On 23 September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally announced that support, whether military or logistic, would be given to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIL)1. The move was expected, as it appeared that Turkey’s setback had been the 49 hostages held by ISIL, who were released on 20 September2.

However, Erdoğan’s announcement has not clarified Turkey’s position. Turkey is at a dead-end when it comes to handling its relationship with NATO and the Kurds, while maintaining the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) image as a defender of Sunni-Islamism in the region.

NATO

NATO was disappointed in Turkey, as it was clear that the ‘Turkish border is the only way to smuggle oil, weapons and foreign fighters’ into the region3.  Turkey was blamed with not cooperating to stop the passage.

When military action against ISIL was announced by the US-led coalition, Turkey refused to open its air bases or take part in military operations4, limiting support to humanitarian aid. Rumours circulated that Turkey was purchasing oil from ISIL 5, 6.

Meanwhile, the release of the hostages has raised questions about Turkey’s relationship with ISIL. A prominent one has been how the hostages were released easily while others have been brutally beheaded on tape. Erdoğan boasted that the hostages were rescued following diplomatic negotiation 7. Abdülkadir Selvi, a journalist with close connections to the AKP, claimed that prominent names of ISIL were traded in return for the hostages8. Another journalist, Barış Yarkadaş, argued that the government’s ‘diplomatic negotiation’ rendered political recognition to ISIL, delivering the message that military operation is unnecessary9.

Contrarily, AKP MP for Gaziantep, Şamil Tayyar, in a Twitter message, declared that the hostages were released in a manoeuvre by the CIA in response to the situation hindering Turkey’s participation in the coalition.

Following the release of the hostages, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Turkey had needed to resolve its hostage situation, but that now, ‘the proof will be in the pudding’10, making it clear that full-scale involvement is expected of Turkey. However, Turkey is still reluctant. A day after Erdoğan’s announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan stated that ‘military support does not mean shooting bullets’11.

Meanwhile, Turkey is lobbying for the creation of a buffer zone at the Turkish-Syrian border, aiming to prevent a further inflow of refugees, while continuing to train ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels against Assad 12.

The Kurds

The future of Turkey’s solution process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) appears dubious. The PKK’s desperateness seems to have reached a critical point; attacks and kidnapping incidents are on the rise. The PKK and politicians of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (HDP) are blaming Turkey with supporting ISIL. As ISIL seized 60 Kurdish villages along Turkey’s Syrian border13, Ankara refused to allow Kurdish fighters to cross into the Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab to help defend it14. The PKK is disappointed as the government has continuously permitted free passage for Syrian rebels.

Murat Karayılan, one of PKK’s founding members, stated that the Turkish government’s attacks on Ayn al-Arab have proved the insincerity of the solution process. Karayılan declared that the solution process is over, but that imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan would have final say15.

Turkey’s efforts to launch a buffer zone have further angered the PKK, who see the possible establishment as an invasion and a declaration of war against the Kurdish people16.

Sunni-Islamist Ideology

The AKP has constructed its image as the defender of Sunni-Islamist ideology. Staunch support of Hamas, Sunni-Islamist rebels in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood are prime examples.

ISIL was also considered in this realm. Following the declaration of the coalition, Turkey’s primary concern was the advantage military operations against ISIL would render Assad, rather than the threat posed by ISIL. Prime Minister Davutoğlu, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, refusing to refer to ISIL as terrorist, called it an outplay of anger due to Sunni marginalisation by Iraq’s regime, and then a ‘radical organization with a terrorist-like structure’17, 18.

There are serious claims that ISIL is being supported domestically.  Several incidents of ISIL militants undergoing treatment in Turkish hospitals have arisen 19, 20. Allegations have not been denied; the Minister of Health announced that anyone wounded, including ISIL militants, are welcome in Turkish hospitals21. A Twitter account, Devletül İslami TR (Islamic State Turkey) (@ISILturkey), claimed to be the ISIL embassy in Turkey in Ankara. The account, now suspended by Twitter, referred to the 49 hostages as ‘our Turkish guests’. Anti-ISIL protesters at Istanbul University were attacked by members of an organization called Muslim Youth. A symbolic funeral prayer was organized for ISIL militants at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul22. Security forces have been reluctant to take action, whereas anti-ISIL protests have been dealt with by force23.

Returning to the coalition, it may appear that the AKP is simply against military action in the region. However, this is disproved by the AKP’s past approach to military involvement. In August 2013, Davutoğlu stated that Turkey’s priority was gaining UN authorization for military operation in Syria, but that Turkey would nonetheless participate in an alternative operation if authorization wasn’t granted24. Furthermore, a tape leaked in March, which was not denied by Davutoğlu25, revealed that the government was seeking to fabricate grounds for military involvement in Syria. Hakan Fidan, Head of the Central Intelligence Agency, offered to arrange for Turkey to be attacked from Syrian soil 26.

Thus, the AKP is not taking issue with military involvement itself, but the actor towards which it is directed. Journalist Selvi argues that taking part in operations directed at the Islamic World would mean the end of Turkey’s Middle Eastern vision27. Does the reluctance of the AKP in combating ISIL at home and across borders demonstrate that it regards ISIL as an actor of the Islamic World?

A Decision to Make

Turkey must make a choice: either Sunni-Islamist identity will be prioritized, or good relations will be maintained with NATO while the PKK solution process is upheld. It will be difficult to choose the first, given increasing international hostility to Erdoğan, and the amount of political support the solution process has rendered the AKP.

 

Sources

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