Since the formation of the coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the main topic in Turkey has been focused on what the country will provide for the coalition. However, which countries Turkey will side with is equally important. This is because Turkey finds itself on opposite fronts on some issues with the various countries with which it is siding on the same anti-ISIL front.
First of all, by joining the U.S.-led coalition, Turkey has emphasized its alignment with the Trans-Atlantic alliance. Yet there are three points where Turkey and the U.S. diverge. One of them is northern Syria (Rojava). In other words: the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which dominates Rojava. The U.S. aims to bring the PYD under the same roof as the Free Syrian Army, which it has been officially supporting. However, Ankara wants the PYD to distance itself from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first. This disagreement between the two countries takes shape in the discussion about the buffer zone.
Moreover, the PYD is the most crucial element of the anti-ISIL fight on the ground. If Turkey is on the frontline, it will have to coordinate closely with the PYD.
Another problematic issue with the U.S. is al-Assad. Washington prioritizes the fight against ISIL and has pushed al-Assad aside in its agenda for a while. Turkey’s Syria policy, on the other hand, is still centered on al-Assad.
The third problematic issue is Egypt. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared many times that he will not accept Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and has criticized the U.S. due to the country’s good relationship with him. Moreover, Egypt is also a member of the anti-ISIL coalition.
The most problematic nations from Turkey’s perspective are the Gulf countries. Ankara’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been sour for a long while, mainly due to differing stances on the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey and Qatar have been strongly and publicly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan have strongly opposed the Islamist organization. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain even withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar last year.
The formation of the anti-ISIL coalition has changed these dynamics, however. Qatar has expelled seven Muslim Brotherhood leaders upon pressure from the U.S. and Gulf countries. The fact that Turkey welcomed two of them, along with its continuous support for Hamas, presents other impediments to its relationship with these countries.
Another critical country is Iran. Tehran will never give up on al-Assad, since his immense support for Hezbollah is existential for Iran. This problem has been overlooked until now by making a distinction between Iran’s struggle against ISIL in Iraq and its attitude toward Syria. However, the war in Iraq and Syria has become one. Therefore this issue stands like a powder keg on the Turkey-Iran line.
As President Barack Obama said, this war will be long. The rising human and material losses and the increasing threat to Turkish territory will further deepen the existing fault lines between these countries.
Since insecurity, instability and uncertainty dominate the region, Turkey needs regional allies projecting security and stability more than ever. The longer and deeper the war, the stronger this need will become. Apparently this is exactly why members of the coalition, such as Qatar, chose to sideline existing problems with other member states.
Furthermore, today the only countries offering stability in the region are Egypt, Israel and Iran. Its ongoing tensions with Egypt and Israel will narrow down Turkey’s room for maneuver.
The fight against ISIL is creating a completely new equation in the region, forcing old enemies to unify and form new alliances. On this extremely uncertain and slippery ground, Turkey needs to be flexible enough to address these stark breakdowns. It must do so not only to suffer the least harm but also to emerge out of this destruction as a constructive power.