Turkey sidelines itself in US-led coalition against IS


Turkey as 'reluctant subcontractor'

Semih Idiz writes this week that Turkey has sidelined itself in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) due to its single-minded pursuit of the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad:

“Ankara’s insistence on a military defeat of the Assad regime appears to be a recipe for prolonging the Syrian civil war. Assad, who continues to get support from Moscow and Tehran, has proven his staying power. The West, meanwhile, much to [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s annoyance, has made it clear it will not put the boots on the ground that would be required to defeat Assad.

“The West has also made it clear that its first priority is to defeat IS, and not to go after Assad. The same applies with regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, which are all part of the US-led coalition against IS. The [Ahmet] Davutoglu government, however, continues to believe that targeting Assad should be the main priority, but has no power to bring this about.”

Kadri Gursel explains: “Turkey is hardly to be seen in the picture, neither in the small nor the big one [in the fight against IS]. Not because it lacks weight, but because it has refused to be an active member of the anti-IS coalition — ever since summer 2014 when it chose to withhold military support from its ‘strategic ally,’ the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as IS threatened Erbil after capturing Mosul.

“Turkey is not an active coalition member because it has refused to open its air bases to the use of coalition aircraft bombing IS. Had it opened those bases, especially the Incirlik base, the [Justice and Development Party's (AKP)] Turkey — so fond of the Sunni power image — would have become part of the coalition that would eventually liberate Mosul or Anbar, alleviating the Sunni sentiment of defeatism.

“AKP’s Turkey, however, chose to be the coalition’s reluctant subcontractor rather than its active member. Its essential motive was ideological. AKP ideologues see IS as a 'Sunni actor' and thus attribute the group a certain rationale.”

US envoy "reiterates" US policy on Assad

A test of Turkey’s willingness to be an active, rather than reluctant, participant in the anti-IS coalition could be the forthcoming attempt by Iraqi military and allied forces to retake Mosul. The use of the Incirlik air base would be an assist for the air campaign against IS. Turkey has so far held the use of the base hostage to a US commitment for a more assertive US policy to oust Assad.

Making his umpteenth visit to Turkey since his appointment as envoy in September 2014, presumably in part to try to get an agreement for use of the Incirlik air base, John Allen, in a statement released by the US Embassy in Ankara, lauded the “constructive” talks around the “shared efforts” of the United States and Turkey “to degrade and defeat ISIL [IS].” Allen “welcomed Turkey's support in training vetted Syrian opposition, noted recent Turkish actions to increase border security and restrict the flow of foreign fighters, and thanked Turkey for its generosity in hosting Syrian and Iraqi refugees displaced by violence.”

Allen did not mention either Incirlik or that Turkey recently closed one of the key border crossings for Syrians seeking to flee the carnage in Aleppo, as Mohammed al-Khatieb reported from Aleppo.

Nor did Allen clarify the US position on Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s Feb. 23 statement that Turkey expects Syrian fighters trained in Turkey to battle the Syrian government, as well as IS, as this column has reported.

Allen did, however, make a point to clarify, or reiterate, “that the United States' position on Assad has not changed. He has lost all legitimacy to govern, that conditions in Syria under his rule have led to the rise of ISIL and other terrorist groups, and that we continue to seek a negotiated political outcome to the Syrian conflict that does not in the end include Assad.”

Allen’s "reiteration" was interpreted as a reaction to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments on CBS’ "Face the Nation" March 15 that the United States would “have to negotiate in the end” with Assad, which enraged Turkish officials.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that invitations had been extended to UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and “a broad range of opposition organizations and groups,” as well as Syrian government officials. While many opposition figures refused to attend the first round of talks in February, as this column has reported, the announcement of a second round, which could include de Mistura, while perhaps still a thin reed, remains the only diplomatic track among Syrian parties since the collapse of the Geneva process last year.

Turkey’s hedging on IS may yet force a more honest presentation by US officials about the divisions between Ankara and Washington over Syria. A better outcome would of course be an agreement for the United States to use the Incirlik air base to strike terrorist bases in Syria and Iraq, because it is the right thing for a NATO ally to do, not as a result of a quid pro quo for a deeper US military commitment against the Syrian government. Americans are convinced of the threat from IS and worried about being drawn into another protracted conflict in the Middle East. A CNN/ORC poll last week indicated that 80% of Americans believe IS poses a “fairly serious” or “very serious” threat to the United States, and 79% are “somewhat worried” or “very worried” that the conflict could become a wider regional war.