Friday, 12 December 2014

Turkey and the Islamic State

No-one quite knows where Turkey stands in relation to the brutal and bloodthirsty Islamic State (IS), but there are reasons for fearing the worst.  The worst, from the point of view of the West generally, as well as much of the Middle East, is that Turkey’s antagonism towards Syria’s President Bashar Assad outweighs any opposition it may have to IS, and that its current foreign strategy is postulated on that premise. 

Underlying this position is the long-standing aim of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to deny Kurdish aspirations for full independence, and crush the militant Kurdish organisation, the PKK - a stance which has the full support of Ankara’s political establishment.  As demonstrated last autumn in the fight for Kobane, the town on the Syrian-Turkish border, rather than have the Kurds prevail the Turks would have preferred to see it overrun by IS. In the event, due to determined efforts by the US-led anti-IS alliance, Kobane has not fallen, but the Turks have sat on their hands while the battle raged,

The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slogs it out with its traditional Kurdish enemies, and using the humanitarian disaster thus created to pressure the US into helping remove Assad and his Shia-supported Islamic government.  In pursuit of replacing the Assad regime with one in the Sunni tradition, many fear that the Turks are actually supporting IS fighters with arms and training, as well as facilitating the flow of foreign fighters across its borders to join IS – something that Turkey strongly denies.

Perhaps this explains the recent influx of foreign visitors to the court of Turkey’s new president.  First to arrive early in December was Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.  He was followed by a high-powered delegation of top officials from the European Union.  Hard on their heels came the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron.  Each was seeking to pull Turkey closer to its own political interests.

Putin's visit highlighted a major disagreement between Russia and the EU involving the supply of gas to southern Europe.  The South Stream pipeline project, announced in 2007, was a plan to transport natural gas from the Russian Federation through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then through Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to Austria. The project fell foul of EU competition and energy legislation, and the difficulties could not be resolved.  Putin made his trip to Turkey in order to announce that Russia was scrapping South Stream, and to name Turkey as its preferred partner for an alternative pipeline. The proposed undersea pipeline to Turkey, with an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic metres, would face no EU competition problems, since Turkey remains outside the EU.

No doubt Putin hoped that Turkey would respond by agreeing to retain its neutral stance as regards Russia’s activities in Ukraine, and continue to refrain from imposing  Western-style sanctions.

Facing the prospect of a new Russo-Turkish entente, and clearly fearing the worst as regards Turkish intentions in the anti-IS battle, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, together with other top EU officials, flew to Turkey on December 8 to urge its full participation in the fight against IS militants in Syria, and to persuade Turkey to stop the flow of foreign fighters across its borders.

Underlying the visit was Turkey’s long-standing application, dating back to 1987, to join the EU. The visit by these top EU officials was one of the highest-profile in years and, said Mogherini, is a symbol of: “…our desire to step up the engagement.”

The EU apparently hopes that the coincidence of a new president and prime minister in Turkey, and a new European Commission in Brussels, can mark a fresh start in EU-Turkey relations.  This could at least pave the way for regular high-level talks to discuss common strategic interests, if not lead to granting Turkey’s long-standing wish to join the EU.

One issue up for discussion during the visit was surely the fact that Turkey has not joined in with the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia over Ukraine.  The proposed Russian-Turkish gas project clearly renders such a possibility even more remote, though EU officials doubtless pressed Turkey to join in sanctions, or at least not to take advantage of the situation by exporting affected products to Russia. 

The EU officials had barely left Turkish soil before the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, flew into Ankara to try to persuade Erdogan to bend his policies in Britain’s direction. In particular IS poses a direct threat to Britain’s national security, both through its brutal beheadings of Western hostages and because of the growing number of British jihadists who are seeking to return home from fighting in Syria to carry out acts of terrorism.

Cameron hoped to persuade Erdogan to help track the movements of British and other foreign jihadists crossing Turkey’s border with Syria. At a joint press conference with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Prime Minister, Cameron was able to announce: “The prime minister and I have agreed that we should exchange even more information, we should cooperate more in terms of intelligence.”  This is understood to include requiring all Turkey’s airlines to share timely and accurate information about airline passengers flying from Turkish airports direct to the UK.

As for Turkey’s EU aspirations, Cameron said that he discussed Turkey’s accession to the EU during talks in Ankara on December 10 with Davutoglu.  “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU,” he said, “I very much support that. That’s a longstanding position of British foreign policy.”

Cameron’s difficulty is that Turkey, though a member of Nato, has a very different take on the Syrian conflict, and persuading Turkey’s leaders to alter their focus from overthrowing Assad to defeating IS is a task probably beyond Cameron, let alone the high-powered EU delegation that preceded him in Ankara. 

In fact, Erdogan has already announced the terms on which he might be persuaded to be more active in supporting the anti-IS alliance. His most specific demand is the creation of a buffer and no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, protected from Assad’s troops and aircraft.  This would represent a serious escalation of the conflict, since establishing a no-fly zone could involve destroying a good chunk of Assad’s air defence system. Moreover, artillery within the range of the buffer zone might also have to be targeted.

There is also the implication for relations with Iran. Creating a buffer zone would be seen by Iran as an invasion of a key ally, and it might well scupper any hope the US may have of linking the on-going nuclear talks with securing Iran’s support for a managed political transition that removes Assad but preserves much of the Syrian state.

All in all, the chances of persuading Turkey to abandon its somewhat equivocal approach to the Syrian conflict seem somewhat remote.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 December 2014:

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