Turkey ‘a difficult ally’ set to frustrate West: Professor

Turkey ‘a difficult ally’ set to frustrate West: Professor

Barçın Yinanç ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey ‘a difficult ally’ set to frustrate West: Professor

Recognition must be given to Turkey’s diverging interests based on its geographical position, and Turkey must be persuaded to elicit its cooperation, according to Professor İlter Turan (L). HÜRRİYET photo, Levent KULU

The release of 49 Turkish hostages held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) could free Ankara’s hand in dealing with the jihadist group, but the country is unlikely to offer the level of support in the fight against the extremists that is demanded by the West, according to an expert.

“Turkey is moving into a category of countries with which members of the Atlantic community cooperate when there are things to cooperate about on a temporary basis, but they don’t think of it as belonging to the same community,” he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Reading the Western press, one would get the impression Turkey is portrayed as a country that is unwilling to fight ISIL, even if it is not supportive of it. To what degree did the 49 hostages shape Turkish policy?

For a long time, the Turkish government has been tolerating the activities of forces on Turkish soil if they contribute to the downfall of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. They initially made the calculation that al-Assad would go quickly, but that has not been borne out. Rather than adjusting policy, the government chose to escalate support to all groups that were opposed to al-Assad. Some of those groups are of questionable standing internationally and ought to be of questionable standing in Turkey.

It is understandable that Turkey was worried that something bad would happen to the 49 hostages if it engaged in overt actions against ISIL. But let us examine the logical structure of the situation; if the Turkish government says "I cannot do very much as I have 49 people there," ISIL would want to hold them as long as possible in order to paralyze the ability of the government to contribute to the allied efforts to deal with ISIL. Fortunately, this debate is now behind us. The hostages were freed, we are told, through the efforts of the Turkish intelligence agency [National Intelligence Organization - MİT].

In your view, how do you think Turkey secured the release of the 49 hostages?

What we know so far is that it was a carefully planned operation which did not preclude the use of armed action as a means of last resort. We are also told that no ransom was paid and no political commitments were made. We are also told that the operation was realized with the means available to Turkey and foreign assistance was declined. It is unusual that the 49 hostages were kept together all the time and that they were moved as a group over such distances safely. It is to be admired, but more information is necessary to understand how this was all done.

Let’s talk about the West’s outlook on Turkey before and after the release of hostages. Has there been a campaign against Turkey via the press triggered by the U.S. administration?

The West’s evaluations of Turkish behavior are based on their observation of what is happening. It is not necessarily ill-intentioned; they might have mistaken religious activity by other groups as if it were supportive of ISIL, but the fact is that the Turkish government has been hesitant in condemning what has been happening. If I were in their shoes, I am not sure that I would think differently than what the Western press is writing now.

It is no secret that Turkish cooperation in Transatlantic security efforts can no longer be taken for granted. Recognition has to be accorded to its diverging interests and it has to be persuaded to elicit its cooperation. There is a general concern among the Transatlantic public that they can no longer rely on Turkey. This derives in part from Western expectations based on previous experience, but it also derives in part from the volatile and unpredictable behavior of Turkey, compounded sometimes by vitriolic rhetoric.

If you would have chosen a headline for the Wall Street Journal's editorial, what would you have written instead of ‘Turkey: A non-ally?’

“Turkey: A difficult ally,” an ally whose cooperation can no longer be taken for granted, might have been better. Certainly, suggesting that Turkey is no longer an ally is an inaccurate depiction of the situation.

Do you think Turkey’s attitude toward ISIL will change? Will it be more willing to participate in the U.S. coalition that could eventually change perceptions in the West?

Now that the hostages are free, Turkey has a freer hand in taking part in the coalition efforts. While I do not expect Turkey to change its policy of not letting its facilities be used for armed action, a more cooperative approach could certainly gradually transform the light in which Turkey is perceived among members of the Atlantic community.

Let’s talk about the mentality.

I think in terms of pure, cold analysis, the emergence of ISIL has brought up consequences that many countries, including Turkey, may have initially found desirable. The Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad was very exclusionary and the possibility of changing it seemed nil. Increasingly, the Sunni tribes supported a set of political movements that would bring an end to the al-Maliki regime, an outcome that Turkey also desired. Turkey does not want an exclusively Shiite regime in its south. Now al-Maliki is gone, in part owing to the danger that ISIL presented.

Al-Assad, on the other hand, is trying to use ISIL to legitimize himself in international circles by presenting himself as an antidote, offering cooperation in return for supporting his regime.
In the case of the U.S., the Americans were trying to build an inclusive regime in Iraq but could not pressure al-Maliki into leaving and now Iraq has a new, hopefully more inclusive government. ISIL has also opened the path to U.S.-Iranian cooperation on common security questions. In short, until it began to present a clear danger, ISIL’s activities were producing beneficial results for many of the parties concerned. But it has now become a big and serious problem.

In the case of Turkey, the danger it represents is not just a thorn in its relations with its allies, but also as a danger to its domestic peace. There is no question that there are people in Turkey who are sympathetic to ISIL. These people may produce incidents that may violate Turkey’s domestic peace in a variety of ways. Let’s also not forget that ISIL started as a terrorist movement. It is evolving into a regular force but if it is defeated, it may revert back into a terrorist movement targeting Turkey and others.

In terms of the level of sympathy, is it at normal levels in any Muslim country? Marginals exist in every country, after all. In light of the criticism that conservatism has risen because of the government endorsing political Islam, has this contributed to a breeding ground in Turkey?

Sympathy for such movements develop in concentric circles; there is a narrow base of people who actually go and join ISIL to fight. Then there are the broadening sympathy circles that include large groups of people, including some who are affiliated with the government. These circles offer various degrees of support. In addition, there are circles close to the government that are highly suspicious of Western motives in the region. Their reactions to this movement are not as strong as those you encounter in the West.

Finally, Turks are prone to not trusting others and going it alone. Therefore they are less likely to take into consideration the worries of other friendly countries. It is revealing that Turkish reaction to ISIL has so far not even been as strong as those of Arab regimes. This is not so much because of Islam, but because of deep Turkish suspicion of the outside world – a sort of inward-looking nationalist feeling.

How can ISIL still recruit people from Turkey? It previously threatened Turkey and in particular it took 49 hostages.

We don’t have any reliable studies of the profile of people joining ISIL. I am not persuaded that the people who have joined it know the facts you are referring to, or that they necessarily believe them when they read it in the papers or hear it in the news.

Looking back, what will be your general analysis?

The Turkish government has difficulty in accepting the fact that ISIL is a highly problematic organization and that its current position regarding ISIL is moving Turkey away from the collective security community to which it has belonged since World War II. Turkey is moving into a category of countries with which members of the Atlantic community cooperate when there are things on which to cooperate on a temporary basis, but they don’t think of it as belonging to the same community. Maintaining its current posture, Turkey is putting itself into a position where it will find itself distanced from the Atlantic community with nothing to replace it.

As much as Turkey would like to be an autonomous actor in international politics, being an autonomous actor does not liberate you from limitations and constraints of being in a world in which there are other actors. Therefore, you have to calculate how your actions in one domain affect your linkages to other actors on the world stage.



İlter Turan was born in 1941 in Istanbul. Currently a political science professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, he served as the university's president between 1998 and 2001. Previously, he served as professor at Koç University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993) and held visiting appointments at various U.S. and British universities.

Turan is a former president of the Turkish Political Science Association and the program chair of the 21st World Congress of the International Political Science Association in Santiago in July 2009.

He serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics and foreign policy. His recent writings have been on the politics of water, the Turkish Parliament and Turkish political parties.