Obama on ISIL and Turkey: Not too late to do it right
It was not a surprise that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declined to put his signature down on the document to commit Turkey to active military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), together with the U.S. and a number of Arab states.
Days ago it was pretty obvious that Turkey would be on the same front with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, opening its territory, military and civilian bases (including İncirlik) for intelligence sharing, logistical and humanitarian support, but not taking part in direct military action. (HDN, September 10, 2014)
The main excuse for Ankara is the 49 people, including the Turkish Consul General in Mosul, taken captive by ISIL on June 11, who are still being held. There is a fierce domestic debate about whether this was a failure of the government by not withdrawing the people from the consulate on time, despite incoming signals about an ISIL raid, but that is not relevant now. What is relevant is the fact that the presence of those captives limits Turkey’s actions against ISIL.
That’s why the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry - who talked to the Turkish leadership, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu - said before leaving Jeddah, where the to be “anti-ISIL coalition” held its first meeting, that he “understood” Turkey’s position.
But the captives are not the only reason for Turkey’s reluctance. ISIL is a sectarian organization claiming to be the true representatives of Sunni Islam, trying to justify its murders with religious belief. Its main target in Iraq are Shiites who turn their eyes to Iran (and ironically enough, to the U.S.) for help. In Syria, which has been devastated by civil war for the last three years, the Bashar al-Assad regime is based on the Alawite minority that has been backed by Iran (and Russia). Turkey, with its Alevi population and secular administrative tradition, despite its predominantly Sunni population, has long and problematic borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, the latter also being a historical rival in regional politics.
There is already an ongoing debate about Turkey’s unnecessarily deep involvement in the Syrian unrest. The Erdoğan administration is already looking for an exit from that policy, especially after the ISIL kidnappings; it has started to cost too much for Ankara to continue as before.
Plus, Turkey is not the only country that has refrained from direct military action but given full support on intelligence, logistical and humanitarian aid – there is also Germany, for example.
But let’s ask a series of questions: What if U.S. President Barack Obama had acted earlier on Syria, when his country’s help could have really changed the game there, such as during the Tahrir Revolution in Egypt in 2011? What if Turkey had been able to receive meaningful support from its U.S. and European allies, instead of struggling to step onto the Syrian stage with compromised forces under the influence of centrifugal forces in the Middle East? What if the Syrian fight had been over by now without thousands of U.S. and European passport holders starting their jihadist careers in Syria (and Iraq)? Having been too late in Syria, Obama has found himself having to deal with both Syria and Iraq together under much worse circumstances.
It’s never too late to make something right. But what must to be avoided is an attempt to train and arm so-called “moderate” Islamists against the radicals of today. For the sake of the peace of the people of our old continent, Mr. Obama, please do not build new incubators for new Osama bin Ladens.