate in Kobani. It’s very difficult for Turkey to accept arming the Kurds that are currently in Kobani, which are mostly PKK linked, in the current circumstances where there is a three-decade-old history of a deadly conflict.

Syria Deeply:Last week pressures from Turkey’s Kurdish population erupted in riots that killed dozens of people. How will Turkey quell those pressures? How does it plan to handle those dynamics from here on?

Collinsworth:I didn’t agree with the comments that it was like another civil war, but it was definitely very worrisome. We saw things we haven’t seen since the 90s – tanks on the streets in southeastern cities, curfews in six provinces, street fights with groups with very different views (nationalist vs. PKK groups), the Kurdish Hezbollah getting involved.

Despite the very harsh rhetoric from the pro-Kurdish groups and the government, the peace process has not been called off and neither has the cease-fire. Both sides see gains from the lull in hostilities. It has benefited the Kurdish National movement, both its political arm and the PKK. They’ve gained legitimacy from it, both international and domestic. They increased their structures in the southeast. The government doesn’t want funerals to be on the front pages of the newspapers when it’s in the middle of an election cycle. It’s clear they want the peace process to continue.

You can’t deal with the Syrian or Iraqi Kurds in a sustainable way until you make peace with your own Kurdish insurgency.

It will always be a tool in outside powers’ hands as long as Turkey can’t resolve its issues by itself. Despite the government’s rhetoric, there have been efforts to salvage the peace process.

Syria Deeply:This weekend U.S. officials said that Turkey would monitor the flow of foreign fighters across its border with Syria. How might that work? How much of a transit point has Turkey been until now?

Collinsworth: At the beginning of the war, like the rest of the world, Turkey wasn’t aware of the extent to which the jihadi threat existed in Syria. Turkey allowed support for all elements that had any promise of ousting President Bashar al-Assad – Turkey’s primary goal. In the last year and a half or more, Turkey has realized the threat jihadists pose to its security and has changed their policies to acknowledge the threat.

The real question is about the implementation on the ground, on the border crossings.

When you talk about a 900-km border, there is no way you can say that there hasn’t been a jihadist breach of the border. Turkey has admitted that it’s a very porous border, very hard to control and that it can’t stop people with legitimate travel documents if they aren’t on an international wanted list from crossing.

They can’t control all illegal crossings. There are lots of illegal crossings that are hard to control, where people walk through the barbed wire.

The efforts to control jihadist breaches of the border haven’t been so successful, and in that sense there is more Turkey can do. It can prioritize monitoring and make sure that there is absolutely no tolerance for jihadi breaches of the border, from both the Turkish side and Syrian side.

It’s very important that they collaborate with Western powers and announce this as a policy. There has been some issues within the European community about sharing information with Turkey about who to watch out for, or giving misleading information and so on. There is much more room for cooperation.

Syria Deeply:Turkey has long pushed for the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, something the U.S has been reluctant to pursue. Why is this so important, from Ankara’s perspective?

Collinsworth: It’s important from a security perspective and for refugees. Turkey had to take in 160,000 refugees recently, but the foreign minister said it was actually 200,000 Syrian Kurds coming in since the attacks on Kobani. Turkey bears the bulk of the burden in terms of refugees, and it feels like it shouldn’t have to bear the burden on its own. Turkey feels that it is accepting the refugees on behalf of the international community.

The buffer zone would be a safe zone for the refugees. Of course if you established a buffer zone you would need a no-fly zone, from a security perspective. From a logistics perspective, Turkey can’t pursue a buffer zone alone. It would only be possible as a result of an international effort. It would be very difficult for Turkey’s military to have a sustained campaign by itself to secure this buffer zone. Another problem would be the location – where would you draw the boundaries, according to what? You would need Arabic speaking military in order to implement it. There are all sorts of problems with the implementation of the buffer zone.

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