Want Turkey’s support against ISIL? Think Russia

What do two of the most burning strategic emergencies in current world affairs – Ukraine and ISIL –

Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian Kurds wait behind the border fence to cross into Turkey [Reuters]

A frustrated September 14 Wall Street Journal piece titled “Our Non-Ally in Ankara“, claimed that for opting out of the anti-ISIL coalition and for refusing to allow the use of Incirlik Airbase in Adana, Turkey was no longer a US ally and Washington’s interests would be better served if the US moved the airbase to the KRG.

The idea is not new, as the same argument was put forth after the Turkish parliamentary bill of March 1, 2003, had denied US troops permission to station in Turkey. Following the March 1 incident, Ankara was quickly out of fashion, and US troops were embraced with a warm welcome by the Kurdish Peshmerga, leading to some conclusions that Washington’s new allies weren’t the Turks, they were the Kurds.

Yet, it took Washington four years to wake up from the dream to realise that replacing Ankara with Erbil was much like replacing Britain with Malta as the main ally in the Mediterranean. This was best understood when Iranian intelligence assets managed to overwhelm KRG’s top intelligence arteries to convince them to report to Tehran on US troop movements. Two major 2007 safe-house raids by US troops – one on January 11 and second one on September 20 – had lead to the detainment of six Iranian intelligence operatives, revealing how well Tehran was dug in the KRG and the long-term unsustainability of replacing Ankara with the KRG as a US ally.

But how does this translate into Turkey’s withdrawn role against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Yes, Ankara is worried about its self-inflicted vulnerability against ISIL; it has little idea about the operations of the sleeper cells in Istanbul or elsewhere in the country and God knows what is going on along Turkey’s 909km border with Syria.


Yes, the western plan to deal with the group addresses only surface causes with little preparation for the demographic and radicalisation backlash the anti-ISIL operations will probably cause in the region. There’s also the highly likely outcome that ISIL’s complete destruction will create such a large power vacuum that it may lead to unprecedented Shia expansionism in the region. This would lead to the sectarian balance changes reaching Turkey’s border. Inevitably, these will also create all sorts of problems with regard to Turkey’s own Kurdish peace process.

Inside Story – Will Turkey join the fight against ISIL?

However, all these reasons can be resolved if the anti-ISIL coalition is steered accordingly and if Washington steps up proper leadership with due planning for a longer-term game. So what’s the problem? The problem, which eludes the attention of almost every analysis, is Russia.

Michael Tanchum first brought the issue of the radically changing balance of power in the Black Sea, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in his April 2014 naval analysis. Turkey’s decision to cancel its next-generation corvette and frigate programme, MILGEM, had strangely lead to Turkey shooting itself in the foot when it came to its own defences in the Black Sea. Then, I took up on Tanchum’s argument to emphasise that Russia’s historical interest in Crimea signalled further expansive moves in the Black Sea, which, since 1783, have almost always happened at the expense of Turkey.

In today’s terms, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is sufficiently alarming for Ankara, with the added dimension of Russian naval supremacy in the Black Sea. Turkey is now virtually defenceless there and has lost its deterrence or negotiation leverages against Moscow in a number of issues. The most immediate is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) designations in the Black Sea, critical due to Shell, Exxon, and Chevron exploration operations on Turkey’s northern coast.

Western expansionism?

But the most serious and significant problem arises from a grand-strategy perspective. In 2010, the southern flank of NATO’s missile defence architecture became the early warning radar system in Kürecik base. This was regarded by Moscow as a sign of western expansionism via Turkey. Despite the US assertion that the system was intended to protect Turkey from a possible Iranian missile, Russia dismissed the argument, viewing Kurecik as NATO’s front-line surveillance deterrence asset to prevent Moscow from diplomatically pressuring Azerbaijan and Georgia.

As the West works on sanctions against Russia and tries to salvage Ukraine, Ankara is worried that the presence of a sizeable NATO air force presence in Incirlik would be seen by Russia as a sign of preparation for potential aggression – especially when considered together with the Kurecik radar base. Moscow’s perception of Kurecik and Incirlik bases as joint focus of deterrence is understood by Ankara – and thus, the persisting reluctance to allow the Incirlik Air Base or commit militarily to the anti-ISIL coalition.

A big part of this reluctance originates not from ISIL, but from the concern over NATO’s ability to protect Turkey from the security backlash from Moscow. In other words, NATO’s inability to deal with the Ukrainian situation decisively, prevents Turkey from confidently committing to the anti-ISIL coalition. As Turkey sees a struggling NATO in the north and an under-planned US action in the south, its reluctance to exert its weight in favour of a western-backed military intervention grows significantly. Sandwiched between two of the most tense conflicts in current world affairs – Ukraine and ISIL – Turkey is in a much more different position than any other country in the anti-ISIL coalition. Much more is at stake for Ankara and the potential is much more worrying than ISIL or any radical group in Iraq or Syria.

If the US wants to recruit Turkey’s support against ISIL, not only should it address the full spectrum of the causes that created ISIL in the first place, but also make longer-term commitments against a Russian backlash against Turkey in the Black Sea. Only by approaching Ukraine and ISIL as complementing grand strategy issues can Washington find the ally it seeks in Ankara, without any need to counterproductively move any bases out of Turkey or clumsily write-off Ankara’s cooperation.

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul and an energy and political risk consultant. He is the winner of 2010 MESA Social Sciences Award and a former lecturer at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department.