The ISIS phenomenon and Turkey’s win-win situation

Joe Hammoura

The aftermath of the Arab Spring has not been good to Turkey. After spending a decade building dominance over Mediterranean countries like Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan, and developing regional relationships through its “zero problems with our neighbors” policy, Turkey began losing ground. Political dynamics brought destructive wars in Syria and Iraq and the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had been the ruling AKP’s closest ally. Ankara’s old bet on the Free Syrian Army failed too, as they were incapable of defeating the Syrian regime.

But today, Turkey is witnessing a shift with the formation of an international coalition to wage war against the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has declared the establishment of the Islamic State (IS) controlling an area of 81 square miles of land – as large as Britain – in both Syria and Iraq.

Accused of being soft in securing its borders with the terrorist organization controlled area in Syria and being a “jihadi express” for ISIS, Ankara has sought a low-profile role in the international coalition that the United States is building. Turkey was the only member present in the Saudi Arabia talks that did not sign the Jeddah Declaration to fight IS on September 11, which a government official explained: “we [Turkey] will not be involved in any armed operation, but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations.” Turkey appears to have no interest in engaging IS directly because of a fear of reprisal attacks.

But with the way the war on ISIS has been going, Turkey’s luck may be changing. On the one hand, it benefits from IS’s march through Syria and Iraq. The terrorist organization has been fighting number of AKP enemies, including the Iraqi government, the Syrian regime, and the Syrian Kurdish minority.

On the other hand, Turkey benefits from the coalition’s air strikes against ISIS. As international airstrikes demolish ISIS bases and weaponry, Turkey could bolster its weak allies on the ground in Syria. Whatever groups remain from the mostly-defunct Free Syrian Army, in addition to some small Islamic groups close to the Turkish regime, could fill the gap from the expected retreat of IS in Syria.  A month ago, Turkey’s hopes were bolstered by the good news from Washington, D.C., when the US Congress backed President Barack Obama’s proposal to arm and train to Syrian rebels.

The same Turkish benefit will take place in Iraq, where Turkey has more reliable allies on the ground than Syria. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), an important oil source and ally to Turkey, will secure and “legitimize” its dominance of newly gained ground in Iraq, mainly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which will provide more energy resources highly needed by Turkey’s ever growing domestic market. And last week, KRG leader Masoud Barzani said that the Turkish government had provided arms to northern Iraq’s Kurdish government to help in their battle against IS.

Turkish tanks have been sitting idly amassed nearby as ISIS militants continue to try to capture Kobani
Turkish tanks have been sitting idly amassed nearby as ISIS militants continue to try to capture Kobani

Many observers expected increasing tensions to arise from IS’s siege on the Kurdish town of Kobani near the Turkish-Syrian border. To a large extent, this has not played out. From an economic perspective, the oil is still flowing: Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said in a statement that “the rate of crude oil flow from the KRG to the port of Ceyhan [in Turkey] reached 240,000 barrels per day (bpd) since the beginning of this week,” which marks a significant increase in exports previously estimated at around 200,000bpd on average.

And while Turkish and Syrian Kurds are blaming Turkey for supporting IS in its war against Kobani, the head of the KRG’s government, Nechirvan Barzani, believes that “Turkey certainly did not support ISIS against Kurds,” adding that Turkey is KRG’s important neighbor and has always helped the Kurdish region.

Turkey is playing a dangerous game, but it seems to be playing its hands well. By improving relations with the KRG in northern Iraq, the AKP is walking a fine line between strengthening the Kurdish government and allowing it to become strong enough to proclaim independence. So far, the coalition’s air strikes have managed to decrease IS’s threat to the Turkish homeland without demolishing the extremist organization altogether – which means IS can continue to fight Turkey’s enemies for it. And even if the coalition’s strikes fails, Turkey will become ever-more important to the west in the regional war against IS.

Still, several recent events could derail Turkey’s comeback. Its strike last week against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) outposts in southeast Turkey has threatened a halting peace process with a group that Turkey and the US both consider to be a terrorist organization. Riots in Kurdish areas of Turkey protesting the country’s lack of action over Kobani have killed over 35 people. The US’s air drop of KRG-supplied weapons to Kurdish fighters in Kobani is expected to elicit Turkish anger.

But so far, Turkey has managed to maintain its win-win situation. It benefited from IS’s rise and will benefit from the international war to eliminate it. And so far, with no major security threat to Turkish cities, Erdogan has come out on top.

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Joe Hammoura, ” The ISIS phenomenon and Turkey’s win-win situation”, October 15, 2014.

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