Is Turkey toughening its position against ISIL?
Yesterday marked three important developments in areas related to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). First, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that months-long talks between Ankara and Washington to train and equip the moderate Syrian oppositions have been finalized and have yielded a draft of a memorandum of understanding (MoU).
Spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç informed reporters that the MoU will be signed in the coming days and training will likely begin in March, although he did not give an exact time for either signing the document or the start of the program.
The program envisages the training and equipping of a total of 15,000 Syrians in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia over three years. The program is seen as part of an international campaign against ISIL jihadists who occupy a considerable amount of territory inside Syria, but they will also undertake the mission of toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime - though this is not regarded as the primary objective at the moment.
Turkey and the U.S. have been talking to sort this deal out since last autumn, but the process was extended due to major disagreements between the two parties. The main point on which the two allies were thinking differently was the priority of such a campaign, with Turkey putting the ouster of al-Assad as the primary target and the U.S. describing ISIL as the biggest threat to the Middle East.
The second important development was the news that Turkey’s top soldier, Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, was to represent Turkey at an important security meeting to be held in Saudi Arabia with the purpose of coordinating the joint military campaign against ISIL. The meeting comes right after Jordan and Egypt launched their own aerial bombardment campaign against ISIL positions in Iraq-Syria and Libya, respectively.
Different from almost all regional and Western countries, Turkey is hesitant about getting involved in the military campaign - directly or indirectly - against ISIL, despite strong pressure from its main ally, the U.S. Turkey has made clear that it will not allow its allies to use its military bases and air space against the jihadists unless they prioritize the toppling of al-Assad. It was in this framework that General Özel decided to send a lower ranking military officer to a security meeting in Washington in recent weeks, sparking questions over Turkey’s willingness to fight against ISIL. That is why Özel’s decision to attend a similar meeting in Saudi Arabia is worth looking into further.
The third piece of news is that Turkey will be represented at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that is set to take place today in Washington D.C., with Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz in attendance. In recent weeks, the government was planning to assign Interior Minister Efkan Ala to attend this summit, but its decision has obviously changed.
The Washington summit follows the fatal Paris and Copenhagen attacks, revealing the importance of dealing with foreign fighters recruited by extremist organizations but returning to their home countries to carry out terrorist attacks. Turkey’s high-level participation in the summit is an important development to convince the world that Ankara is not reluctant on such issues, and it has the potential of being targeted in such terrorist attacks.
It’s too early to judge whether Turkey is shifting its inactive position against ISIL, but all these developments indicate a certain mobilization on Turkey’s side. However, it’s obvious that Turkey needs to do more to break the growing global perception that it tolerates ISIL’s operations along its border, in return for ISIL not causing much trouble inside Turkey.