The hastily assembled US-led coalition to battle ISIL will not be able achieve much without Turkey’s partnership and logistical and strategic support. But is the Turkish government able – or willing – to join the coalition?
Until recently, Turkey has resisted calls to join. Previously, some attributed this unwillingness to anxieties over jeopardising the lives of the 49 staff members of the Turkish consulate in Mosul taken hostage by ISIL on June 11. However, ISIL’s release of all its Turkish hostages on September 20 has taken the Erdogan government’s constantly invoked “hostage excuse” off the table. Moreover, several consulate staff accounts of the captivity have fuelled suspicions that the entire “hostage crisis” may have been fabricated through a secret agreement between ISIL and the AKP government.
For example, the consul-general told Turkish media that during his captivity he managed to use his mobile phone and talk to the ministry in Ankara on a daily basis. There is no way of knowing for sure whether the crisis was orchestrated by Ankara, but it is highly possible, especially in light of a secretly recorded conversation from March in which the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) and then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu discussed instigating a fake ISIL attack on a Turkish enclave in northern Syria to muster public support for the AKP government just a few weeks before the upcoming election.
Real hostage crisis?
But let’s assume that this was a real hostage crisis. There are then several important questions that demand answers: Why has ISIL released the hostages now? What has Turkey given ISIL in exchange? And will the release lead to a change in Turkish policy vis-a-vis the US-led international coalition?
Turkey needs guarantees. Unlike many countries in the coalition, Turkey does not have the luxury of geographical distance that would enable a fight against ISIL with drones and air strikes alone. Turkey would need to commit tens of thousands of ground troops to an uncertain war in Iraq and Syria.
In many respects, releasing the hostages seems to have benefited ISIL. ISIL had two options regarding the hostages: kill them or release them in negotiations with Turkey. The former option would have angered Turkish leaders and turned them into determined enemies. The latter option offered the group an opportunity to negotiate with the Turks and secure vital logistical, military and diplomatic concessions on the eve of their fight against the international coalition. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that Turkey struck a deal with ISIL to secure the release of hostages, he has not specified the terms of the agreement.
Some have speculated that the agreement included a hostage swap, and possibly a promise by the Turkish government not to join the international coalition or to collaborate with the allies.
ISIL leaders have also alleged that as part of the deal Turkey agreed to recognise ISIL as a “state”. Others have referred to internet images and videos of a Turkish cargo train carrying tanks and containers across the Turkey-Syria border as evidence of a hostages-for-weaponry bargain between ISIL and the Turkish government.
Whatever the terms of the agreement between Turkey and ISIL may have been, the fact is that the hostage crisis is now over. But does the end of the crisis also mean that Turkey is now willing and able to join the coalition against ISIL? The answer is simply “No”.
Turkish policymakers have justifiable reservations about the effectiveness of US President Barack Obama’s “degrade and destroy” strategy. Many within and outside the US have criticised the strategy for lacking clear political and military objectives. Victory against ISIL is not guaranteed. But Turkey needs guarantees.
Unlike many countries in the coalition, Turkey does not have the luxury of geographical distance that would enable a fight against ISIL with drones and air strikes alone. Turkey would need to commit tens of thousands of ground troops to an uncertain war in Iraq and Syria. Turkey not only shares a long border with areas under ISIL control but also hosts thousands of ISIL sympathisers and fighters – among its own citizens, as well as 1.5 million Syrians currently taking refuge in the country. In brief, it will not be a wise decision for Turkey to get militarily involved in the war against ISIL.
Even though the government is expected to bring a motion to the parliament today that would potentially authorise it to send Turkish military personnel into Iraq and Syria to fight against terrorism, this should be seen as a tactical move by the government to ease off international pressure rather than a declaration of intention to militarily join the coalition.
|Inside Story – Will Turkey join the fight against ISIL?|
Of course, Turkey could still play an instrumental role in the coalition without any military involvement, providing logistical, political, and diplomatic support. But will the AKP government be willing and able to play such a role?
Consider that the ruling elite in Turkey and ISIL share some ideological views and strategic interests in the region. AKP sees ISIL and other fundamentalist groups operating within Syria as useful proxies for defeating the Assad regime, limiting the power and influence of the Alawite-Shia axis, and, more importantly, destroying the Kurdish autonomous administration in Syria, which currently stokes the government’s anxieties over its own Kurdish population’s nationalist aspirations. Thus, Turkish partnership in the coalition depends on the allies either addressing Turkey’s strategic concerns or raising the political and economic costs of not joining.
Even if Turkey were willing to join the coalition, it is questionable whether the country would be able to deliver what the coalition would expect from it. It is now clear that Turkey must seal its borders with Syria and Iraq to prevent fighters from freely entering and exiting Turkey. Turkey must also shut down ISIL-affiliated recruiting centres, charity organisations, and media outlets that may be freely operating in Turkish cities. But does the Turkish government have the military and bureaucratic capacity to implement these measures?
According to the German newspaper Bild, the MIT, in a recent report to the Turkish government, confessed that it was no longer able to monitor and control the activities of ISIL within Turkey. Turkey also remains chronically unable to effectively monitor its southern borders. For instance, smugglers, criminals, and PKK fighters have always been able cross the border into Turkey from Syria and Iraq with relative ease.
Whether or not Turkish officials admit it, we now face the problem of a state which cannot secure its borders or effectively stop smugglers from bringing in and selling ISIL oil. Thus, if allies really want Turkey to join the coalition, they also need to give the Turks financial, technical, and military support to help them build a reliable border security system.
Yuksel Sezgin is assistant professor of political science, Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University.