Ankara faces difficult choices on ISIL

Ankara faces difficult choices on ISIL

United States President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron want an international coalition that will fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL). The coalition they propose includes Turkey. The U.S. and Britain are willing to provide air power, weapons and military advice, and expect regional countries to help the Iraqi military fight ISIL effectively on the ground.

This is what was discussed during last week’s NATO summit in Wales and what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed in Ankara the other day. It will also be the main item on the agenda at the two-day meeting in Saudi Arabia, which will include the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and of course the U.S. that are the driving force behind this meeting.

Saudi Arabia has been warning that ISIL poses a common threat to all and requires a unified stance, suggesting they will join any coalition against ISIL. Egypt, Jordan, and others in the region may do so too. There are serious problems for Turkey though.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been arguing that Ankara has to tread cautiously because of the 49 Turkish hostages, including Turkey’s Mosul Consul General, that are still being held by ISIL militants.

Past experience indicates, however, that Ankara would still be reluctant if there were no hostages involved.

There are a number of reasons for this, including a desire not to appear to be a key member of any Western led military coalition that does not have the approval of the United Nations Security Council against an Islamic nation.

But in this case it has to consider more than just this or the possibility of endangering the lives of the Turks being held by ISIL. Turkish involvement could have undesirable spill-over effects, not the least of which is that ISIL carries its terror campaign to Turkey itself given Turkey’s proximity to the region and its porous long border with Syria.

There is also the prospect that Turkey may find itself fighting alongside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against ISIL, an idea that is abhorrent to the Turkish armed forces and most Turks. The PKK, which in the eyes of Turkey is a deadly terrorist organization, has nevertheless proved its worth against ISIL in Northern Iraq.

This has resulted in various western analysts on channels such as CNN International suggesting the group – which is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and a number of European countries - should be used against ISIL.

Turkey is already wary that some of the weapons that the West has started to supply to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, as well as the Iraqi security forces, will find their way into PKK hands and be used against the Turkish security forces.

Given this overall picture the easiest thing for Ankara is to avoid open involvement against ISIL, while waiting for others to take care of it, and maintain its guard against the PKK. It could also give behind-the-scenes support against ISIL in order to appease its western allies, while appearing not to be doing so in order not to incur the wrath of this group.

It is clear, however, that opting to go in one of these directions will have severe consequences for Turkey, loosing credibility in the West, as well as its influence in the region, especially if the U.S. convinces Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and even Qatar to fight actively against ISIL.

If the fight against ISIL turns out to be successful without Turkey’s active support this will also be used by the opposition at home against President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu.

There are many “ifs” involved in all this, but none of the options appear to be that great for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, who have said many lofty things in the past about Turkey’s role and influence in the Middle East, but who now face difficult choices.  

As they say, talk is cheap and it is actions that will now show what kind of real regional leadership potential they have, if indeed, they have any.