Turkey’s foreign minister is preparing to attend key talks involving the US and Arab countries willing to participate in a coalition against the self-proclaimed jihadist Islamic State (IS) group.
Thursday’s gathering in Saudi Arabia, an attempt to organise efforts to tackle the IS in Iraq and Syria, is to take place two days after a visit by Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, to the Turkish capital, where he discussed Ankara’s commitment to the planned US-led coalition.
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It also comes a day after a prime-time address US President Barack Obama delivered on Wednesday night ordering expanded air strikes against the group that has declared a “caliphate” in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
Turkey has been criticised by Western governments for turning a blind eye to the flow of fighters into Syria, indiscriminately keeping its borders open to armed groups fighting the Damascus regime, once a close ally of Ankara.
The IS member recently spoke to The Washington Post in a Turkish border town, explaining how fighters used Turkish territory for hospital treatment, accommodation and securing supplies.
Turkey has over the summer been ramping up efforts to control its 850km Syrian border with stricter controls, and called for Western countries to stop the flow of potential fighters to the country.
Fehim Tastekin, a veteran Turkish journalist who has extensively reported from the region, believes that despite stricter Turkish controls, IS fighters and weapons continue to cross the border – but to a lesser extent.
“The planned American operation against the IS will push Turkey to implement an even stricter border regime as an ally,” Tastekin said, adding that the Turkish-Syrian border was not as crucial before the arrival of the IS.
The oil resources secured by the IS provides the group with important financial revenue. Although it is harder to smuggle oil into Turkey nowadays, sales in Syria and Iraq still continue.
“The oil resources secured by the IS provides the group with important financial revenue. Although it is harder to smuggle oil into Turkey nowadays, sales in Syria and Iraq still continue,” he told Al Jazeera.
The US has launched air strikes on IS targets in Iraq in support of Kurdish Peshmerga forces and government troops fighting the group on the ground.
Turkey has been reluctant to take action against the IS for various reasons.
The IS holds 49 Turkish hostages, including the country’s consul-general in Iraq, other diplomatic staff, members of the special forces and civilians.
The limitations of potential Turkish involvement in the coalition was noted by Hagel on his recent visit to Ankara.
“Each country has its own separate limitations, its own separate political dimensions. We have to respect those,” Hagel said.
Turkey is also worried that weapons being sent to Iraq to fight against the IS might end up with the outlawed armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which fought the Turkish army for three decades, but is now in a fragile peace process with Ankara.
“Turkey is not comfortable with the PKK and the Democratic Union Party [the Syrian affiliate of the PKK] gaining legitimacy and raising support [in the international arena] by fighting against the IS. The government is afraid that these developments can turn the peace process against Turkey,” Tastekin told Al Jazeera.
Soli Ozel, a Turkish professor of international relations, : “As a result of Turkish hostages, Ankara could not militarily help the Kurdish autonomous government, its closest ally in the region, when the IS attacked the capital Erbil. More importantly, when the PKK and the PYD did what peshmerga could not do, and drove back the IS, the Kurdish balance of power in the north of Iraq changed in favour of the PKK and against the Kurdish government.”
Ankara’s Damascus concern
Analysts also suggest that another concern for Turkey is a possible Western rapprochement with the Damascus regime in the struggle against the IS.
Ankara worries the struggle the Western alliance seems resolved to wage on IS could legitimise and strengthen Damascus.
“Ankara has used virtually all means to topple the Damascus regime, except sending troops. Now it worries the struggle the Western alliance seems resolved to wage on IS could legitimise and strengthen Damascus,”Kadri Gursel, a Turkish journalist and analyst, wrote in a recent article.
The Islamic State directly threatened Turkey with violence last month, demanding Ankara reopen a dam on the Euphrates River to secure water flows to parts of Syria and Iraq. A spillover of violence is likely if Turkey takes direct action against the group, given that there are Turkish volunteers in the group.
Opposition MP Atilla Kart recently announced the provinces of origin and the code names of 90 Turks killed while fighting for the IS.
“In addition to Turkish volunteers joining the group, residents living in Turkish border towns have often reported IS fighters living in their neighbourhoods,” Tastekin, the Turkish reporter, told Al Jazeera.
Turkish officials continue to use a moderate language while adressing the IS. They have shied away from labelling the group as “terrorist”. Instead, they have used terms such as “dangerous” and “radical”.
Against this backdrop of multiple internal and external factors influencing Turkey’s approach to the armed group, how and to what extent the country will deal with the IS remains to be seen.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras