international analysis and commentary

The deterioration of Iraq and its impact on Turkey


Turks were struck dumb over the news that ISIS had taken Mosul by storm. The militants took 31 Turkish truck drivers hostage, they captured the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul along with 49 consulate personnel (including the Consul General), forcing Ankara to evacuate its consulate in Basra on June 17th due to ISIS expansion. The same day, militants kidnapped 15 Turkish construction workers.

This is not the first time that growing ISIS influence has caused trouble for Turkey. A few months ago, ISIS threatened to strike the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, a Turkish exclave situated in Aleppo, Syria. Recently on several instances, ISIS terror plots have been foiled in Turkey; on others, the militants claimed the lives of Turkish security personnel.

Expanding ISIS control over Iraqi territories will most likely act as a multiplier to spillovers from the Syrian civil war that Turkey has suffered. These include terror attacks, clashes along border crossings, attacks on Turkish territory, citizens and military personnel, and more than a million refugees – which may stay in Turkey indefinitely in the absence of a stable homeland. Iraq is the second largest destination of Turkish exports – which may come to a grinding halt with growing ISIS control over Iraqi roads and the deterioration of the security situation.

Perhaps an even more important factor is how the elongated presence of a jihadist organization would influence religious fundamentalists in Turkey. Numerous Turkish citizens have already joined jihadist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore Turkey was dealing with domestic Islamist terror organizations long before Al-Qaeda and others gained a foothold in the region. These now dormant groups may be influenced by the presence of ISIS across Turkey’s borders and reactivate.

Testing international waters
Yet amidst these mounting threats, the Turkish government has shown a remarkably muted reaction and downplayed the issue. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, for example, argued that Turkey was currently not in the crosshairs of ISIS. Others remarked they were certain that the hostages would be returned safely as ISIS had not made any demands. After echoing these statements, Prime Minister Erdoğan asked the press to refrain from reporting on the issue to avoid endangering the hostages – a few days later an official ban on reporting about the hostage situation was put in place.

The PM also argued that the issue was now beyond ISIS and was on its way to becoming a sectarian war, though he did not outline a policy if that were to be the case. Another concern voiced by Erdoğan was the safety of ethnic Turkmens living in and around Tel Afar. As an immediate response, the government sent in humanitarian aid to Turkmens who fled Mosul. Turkish support will most likely remain solely humanitarian. Arınç has recently argued that the Iraqi Turkmen Front “knows better” than to ask for armed support from Turkey because for realpolitik reasons, Turkey would not provide arms to them or conduct extraterritorial operations. It appears that internationally, Ankara is testing the waters before making a move. Right on the outset of the hostage crisis, Turkey assembled an emergency meeting between NATO members to discuss the issue, but the meeting was not convened under Article 4 of the NATO Charter. Furthermore Ankara has been communicating with the US leadership closely. According to some Turkish media reports, although the Turkish government is not considering conducting a military strike against ISIS, it has asked the US to consider options for establishing security zones and no-fly zones in both Iraq and in Syria.

Beyond the Atlantic, the crisis has opened up the possibility of cooperation with Tehran, as was declared – albeit with some ambiguity – by top level officials in both the United States and Iran. Subsequently London announced that it would re-open the British Embassy in Tehran. For Ankara, this development is far from relieving, as Tehran stands on the opposite sideregarding the Syrian conflict. Ankara could not convince the US to intervene against Assad, yet the recent crisis may provide Tehran with leverage to pull Washington closer to its side instead. Moreover, although Turkey will continue to be an important transatlantic ally, the improvement of Washington and Tehran’s relations at a time when the former is looking for regional partners may be detrimental to Turkey’s strategic importance for the United States.The power vacuum in Iraq has also helped the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to gain de facto control over Kirkuk and link it through the newly built pipeline to Turkey. Historically, due to its troubles with its domestic Kurdish nationalism, Ankara vehemently opposed any increase in Kurdish autonomy and pushed for a unitary Iraq. Yet Erbil and Ankara have gradually become close partners since 2008 and especially over the last couple of years.The two sides have united against the Maliki government’s attempts to increase its control over the KRG. Erbil was also instrumental in kick-starting Turkey’s now inert peace process with the PKK.

While it appears that Ankara still supports the idea of an undivided Iraq, increasing Kurdish autonomy is viewed as the lesser evil compared to the advancing ISIS influence – a position which Baghdad also seems to share under the current circumstances. Seeing the frailty of the security situation in Iraq, Ankara needs a strong Erbil to act both as a buffer zone and as a strong political and economic partner.

The way forward
Ankara’s inertia might be a textbook case of wishful thinking and/or a lesson derived from its recent mistakes in the Syrian civil war where it jumped into action, only to see that no one was standing behind it. The government has been criticized strongly, both internally and externally, over claims of lending support to Syrian rebels, and doing so indiscriminately. While it has repeatedly denied these claims, there is mounting evidence to give credence to the suspicions that Ankara has at least lit a “yellow light” to the weapons transfers through its borders, without considering the repercussions of this policy.

Moreover, the crisis once again underscores the collapse of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy: Turkey has no means of replacing its once-friend-now-enemy Assad; it continues to have problems with Baghdad mostly due to sectarian reasons; it was unable to balance its relations with Iran and the West and has ended up antagonizing both; it has pushed the West further away due to its harsh crackdowns on political opposition and control over the media; and it has had a major falling out with Israel. Now Ankara is at risk of having a jihadist terror organization for a neighbor, which, as its recent history has shown, is willing and capable of hurting Turkish citizens, assets, interests and its economy.

But the crisis also presents an opportunity: Turkey’s historical adversaries, Iran and the PKK, its recent rivals, Israel and Baghdad, and its traditional and newfound allies, the US and the KRG, all have a stake in diminishing the ISIS threat. Desperate times call for desperate measures and there is no glue better than a common enemy. In fact, we have already seen signs of such convergences. The PKK has offered the KRG (the sides have had rocky relations for years) to send its guerilla forces to aid KRG’s defense. Baghdad has asked the US to conduct airstrikes against ISIS militants, following a period of waning US influence over Iraqi politics.The US and the UK have openly declared that they were willing to work with Iran.

What could not be achieved under the “zero problems with neighbors” policy through diplomatic, political and economic overtures of the last few years may just be achieved, even if partially, through a common enemy.

Stranger things have happened.

Whether it is open or confidential, fighting on different fronts or the same, the sides must cooperate to overcome the ISIS threat. The jihadist organization is gradually increasing its territory, arms, wealth, resources and manpower. Airstrikes and security zones may push ISIS back, but a more concentrated action is needed to diminish the threat that ISIS poses in the foreseeable future.

Contrary to Ankara’s inertia, Turkey does not have the luxury to sit this one out – the stakes are too high. The Turkish leadership should be active in building a coalition. In addition to ensuring its long-term security, by both stopping the jihadist advance and preventing the issue from turning into an elongated sectarian conflict, Ankara may end up with the prize of mending its troubled relations in the region.