Last fall, when faced with questions about why NATO partner and regional ally Turkey wasn’t pulling its weight in the fight against the Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that there was “no discrepancy” between U.S. and Turkish policy on the extremists and said Ankara would define its role on its own timetable.
Eight months later, that role is as undefined as ever, and Washington is no more likely to criticize Turkey for it.
Analysts of Turkey’s foreign policy say that Ankara’s often contradictory measures and messages come from two main sources: pockets of Islamic State sympathizers within the leadership, and the broader alarm over Kurdish land grabs as a result of the Syrian conflict. Ankara’s mission is ensuring that the Kurds next door don’t gain ground for a future autonomous state that could affect Turkey’s own conflict with its large Kurdish population. The Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, with U.S. assistance, has scored several recent military victories over the Islamic State, a situation that has drawn criticism, not praise, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the analysts also acknowledge that Turkey remains unhappy that the Obama administration won’t more aggressively help topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and hasn’t outlined how it would protect Turkey from Islamic State retaliation or an influx of even more refugees; thanks to the Syrian civil war, Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country.
In short, the analysts say, how could the Obama administration expect Turkey to do more when the United States has not provided a clear idea of objectives or identified an acceptable on-the-ground partner in Syria?
There’s quite a sizable presence of people affiliated with ISIS and other groups living in Turkey . . . the government worries that if they crack down on them, they’ll retaliate with attacks within Turkey.
Lina Khatib, Carnegie Center
“The mutedness of the U.S. stance on Turkey speaks volumes about the U.S. and international community’s lack of a comprehensive strategy on ISIS,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a research institute in Beirut. She used a popular acronym for the Islamic State, which is also sometimes called ISIL, Daash or IS. “For Turkey to take a more active role, it needs to have some safeguards. That means a comprehensive strategy with a strong regional security component.”
The Obama administration has been criticized as not leaning harder on Turkey for greater military involvement in the fight against the Islamic State. Despite Turkey’s claims of stricter border controls and a crackdown on the black-market oil trade, Islamic State recruits and smugglers slip in and out of Syria easily, according to Khatib and other researchers who’ve visited in recent weeks.
Another lingering gripe is that the Turks still refuse to let the coalition use its military bases to launch attacks.
And, not for the first time, the Turks are balking at U.S. support for front-line Kurdish militia fighting the jihadists. While U.S. officials laud the Kurdish fighters and have helped to equip them, Ankara considers the Kurds the bigger long-term threat. To the consternation of coalition partners, Turks don’t express the same level of alarm at the self-declared caliphate that was established on their border more than a year ago.
“Certainly the Kurds are making advances and it seems reasonable to suppose that it’s a result of coordination between the Kurds, U.S. and Turks,” said a Western official who asked not to be further identified because of diplomatic and security sensitivities of the topic. “And that’s sort of putting the squeeze on ISIL. Some of the advances are taking place close to the ISIL heartland in Raqqa.”
The Western official acknowledged that the Turks aren’t exactly celebrating the development.
Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country.
“Turkish policy is twofold. I do think they worry about ISIL and they’ve done a lot,” the official said. “I think they wanted to be reassured in a sense before taking a more pro-active stance that there’s sort of a full-hearted international effort to dealing with this and they’re conscious of the risk of blow-back into Turkey.”
Khatib, of Carnegie in Beirut, said that’s a valid concern given how, in an early rush to rely on jihadists as a quick way to get rid of Assad, Turkey turned a blind eye to the extremists who were not only streaming into Syria but also building enclaves inside of Turkey. Because of what Khatib called this “lack of strategic foresight,” Turkey now finds itself constrained on how far it can push against the Islamic State.
“There’s quite a sizable presence of people affiliated with ISIS and other groups living in Turkey – and none is engaging in violence so far – but the government worries that if they crack down on them, they’ll retaliate with attacks within Turkey,” Khatib said. “The Turkish government has, in a way, pushed itself into a corner with its contradictory policies on ISIS.”
Add to all that another eyebrow-raising move that appeared to have been under consideration in Ankara – still-unrealized plans that would have had Turkey launch an incursion into Syria for the purpose of establishing a so-called humanitarian buffer zone to allow anti-Assad fighters and civilians safe passage.
Analysts say the greater objective wouldn’t be to deal a blow to the Islamic State but to weaken the Kurdish forces in the area.
Turks are extremely frustrated that the ‘West is dumping its garbage’ on them, by allowing Western citizens of suspected violent intent to depart their home countries to travel to Turkey.
Francis Ricciardone, former U.S. ambassador
A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, dismissed the idea of such a zone as just “press reports,” and he stressed the logistical and other drawbacks to such an expedition. The United States repeatedly has opposed the idea of a humanitarian corridor, and Turkey has made no move to establish one, after a meeting of the country’s National Security Council on Monday.
Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara now at the Atlantic Council think tank, said such a move by Turkey would run contrary to a “convergence of strategic interests” – basically, opposition to both Assad as well as the Islamic State – that Turkey shares with other big players in the Syrian conflict.
“The trick is to unlock those compelling convergences and to act on them,” Ricciardone wrote in response to emailed questions. “Very hard, resource-intensive work, but not impossible. Only the U.S. is in position to accomplish it.”
Such work demands an understanding of the Turkish position, Ricciardone said. Where the Americans see Turkey as a less-than-enthusiastic member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, the Turks see the United States as a less-than-enthusiastic member of the anti-Assad coalition. Especially when, as Ricciardone said, “they perceive the U.S. to be the formerly enthusiastic founding member.”
Perhaps the most-repeated demand is for Turkey to impose greater restrictions along its border with Syria; it’s the go-to transit point for most jihadists en route to the caliphate. Ricciardone said that, in Turkey’s view, blame for the porous border is unfair.
“For their part, the Turks are extremely frustrated that the ‘West is dumping its garbage’ on them, by allowing Western citizens of suspected violent intent to depart their home countries to travel to Turkey, while demanding that Turkey either block their entry into Turkey or their departure into Syria,” he said.
Ricciardone suggested that the matter should be treated with more nuance – both the United States and Turkey want at least some back-and-forth traffic for vetted rebels, humanitarian groups and refugees. Turkey has received nearly 2 million Syrian refugees as long-term residents; but it’s not as welcoming of Syrian Kurds who are fleeing the conflict and whom Ankara views as a threat to national security.
“The question is of discrimination: we and the Turks differ on some of the people and goods that should be allowed to cross or be blocked from crossing in either direction,” Ricciardone said.
“Evidently, continued deep conversations between the U.S. and Turkey are necessary to establish a common definition of the complex strategic problem involving Assad, ISIS and the Kurds,” Ricciardone added. “That is necessary for further agreement on allocating the actions and costs of addressing the problem.”
Jonathan S. Landay of the Washington Bureau contributed.