Ankara’s Second Thoughts about ISIS
By Doğu Ergil
March 17, 2015
What is Iraq? A nation-state on paper, put together from three Ottoman provinces by the British after World War I to fit its imperial desires. It was neither a nation nor a voluntary state. Now it faces the danger of fragmentation, especially after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) occupation of a part of the country and its threat to the rest.
While ISIS continues to control a huge section of Syria, its onslaught in Iraq has stalled to some extent. ISIS's power was first challenged by the Syrian Kurds who heroically defended the town of Kobani. Later it was stopped at the gates of Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq by the Kurdish regulars (Peshmerga), Shiite militias backed by Iran and effective American aerial bombardment.
Currently this alliance is on the march to rescue the Sunni town of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's hometown) from ISIS, which captured it last June.
The easy fall of the city is attributed to grievances against Shiite rule of the Sunnis, who wanted to send a message to Baghdad by supporting ISIS.
Where does Turkey, once an aspirant to become the leader of the region, stand in this debacle?
Ankara stood still when ISIS attacked and took Sinjar and massacred Yazidi Kurds, Christians and Turkmens last summer. This inaction was followed during the ISIS siege of the Kurdish town of Kobani. The Turkish government had an excuse at the time: the ransacking of the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul and the captivity of the Turkish diplomatic staff by ISIS.
But after the trade of the consular staff for captured ISIS militants and the evacuation of the Süleyman Shah Tomb, thus securing the soldiers guarding the site, Turkey's anti-ISIS profile rose somewhat.
Ankara has recently pledged to take certain steps following the visit in early March by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Saudi Arabia and the recent visit to Ankara by US Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin. An agreement was reached with the US that included several important commitments, including: 1) to train and equip Syrian rebel forces in Turkey; 2) to deliver military equipment to the Iraqi army; 3) to tighten security on the Turkish-Syrian border in order to deter the passage of ISIS recruits; and 4) to be more cooperative with the international coalition fighting against ISIS.
No doubt this means toning down the incessant anti-Assad rhetoric of Turkish politicians.
However, Turkey will not directly be an active agent in the fight against ISIS, as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has just declared. Instead, it has offered to open the critical İncirlik Air Base for logistical support together with the Malatya, Batman and Diyarbakır airports, which will be available for humanitarian assistance and emergency landings.
Turkey has also promised to deploy airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACS) for intelligence and offer tanker planes for fuel assistance. Providing human intelligence on Sunni Arab tribes of Mosul -- with whom Ankara is on good terms -- and training Kurdish Peshmerga as well as Syrian opposition forces indicate important changes in Turkey's official attitude.
This basically emanates from two concerns. One is a fear of a new wave of refugees when the Mosul campaign starts. Turkey is unprepared to receive hundreds of thousands of additional refugees. Moreover, there could be ISIS members or sympathizers among them that could create a security liability in Turkey.
The second is coping with the strong criticism toward Turkey for not coming to the aid of the Kurds, and for not playing an active role in the coalition that is lined up against ISIS, in spite of being a regional country. Turkey will have no say in the shaping of the new Middle East if it is not engaged in the toil of liberating it from alien elements.
Thirdly, aside from the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- Turkey's nemesis -- are participating in the fight against ISIS and are carving out a critical space for themselves in the future reshaping of the region pending the defeat of ISIS.
Turkey's concern is not only the PKK. The Shiite army of Baghdad backed by Iran and its own Shiite militia will be liberating Sunni towns. They may very well stay on to control these areas -- including the oil-rich Mosul and its environs -- in the interest of Iran. This will run counter to Turkey's interests. Their disillusionment may lead to the birth of another radical Sunni organization even after ISIS is defeated.