As the battle against the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they now call themselves) heats up south of Turkey's border, Ankara has been accused of awkwardly sitting on the sidelines as its allies fight the organization -- or, even worse, providing support to the group.
But is the Turkish government now preparing to enter the battle against ISIS? In recent days, Turkish tanks have been deployed along the Syrian border, in an area where Kurdish fighters are battling an ISIS advance (resulting in a wave of refugees entering Turkey). More significantly, the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forwarded to parliament a motion that would allow Turkey to send troops into both Syria and Iraq (a vote on the bill, which is almost certain to pass, is expected on Thursday). Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The mandate the Turkish government is seeking from the Parliament to authorize the army to send troops into Iraq and Syria to deal with growing threat of extremist jihadists does also include opening its bases to foreign troops, a senior government official has said, signalling about potential Turkish contribution to the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The release a few days ago of the group of 49 Turks being held hostage in the Iraqi city of Mosul by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself) signals the end of one crisis for Ankara but by no means the end of Turkey's troubled entanglement with ISIS or the danger that the rise of group poses for Turkish interests and security.
Certainly, despite the good feelings created by the release, major questions remain about just how Ankara was able to get ISIS to give up a group that provided it with enough leverage to keep Turkey out of the military efforts against the extremist organization. Turkish officials have insisted that no ransom was paid, but reports in the Turkish press suggest that the hostages' release may have been part of a simultaneous release of ISIS members being held by another rebel group in Syria.
In a blog post in May, I described the "urbanization" of Turkey's Syrian refugee population -- which now numbers over one million -- and the potential problems this development poses for Ankara, especially in economic terms, with the potential for conflict as struggling Syrians moving into Turkish cities start competing with locals for work.
In recent days, this kind of potential conflict appears to have become a reality. On Sunday, some 1,000 people in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş marched against the presence of Syrian migrants in their city and then reportedly went on to remove Arabic signs from stores and attack a car with Syrian license plates. And today in Adana, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a group of masked men armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian-owned businesses and shattered their windows.
Writing for the Al Monitor website, Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec provides statistics from southeast Turkey that give some context for the growing tension:
Unemployment is rising faster in provinces where Syrians congregate. Employers prefer to employ Syrians, who make half the average Turkish wages and cost them about a third as much as a Turkish worker overall.
Like the rest of Syria's neighbors, Turkey has found itself dealing with severe problems and worries resulting from the bloody conflict next door. From taking in a massive number of refugees to figuring out how to deal with the violent spillover from the Syrian conflict, Ankara faces a series of difficult policy choices.
A year ago, the International Crisis Group took a look at the challenges the crisis in Syria posed for Turkey, suggesting:
Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria. Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would likewise do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey, in particular to Hatay province.
This week, ICG released a followup report, one that find Ankara still dangerously vulnerable to what's happening in Syria. From the report:
It's not a stretch to say that the two leaders of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) loath each other. But the two, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AKP and the CHP's Kemal Kilicdaroglu, have in recent days started taking things to new heights.
During a recent round of meetings in Brussels, Kilicdaroglu, who heads the secularist CHP, likened Erdogan to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, saying there were only "shades of difference" between the two. "Both are oppressive, both have special courts and prosecutors. Media bosses call and ask which journalist is to be put [in jail]. Instructions are given to media. What difference do they have in terms of democracy?" Kilicdaroglu told reporters.
Erdogan, in turn, is suing his political rival for defamation, asking for one million Turkish lira (about $560,000) in compensation. Even more sensationally, the PM is accusing the CHP of being in bed with some of the individual who were behind the May 11 twin bombings that rocked the city of Reyhanli, located near the Syrian border, and killed 51 people. Reports Today's Zaman:
According to the prime minister, the government and security forces have documents that clearly prove the claim that the two suspected bombers were the same men that drove a CHP delegation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's residence in March.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington last week hoping to get Washington to commit to taking a more assertive stance on Syria, but in the end left with very little of what he wanted.
In fact, if anyone changed their positions during the visit, it was the normally strong-headed Erdogan, who came away from his meeting with President Barack Obama in support of Washington's efforts to put together an international conference on solving the crisis in Syria, dubbed Geneva II. Erdogan had previously been dismissive of such a diplomatic effort, calling it a stall tactic by the Assad regime and its supporters, but in Washington he sang a different tune, saying he was now in favor of Geneva II, particularly since Russia -- Assad's main supporter -- and China are now expected to participate.
Veteran Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar, writing for the Al Monitor website, explains how the White House got Erdogan to change positions:
The Americans pampered Erdogan enough to twist his arm without hurting and enabled him to showcase his Washington visit to the Turkish public as a victorious diplomatic fanfare. The meeting of delegations at the White House was unprecedentedly crowded with 1+13, that is in addition to Erdogan and Obama, there were 13 others on both sides. Americans accommodated the Turkish whim for this ludicrous number clearly with prospects of possible profits.
Like most other countries, Turkey has no desire to see the current Syrian regime stay in power but also has little appetite for intervening militarily in Syria. At the same time, like many of its neighbors, Ankara is finding itself dealing with a growing Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis, one that could have a disruptive effect on Turkey's own domestic affairs.
A new report released today the International Crisis Group takes a look at this dynamic, suggesting that Ankara needs to recalibrate its Syria policy if it wants to keep the effects of the conflict in that country from spilling across the border. From the ICG's report:
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
Embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad probably gets very few visitors these days, and rightly so. Still, it appears Assad can count on the friendship of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, which recently sent a high-level delegation to visit the Syrian autocrat in Damascus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A parliamentary delegation from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early yesterday. The three-member group, which consisted of deputy leader Şafak Pavey and deputies from the neighboring Hatay province, Hasan Akgöl and Mevlut Dudu, was in Syria following an invitation from al-Assad, according to CHP sources.
Al-Assad told the team there was “a need to distinguish between the stance of the Turkish people, who back stability in Syria, and the positions of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which supports terrorism.
“The Syrian people appreciates the position adopted by forces and parties in Turkey that reject the Erdoğan government’s negative impact on our societies, which are multi-religious and multi-ethnic,” al-Assad added.
Turkey's forcing down of a Syrian civilian jet earlier this month on it way from Moscow to Damascus on suspicion that it was carrying military cargo was certainly a bold move by a country intent on showing its regional leadership. But two weeks later, the issue of the plane's cargo appears to remain a bone of contention between Ankara and Moscow, which has been both increasing its political and economic cooperation with Turkey while, at the same time, watching its growing regional ambitions with some concern.
The good news for Ankara from last night's presidential debate on foreign policy issues was that, unlike in one of the Republican primary debates, where Texas Governor Rick Perry referred to Turkey as being ruled by "Islamic terrorists," there was really very little mention of the country -- positive or negative -- by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
The bad news was that whatever was said on what is perhaps the most critical issue facing Turkey right now -- the continuing crisis in Syria -- made it crystal clear that Ankara is far ahead of Washington when it comes to pushing for greater military action against the Assad regime.
While Ankara has been active in supporting the Syrian opposition, both in political and -- according to various reports -- military terms, and has in recent weeks beefed up its military presence along the Syrian border and retaliated with its own artillery after Syrian mortars landed in Turkish territory, both Obama and Romney showed little appetite for the United States to get militarily involved in Syria.
Asked about the crisis there by moderator Bob Schieffer, President Obama responded:
....what we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking, and that’s why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. And we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.
Romney, meanwhile, echoed Obama, simply saying, "We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict."