Making Sense of The Turkey-ISIS Mess

by Graham E. Fuller

Among the many confusing factors swirling around the whole ISIS phenomenon is the role, or roles, of Turkey in the situation. It might be helpful to tick off some of the major salient factors that compete to form Turkish policies towards ISIS under President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an at this point.

DEALING WITH ASSAD: First, Turkey fell into the same analytic error that most countries and most analysts, including myself did: the assumption that after Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Assad regime in Syria, now facing its own Arab Spring uprising, would be the next to fall. It did not happen. Erdo?an had been deeply and personally invested in mentoring Assad as a “younger brother” for nearly a decade, bringing him closer to western and especially EU ties, helping moderate a number of internal Syrian issues. After the uprising began in Syria, Assad then refused to follow Erdo?an’s strong advice about yielding some democratic concessions to the early anti-regime demonstrators in Syria; Erdo?an grew angry, felt he had lost face internationally with his claims to exert influence over Assad, and finally grew determined to overthrow Assad by force. The more difficult the task turned out to be, the more Erdo?an doubled down, determined to get him out using almost any means—now driven by deep personal grudge as well.

PREFERENCE TO SUPPORT DEMOCRATIC CHANGE. In fairness to Erdo?an and Prime Minister Davuto?lu, Turkey had been gravitating towards a regional policy of general support to democratic movements against shaky dictators. It would indeed have been desirable to see Assad go—in principle—and Ankara had supported the previous four uprisings against entrenched dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. There is consistency in his expectations—demands now—that Syria follow suit.

THE ROLE OF JIHADI FORCES. The Assad regime turned out to be more deeply entrenched institutionally than many guessed; large portions of its population dislike Assad, but fear even more the uncertainty, chaos and likely Islamist character of a successor regime. No Syrian could want an Iraq meltdown scenario taking place in Syria either. But the longer the anti-Assad struggle went on, the more it attracted ever more radical Jihadi forces—the most radical ones sadly being the most effective anti-Assad forces, as opposed to the feckless and divided ( if more congenial) moderate opposition. Erdo?an, feeling more desperate, became willing to cooperate with ever more radical forces—to the point of no longer rejecting out of hand the activities of pro-al-Qaeda or pro-ISIS forces in the nearby region. Ankara’s policy doesn’t represent outright support for ISIS, but it does demonstrate a willingness to overlook many ISIS activities in order to facilitate Assad’s overturn.

ERDO?AN’S OWN ISLAMIC AGENDA. Erdo?an comes out of a tradition of Turkish Islamism. His party, the AKP, represents its most moderate face—perhaps indeed the most pragmatic and most successful Islamic political party in the world. The Turkish form of the AKP Islamic tradition can be compared, very roughly, to the Muslim Brotherhood—although the Turkish AKP is vastly more advanced, politically experienced, practical, and sophisticated. Nonetheless, Erdo?an and some others in the AKP, do seem to look with some sympathy on the struggle of Muslim Brotherhood movements in the Arab world as the most promising, moderately grounded Islamist/Islamic political movement out there. The MB is generally open to concepts of democracy, globalization, tolerance and dialog—although in line with their own understanding of these terms, and depending where and when. Thus Erdo?an is predisposed to some sympathy with the Brotherhood. This accounts for his massive falling out with Egypt’s Sisi who is now crushing the Brotherhood as his chief rival, and Saudi Arabia that similarly deems the Brotherhood to be a “terrorist organization.” Erdo?an has been more willing to cut many Islamist opposition movements some degree of slack, such as in Syria. Compared to almost any form of Turkish Islam, ISIS is essentially an extremist movement, well beyond the pale of mainstream Islam and Islamism; the lines have grown blurred, however, due to Erdo?an’s continuing obsession with overthrowing Assad by almost any means at hand.

THE KURDISH FACTOR. Erdo?an and the AKP government over the past decade has done more to accept “the Kurdish reality” and advance dialog with the Turkey’s Kurdish guerrilla movement (PKK) than any party before. There is still great promise here. Turkey has also reached an astonishingly swift accommodation and close working relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and its leaders in forging political, economic and strategic ties with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government. But the chaos and unrest generated in every major war in the Middle East over the past two decades have generally benefited the regional Kurds first and foremost (except in Iran), creating the space for them to assume more de facto regional sovereignty. But Turkey’s negotiations with the PKK are complex and still underway—encouraging, but far from a done deal.

The newfound, vocal, de facto autonomy of the Syrian Kurds as well, now taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, has worried Ankara that perhaps all the Kurds may be now moving too far too fast in what could become a dangerous new Kurdish dynamic harder for Ankara to deal with. In any case, any kind of a pan-Kurdish state is still far down the road, if ever feasible. But Erdo?an is worried about anything that enhances the identity, role, profile and military proficiency of the Syrian Kurdish movement, especially since it will not officially sign on to the anti-Assad struggle. (That movement hates Assad, but also fears an even harsher anti-Kurdish regime under Islamists than it has had under secular Assad.) Ankara’s bottom line through all of this is fear of spreading armed Kurdish activism (such as against ISIS) that only enhances Kurdish armed strength and capabilities that can easily affect Turkey’s own negotiations with its own Kurds. It’s a tough call, and whatever happens, regional Kurds are gaining greater prominence and sense of identity with every passing month…

THE US FACTOR. Many US analysts still worry about Ankara not getting on board with Obama on fighting ISIS–as if relations are newly strained. The fact is, Ankara declared its foreign policy independence from the US a decade ago, in multiple areas. Turkey will never again play the role of “loyal US ally.” It has its own regional and global interests and will pursue them; Washington’s preferences will play only a modest role among the many factors influencing Turkish decision-making. Obama may help/persuade Erdo?an to back off from his reckless willingness to tolerate even the ISIS card to bring down Assad. But Erdo?an may well remain intractable on the Assad issue. That policy, among other things, has served to seriously damage Ankara’s relations with Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. So we should not look forward to much cordial cooperation between Ankara and Washington except to the extent that Washington changes its policies on Palestine, Israel, Iran, and overall military intervention in the region. The two countries essentially do not share a common regional strategic outlook.

These issues roughly summarize the complexity of the Turkish calculus on ISIS. Most important to note though, is that Ankara does not share at all the ISIS view of Islam or regional politics. But Ankara does not regard US military policies in the region as desirable either. Turkey’s best prospects lie in backing off from further support to the armed overthrow of Assad, cutting its losses, thereby improving its strained ties with Iran and Iraq, and in returning to the relatively successful “zero problems with neighbors” that marked the AKP’s first decade in office.

Photo Credit: Ra’ed Qutena/Flickr

This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller on his blog and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.

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  1. Interesting post. The one point of this, who will take over if Assad leaves? This mess is the result of all the parties involved in the war to replace Assad, either not understanding the significance or not seeing the forest from the trees. How any planner[s] could point to a solution in the present tense, is delusional, IMHO. But then, I’m but one sitting on the sidelines watching the present domino being toppled by the powers to be, who don’t seem to know what they’re doing, i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, and the beat goes on.

  2. This has been a very informative read. It puts a lot in perspective. Thank you. The only point that I’m not convinced of is this one about Erdogan’s insistence on removing Assad at any cost, even using ISIS to accomplish his goal:

    ” Ankara had supported the previous four uprisings against entrenched dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. There is consistency in his expectations—demands now—that Syria follow suit.”

    It’s puzzling because of how all those uprising have turned out. Egypt, Libya and Yemen are all in shambles. Libya is at the level of a failed state, Egypt is now a tinderbox in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship that could explode at any moment, and Yemen is on the verge. The opposite of Erdogan’s objectives has been achieved. So, given the spectacular failure of the approach, how does he justify doing more of the same and creating another disaster similar to Iraq and end up with two ongoing failed states on his southern borders with whose instability and problems Turkey would have to deal with for decades? Is he really naive enough to think he can use ISIS to remove Assad and then wave his wand and make ISIS be replaced by a democracy? How’s handing over a second neighboring country to ISIS going to bring any kind of an improvement? Assad is bad, but compared with ISIS Assad’s brutal dictatorship is a Jeffersonian democracy! Is Erdogan willing to risk handing over a second neighboring country to ISIS in pursuit of democracy? He cannot be that naive. Isn’t it more likely that it’s the prospect of that infamous gas pipeline that’s driving this for Turkey?

  3. It is a thorough article on Erdogan’s blinding obsession with Bashar Al Assad.
    Let me add one component that may clarify further Erdogan’s atttitude toward military involvement in the region: The relation between the AKP and the Turkish army.
    Before the AKP Turkey has been plagued with military coups. Erdogan is very suspicious of the army that is still loyal to Ataturk’s secular vision of Turkey and to a certain degree Gulen’s vision.
    Therefore Erdogan has done all he could to emasculate the army. He has jailed many of the commanders and has developed a policy of ‘we don’t need the army’
    To defend its borders he has called on NATO. To stop Kurdish attacks within the country he has entered into negotiation with the chief of the terrorist organization, the PKK. His PM has even developed a policy’ zero problems with neighbors’ where he meant no military confrontation with neighbors.
    Thus the army has become a parade only army with no sufficient power or popularity to be a threat to the AKP. The security of the country is now exclusively the hand of the police and the intelligence, all closely affiliated with the AKP.
    Now comes ISIS…. Erdogan has consistently refused to participate ( militarily) against it. He does worry that any escalation of the military confrontation with ISIS will affect the country economy, the pillar of the AKP.. But most of all, he does not want to give any chance to the army to recover its shine and popularity. For that, he may have even made a secret non-aggression deal with ISIS when the Turkish diplomats hostages were miraculously freed.
    Yet he is constantly wary of any attack on the turkish territory by ISIS with civilian casualties that may oblige him to involve the army.

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