Turkey’s ISIL Dilemma: To Fight or Not to Fight

The Turkish Parliament has just granted the government the authority to send the Turkish military into Iraq and Syria, should the government decide to take such actions. This authorization also includes the possibility of receiving foreign military personnel in Turkey. The decision comes at a critical time when the military coalition led by the United States is actively engaging the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS). It also coincides with increasing Western pressure on Turkey to become more actively involved in U.S. efforts to “degrade and defeat” ISIL. Will the Turkish parliament’s decision pave Turkey’s way to joining the military wing of the coalition and actually fight ISIL? Will Turkey allow the United States to use the Incirlik NATO base 60 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border? Will Turkey finally lend support to the Kurds who are desperately trying to defend the city of Kobane against ISIL’s relentless onslaught on the Syrian border with Turkey?

While there are a number of factors present that are likely to prevent affirmative answers to these questions, the Turkish Parliament’s decision, coupled with mounting criticism of ISIL by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, opens the door for much deeper cooperation between Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL.

What’s Holding Turkey Back?

An important factor that will continue to prevent the Turkish government from becoming militarily involved is a difference in priorities between the United States and Turkey. Although both sides agree that ISIL’s rise is directly linked to a failure to replace the Assad regime in Syria, the United States gives priority to defeating ISIL as the removal of Assad takes a back seat. This explains Erdoğan’s repeated calls to create a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. He believes such a zone would not only help alleviate the enormous pressure 1.5 million refugees are putting on Turkey, but also provide an operational base for the moderate Syrian opposition. It is very unlikely that the United States will pursue the establishment of such a zone, given the inevitable objections that would come from both the Iranians and the Russians. This in turn, discourages Turkey from becoming militarily involved in any significant manner.

There is also a realization that in Iraq, ISIL has the support of Sunni tribes and elements of the former Baath Party, which became deeply disenchanted by the discriminatory and repressive policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Turkey’s declared policy towards the future of Iraq and Syria is very much in line with that of the United States as it seeks the reconstitution of Iraq and Syria within their existing borders with regimes more representative of their diverse populations. Yet, there is also recognition that the region is undergoing tremendous instability and transformation that may lead to unforeseen future territorial and political configurations. The Turkish government is consciously aware that Turkey is a neighbor to this geography and hence likely to continue to err on the side of caution and avoid direct military involvement with ISIL. This sense of vigilance is also fueled by the complicated situation that the Kurds are under attack by ISIL in Rojava (the Kurdish belt of north and northeast Syria where the city of Kobane is situated) creates for Turkey.

Since 2012, the Turkish government has been involved in negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, in an effort to reach a political solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey. At the same time, Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization, which is closely associated with its Syrian wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish force, currently under attack by ISIL. It is not clear whether the Turkish military would extend military assistance to the PYD (and, by extension, the PKK) in Rojava, organizations it has traditionally fought against.

To Fight or Not to Fight ISIL?

Turkey’s dilemma to “fight or not to fight” ISIL is also directly linked to national security and economic considerations. The Turkish economy has long been sensitive to external developments and security related issues. An economy once hailed as a success story, is increasingly experiencing problems, particularly with respect to an incurable current accounts deficit. Two important sectors helping to balance this deficit are tourism and commerce. In 2013 alone, close to 35 million foreign nationals visited Turkey. In the past, Turkey’s commerce and tourism revenues were adversely affected by wars in its neighborhood, even when it managed to stay out of them. The danger in provoking ISIL into mounting a terrorist attack is a major concern for decision makers and will continue to put the brakes on military involvement against ISIL.

As much as these factors may force the Turkish government to put the parliamentary authorization on the back burner and decide not to fight ISIL, it does not mean there would not be room for much closer and effective cooperation with the United States. Public opinion in Turkey is deeply disturbed by ISIL’s actions as well as the growing number of Turkish youth joining its ranks. After considerable nudging by the United States and European Union (EU), the Turkish government has begun to take action against preventing foreign fighters and arms from transiting through Turkey into Syria. Measures have also been introduced to control the smuggling of ISIL oil into Turkey. The parliament’s recent decision and mounting public opinion against ISIL should help expand and make cooperation with the United States more effective. However, Western expectations of Turkey completely sealing its more than 500 mile long, porous border with Syria are extremely unrealistic. Even deploying a mere 10 soldiers to guard every mile of the border would require 30,000 soldiers, assuming four hourly guard shifts in a day is logistically and humanly possible. Instead, the focus should be on hard-core intelligence sharing and counterterrorism efforts.

A U.S.-Turkey Dialogue

Another area of cooperation should focus on nurturing better coordination and dialogue between the United States and Turkey with respect to the grand strategy on Syria and the region’s future. Two questions regarding the future that matter most for Turkish decision makers are: will the United States stay around for the long haul if things get worse, and will the United States remain committed to regime change in Damascus? These are two challenging issues at the very crux of Turkey’s dilemma and have come at a time when Turkey’s relations with the West have not been particularly good and mutual trust is at an all-time low. Yet, the challenges constituted by ISIL, the deep instability in the Middle East and Russian aggression are all nudging Turkey slowly but surely back into the ranks of the West.

This is starkly reflected in the recent Transatlantic Trends survey that recorded a surprisingly significant jump in the Turkish public’s support for both the EU and NATO compared to last year. This has been accompanied by the decision to revamp EU-Turkish relations, very recently taken by the Turkish government, and efforts to deepen economic relations with the United States. Furthermore, trade statistics for the first seven months of this year when compared to 2013, show a significant increase in Turkey’s exports to the EU and United States, compared to a drop in exports to neighboring countries such as Russia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf. Thus, the moment is ripe to engage Turkey in deeper and more strategic cooperation in a manner that reinforces its place in the transatlantic alliance, rather than allowing tactical differences in fighting ISIL aggravate relations between Turkey and the West further. In return, it is important that Turkey urgently engages with its NATO partners to enable a more effective use of the Incirlik air base against ISIL. The parliament’s decision clearly provides for this possibility.