Why does Turkey hesitate?
Interview with Nick Danforth
By Troels Boldt Rømer
TQT: Why has Turkey decided to join the anti-IS coalition now? And why did Turkey accept an influx of fighters and weapons through Turkey and to the Syrian battlefield for so long?
Danforth: Turkey’s involvement in Syria has left Erdogan in a position where he has a great deal at stake in making sure Assad doesn’t emerge victorious from this. Erdogan and [Turkey’s prime minister] Davutoglu have made it clear they oppose intervening against ISIS without doing something to ensure Assad isn’t the main beneficiary. It’s hard to argue with their insistence that bombing ISIS without addressing the broader context in which ISIS came to power is futile. But to your question I think most people looking at this from Washington would agree that doesn’t justify how tolerant they’ve been of ISIS up to this point.
TQT: You say Erdogan wants to “address the broader context” from which ISIS emerged. Speaking in terms of concrete action, what does that mean?
Danforth: I think for Erdogan “addressing the broader context” here really means getting rid of the Assad regime, although perhaps it could also include some scenario where parts of the regime, ideally without Assad himself, maintain limited power as part of a negotiated end to the fighting.
TQT: Does Erdogan have anything to lose in domestic politics by being too forceful towards the IS?
Danforth: Erdogan is in a difficult position domestically. He loses if he is seen as backing ISIS or condoning the terrible things it’s been doing. But he also loses if he’s seen as only joining the anti-ISIS coalition under pressure from Washington – or dragging Turkey even deeper into a quagmire in Syria, especially if it leads to Turkish casualties, military or civilian. He also loses if he’s seen as helping the PKK, or if he’s seen as turning a blind eye to ISIS atrocities against Kurdish civilians.
I think Erdogan thinks it would be great if the coalition could degrade ISIS with real but very low profile Turkish support.
TQT: “Real but low profile Turkish support” – can you expand on that?
Danforth: Things like intelligence sharing, increased domestic policing of foreign fighters, behind the scenes logistical support that doesn’t involve US planes taking off from runways in Turkey.
TQT: Why has the Turkish government not used the parliament-granted permission to intervene in the fighting in Syria with troops – e.g. in the battle of Kobane?
Danforth: It’s impossible not to sympathize with Kurdish guerillas defending Kobane against ISIS, but I think it’s only fair to recognize that a lot of people in Turkey remember the savagery that the PKK and YPG [the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish government, ed.] itself was capable of. I was struck by the slightly awkward language with which a few Western news outlets reported on the Kurdish female suicide bomber’s attack on ISIS a few days ago.
That said, I think the Turkish government knows that if ISIS commits a massacre against Kurds in Kobane with the Turkish army watching from across the border that really will be a huge blow to their peace process with the PKK. But up until now many of Turkey’s Kurdish leaders have also been clear that they don’t want direct Turkish military intervention in Kobane. They want Turkish support for the people defending the town now. Which is difficult because it seems from the Turkish government’s point of view they want to make sure that if they intervene they get credit for saving the Kurds and don’t give the PKK/YPG a victory it can claim credit for.
TQT: You comment on the “slightly ackward language” of the Western media regarding the female suicide bomber in Kobane – what do you mean by that?
Danforth: I think it’s great the world is rallying around Kobane, but I wish that didn’t involve quite as much romanticizing of the PKK and YPG. The PKK has certainly become more liberal in recent years, but there was the brutal Stalinist side of it too.
TQT: How does Erdogan look at the IS – as an enemy, a welcoming distraction for the West or something else? And what is Erdogan most afraid of – a self-confident Kurdistan on fast-track towards more independence or a strong ISIS-caliphate on the order side of the border?
Danforth: I certainly think by now Erdogan and Davutoglu have come to see ISIS as a potential nightmare for Turkey. Their biggest fear though might be getting involved in a Western intervention that doesn’t destroy ISIS or bring order to Syria, but instead just leaves Turkey to deal with a bigger, more vicious mess. As for worrying about Kurdistan, the Erdogan government has been remarkably pragmatic in its dealing with Barzani’s KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] in Iraq. The issue now seems less about an increasingly self-confident Kurdistan and more about an increasingly self-confident YPG/PKK.
TQT: How much of a responsibility does Turkey have for the current strength of IS?
Danforth: To come back to the first question, when the war in Syria started everyone, Western and Middle Eastern countries alike, as focused on bringing down the Assad regime. Turkey was more focused on backing people who were going to make that happen not vetting potential partners with an eye toward strategic or political blowback.
Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University. He has been writing for publications such as The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. ILLUSTRATION: Erdogan and Obama during the G20 conference, september 2009 [photo: The White House]