Turkey seeks behind-scene role in NATO coalition
ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey is the big Muslim power that sits atop raging conflicts in Iraq and Syria, so it might be expected to take a leading role in the NATO coalition announced this month to take on the Islamic State group.
Instead it has told allies that it will stay quietly behind the scenes, keeping its soldiers out of combat operations and even declining to allow NATO to use its bases or territories to launch air attacks.
The reticence has roots in two dilemmas: the Islamic State group holds dozens of Turkish hostages, including diplomats, and Turkey is wary of boosting its rebellious Kurdish minority in the battle against Islamic State group enemies in Iraq.
Turkey’s position is complicated by its eagerness to uproot the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, which led to tolerance of anti-Assad Islamist fighters taking refuge on its side of the Syrian border — and may have given the Islamic State group some breathing room in Turkey. More recently, it has been forced to confront the threat that the group posed.
Western concerns that Turkey was tacitly tolerating the Islamic State group have been allayed by Turkey’s strong statements of condemnation of the group and steps to rein it in, including kicking out suspected Islamic State group sympathizers.
But while expressing public support for Turkey, NATO allies are quietly saying they would like more action from their ally.
They would chiefly like to see Turkey tighten its border controls, stem the flow of fighters transiting Turkey from Western Countries and the Middle East, and crack down on oil smuggling from Syria that finances the Islamic State group. They could also benefit from closer intelligence cooperation and possibly the use of Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey as a base from which to launch strikes against the group.
Western governments have been alarmed by a trend of the Islamic State group managing to smuggle Iraqi and Syrian oil across its borders. Turkey has cracked down, but analysts say that Turkey has simply not been able to police the smuggling across more than 750 miles of border with Iraq and Syria.
Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were in Ankara last week on successive trips to press Turkey on its role, meeting with officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But they failed to win pledges for support of combat operations— at least publicly. Both expressed understanding for the delicate position Turkey was in.
Turkey also declined to sign a U.S. brokered statement by Middle Eastern countries last week repudiating the Islamic State group and pledging to fight it.
Along with fears over the fate of the 49 hostages seized from the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Turkey also finds its hands ties on fighting the Islamic State group because of its three-decade long conflict with the Kurdish minority that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Last year, Kurdish rebels declared a cease-fire and began withdrawing fighters from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq, but tensions have risen recently as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has accused Turkey of not boosting Kurdish rights quickly enough.
Government officials say they now see signs that Kurds from Turkey are crossing the border to help PKK militants in Iraq and Syria fight the Islamic State group. The government may also have concerns that Turkey’s Kurds, bolstered by Western arms and emboldened by battlefield success, could harden their demands on the Ankara government.
In interviews, Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, say that they took steps against Islamic State group months ago when they recognized it as a threat to Turkey. They say that Western countries were slow to respond to Turkish requests for lists of suspected Islamic State group sympathizers, but Turkish authorities have now assembled a watch list of more than 6,000 names.
Teams of security officials operating at Turkish airports and bus stations have interrogated more than 500 people over the last four months and have deported 107 to their countries of origin, according to one official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. Officials also say they are fighting oil smuggling, but face challenges across a more than 900 kilometer (550 mile) border with Syria.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, concedes that earlier in the Syrian conflict, Turkey was slow to recognize the threat from the Islamic State group, looking the other way because what he called “strategic blindness.” He says that Turkey used every instrument it had to promote regime change in Turkey, including turning a blind eye to jihadists. But it has since changed its policy.
“The fundamental reason the behavior changed,” he said, “is the fact that Ankara realizes much more clearly that (the Islamic State group) is a security threat to Turkey.”
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.
On Twitter, follow Butler at https://twitter.com/desmondbutler