Turkey’s sharp turn on anti-ISIL fight

Turkey’s sharp turn on anti-ISIL fight

“We cannot say it’s not our business,” said Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Sept. 26. “A fight is going on along our 1,250 kilometer-long borders.”

He was talking about Turkey’s southern borders with Syria (some 910 km) and Iraq, where a serious fight is ongoing to stop the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Erdoğan had just returned from the U.N. General Assembly talks in New York, where he met with top U.S. decision makers on Turkey’s contribution to the international anti-ISIL coalition.

Turkey’s stance regarding ISIL has seen a sharp turn over the past week, after 49 people from Turkey’s Consulate General in Mosul, Iraq, were freed on Sept. 20, having spent 102 days in captivity in the hands of ISIL.

Before the release, Turkey’s contribution was limited to intelligence sharing and law enforcement to stop foreign fighters, as well as opening its bases for logistical and humanitarian support. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declined to take part in any military operation in the anti-ISIL fight in the U.S.-led coalition’s Jeddah meeting, and Turkey’s position in NATO planning has been the same.

After getting all hostages back alive, President Erdoğan had said before departing for the U.N. talks that refusing to take part in military operations was a part of the bargaining with ISIL and “was for the day,” meaning the day of their release.

The Turkish position has indeed changed since then. In particular, after a meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, during which Erdoğan received a telephone call from President Barack Obama from on board Air Force One, Erdoğan told reporters on his presidential plane returning to Turkey that Ankara “will do whatever is needed” against ISIL.

Of course, “whatever is needed” has certain limitations linked to Turkey’s needs. Ankara prioritizes safe havens and no-fly zones on the Syrian side of the border for refugees, whose numbers already approach 1.5 million, and training and equipping of the “moderate” Syrian opposition, which has been fighting to topple Bashar al-Assad for the last three years. In fact, that is a grey area where the priorities of the Turkish government do not actually match with many Western or Arab countries.

For the first time on Friday, Erdoğan also did not rule out the possibility of involving the Turkish Army and Navy, along with the Air Force, in such an effort. He stressed that Turkey’s contribution, especially for the land forces, would be responsive if any assault is made on its borders, and be within the NATO planning. “We have our armed forces for such occasions,” Erdoğan said, referring to the defense of borders.

This weekend seems to be a critical one regarding Turkey’s final position. Erdoğan will hold meetings with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other members of the Cabinet and security bureaucracy to shape that position. Davutoğlu will possibly make Turkey’s position official through a Cabinet meeting on Monday, and perhaps Erdoğan will declare it during his opening speech of the legislative year at Parliament on Oct. 1. On Oct. 2, Parliament is set to vote for government motions requesting permission for military operations across the borders, if necessary regarding Syria and Iraq. This would make clear Turkey’s next step.