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Turkey may now regret its earlier decision to allow and support un-vetted foreign fighters into Syria through their borders. Yet, even though ISIS fighters kidnapped Turkish diplomats in Mosul, Ankara is sticking to its policy of demanding change in Syria and Iraq.
On 11 June 2014, fighters from the Islamic State (IS) stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped forty-nine consulate staff and their family members. The hostage crisis has posed a set of unique challenges for Turkish foreign policy makers seeking to craft a new policy for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Turkey has strongly advocated for the United States to use military force to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. However, in Iraq, Ankara has opted for a more cautious policy and has spoken out against the prospect of US airstrikes.
What explains the difference? In Syria, Turkey has, since August 2011, viewed Assad as the root cause of the extremist problem. Moreover, at about the same time, Turkish intelligence concluded that Bashar’s grip on power was weak, and that the Syrian dictator would be overthrown in relatively short order. In turn, Ankara made a number of short-term decisions, based on the premise that Assad would soon be forced from power.
To hasten the process, Turkey opened its border to foreign fighters, whilst also welcoming Syrian refugees. For Ankara, the influx of foreign fighters was initially seen as a means to an end, rather than a potential security problem. Turkey’s initial Syria policy was built on the idea that once Assad was overthrown, the government in waiting – which Turkey was actively seeking to build – would then be able to quickly move in to Damascus, re-establish central control, and using its political legitimacy, could then act decisively to defeat the foreign fighters that Ankara had allowed to transit its border.
As the conflict dragged on Turkey continued to maintain its open border policy, while also encouraging the United States to take decisive military action. Yet, as the number of Westerners began flocking to radical groups like Al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and Al-Qa’ida breakaway ISIS, European capitals began to pressure Turkey to take more decisive steps to prevent the transit of foreign fighters. Turkey, in turn, prodded the EU to be more forthcoming with intelligence about these fighters. Ankara argued that Turkey – which has lax visa requirements for the Eurozone countries – could not simply turn Europeans away without due cause.
Over time, the two sides came to an agreement and Ankara – as of about a year ago – did take decisive steps to crack down on the number of foreigners transiting Turkey. Ankara is also reported to have played a key role in convincing its preferred proxy in the Syrian conflict, Ahrar al-Sham – a Salafi rebel group that is part of the Islamic Front alliance – to distance itself from JN. This effort moved in parallel to the Turkish decision to list JN as a terror group in June. The decision appears to have been part of a broader effort that included input from Saudi Arabia and the United States to pursue a more coherent effort to arm certain rebel groups that will fight both ISIS and the Assad regime.
In Iraq, Ankara appears to have been caught off guard by the ISIS’ rapid take over of Mosul. Turkey had not evacuated its consular staff and did not appear to have formulated contingency plans to evacuate its staff from the compound. Turkish policymakers have since adopted a dual pronged approach to the conflict. Prime Minister Erdogan has cautioned against US air strikes; arguing that they could result in high number of civilian causalities.
Turkey’s hesitance stems from the potential threats to its citizens currently being held hostage, as well as its feelings about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For Turkey, Iraq’s current malaise is a result of Maliki’s sectarianism policies, which Ankara feels were indirectly supported by the United States via its steadfast political support for Maliki. Thus, in addition to the threat to its citizens, Turkey would prefer that the US coerce Maliki to make political changes, before decisively intervening on his behalf.
In parallel, Turkey’s Kurdistan policy is also starting to bear fruit. Ankara’s approach to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is rooted in Turkey’s historic conflict with its own Kurdish citizens. To undercut the popular appeal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey has supported the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Kurdistan Regional Government. This approach is aimed at empowering an alternative brand of Kurdish nationalism to that of the PKK. In tandem, Turkey’s investments in the KRG, as well as its facilitation of Kurdish oil exports, has made Ankara an indispensible partner for the KRG’s energy exports moving forward.
These policies have been successful. Ankara has reasonably assumed that prospect of Kurdish independence is still a ways off, and has instead embraced a concept of blurred borders, whereby Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey can more easily move back and forth over the borders of other Kurdish majority regions in neighbouring countries. To be sure, Turkey was ill prepared for the ISIS’ rapid advance – and the subsequent Kurdish take-over of Kirkuk – but the Kurdistan policy has placed Ankara in the best position to weather the storm of any Kurdish move to declare independence. As of now, Turkey is eager for Iraq to retain its territorial integrity, but it has positioned itself to benefit from increased Kurdish autonomy.
More broadly, Ankara still feels as if it is ‘playing the long game in the Middle East.’ Thus, even though it has suffered numerous political setbacks in the past couple of years, Turkey still feels as if it standing on ‘the right side of history’ and that it stands to benefit from the eventual collapse of the old-Arab order. Turkey, however, has few levers to directly influence political change in Iraq. Turkey is therefore likely to retain its pre-Arab revolt enthusiasm for political change in the region, albeit in a far more subdued manner than its very vocal support of Islamist political parties during the Arab revolts. In Syria, Turkey is certain to continue to support policies the overthrow of Assad and, via the introduction of significant political changes, the installation of a more inclusive government in Iraq.
Aaron Stein (@aaronstein1) is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specialising in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk and Arms Control Wonk.