Turkey remains a reactive regional power

Turkey remains a reactive regional power

The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), indicates that the jihadi group is far from being a spent force yet. The problem is still the lack of a well-organized fighting force on the ground to oppose the highly motivated ISIL fighters, who will undoubtedly be even more energized now.

TurkishPresident Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently been speaking out against this group, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu continues to play on the theme that ISIL is covertly allied with Syria’s Bashar al Assad. 

It is not clear what this claim is based on, but matters are bound to get even more confusing for him with reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is sending Iranian-backed Shiite forces to fight ISIL in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province. 

If Iran, which is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chief backers, is fighting ISIL through its proxies in Iraq and Syria, it is hard to see how the supposed Assad-ISIL alliance works. It seems that what Davutoğlu is trying to do is to keep the focus on al-Assad rather than on ISIL.

He and Erdoğan continue to believe that al-Assad should be the main target, and that once he is removed ISIL will also disappear. It is hard to see how they will convince others that this will be the case.

Washington remains focused on ISIL, which it sees as the main threat. This is corroborated by statements following recent visits by senior U.S. officials to Turkey. The bottom line is that the priorities of Ankara and Washington in Iraq and Syria still do not fully match up.

The U.S. argues that it too sees no future for al-Assad in Syria, but is making no moves to suggest that it is ready to expedite the al-Assad regime’s early demise. It also continues to believe that there can only be a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Turkish side, however, is still looking for a military defeat of al-Assad and his regime. It was encouraged after recent losses by al-Assad’s forces in Syria. Its new found ties with Saudi Arabia – which is also fervently opposed to al-Assad – has led officials in Ankara to believe that new regional alliances to topple the al-Assad regime are in the making.

However, al-Assad’s proven staying power and the strong support he gets from Moscow and Tehran belie such expectations. No amount of assistance to the Syrian opposition by Turkey and Saudi Arabia is likely to change this anytime soon. 

The fact that this assistance will most likely not include heavy weaponry that would make a significant difference on the ground also points to this. The U.S. and other Western countries remain opposed to sending such weapons to Syria in case they fall into the wrong hands.

All of this means that the Syrian crisis has some distance to go yet before it burns itself out. In the meantime, there seems to be little Turkey can do to change the course of events. 

In Iraq, on the other hand, the tables have turned again. Until recently, it was the U.S. that appeared keen to maintain Iraq’s unity, and which was castigating the Iraqi Kurds for endangering this. Recent high-level contacts between U.S. and Kurdish government officials indicate, however, that Washington may be changing tack and preparing to deepen independent ties with northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

For its part, Turkey is once again following with concern all the recent talk about an “independent Kurdistan,” and what this might mean in terms of its own Kurds. There is, however, little to suggest that Ankara has any control over developments in this regard. 

Generally, Turkey continues to appear to be a reactive - not a proactive - regional power. It clearly needs to reassess its regional role in order to become influential again. But this does not look likely to happen soon.

Ankara will therefore continue to muddle through this Middle Eastern maze, which is strewn with minefields. It will hope for the best, as matters get progressively worse across the region.