On Thursday 2 October, the Turkish parliament authorized ‘deployment of Turkish Armed Forces for cross-border operations or for intervention in foreign countries’ and ‘deployment of foreign troops in Turkey’ in response to regional instability. But serious military action against Islamic State (IS) is unlikely.
The hard facts are hidden in the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the single and ultimate decision-maker. He specified three key steps to be taken as a result of the resolution: ‘a secured no-fly zone [over Syria], the establishment of a safe [buffer] zone within Syria, and a clear understanding of how to implement and manage the train-and-equip process of the [Free Syrian Army]’.
These political aims are clearly restricted to Syria and have nothing to do with IS. This is neither new, nor surprising. The current Turkish government has remained determined and vocal in its quest to oust Bashar al-Assad, since 2012. Taking him down at any cost is almost an obsession for the government, however they are not being supported in this pursuit either domestically or internationally.
In the Turkish parliament, the main opposition party CHP (Republican Peoples’) opposed the resolution. Party Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu expressed doubts about the government’s intention to fight IS and accused them of seeking adventures that would drag the country into wider risks. There is a shared concern among the opposition that the government’s primary objective is to use the resolution for actions against Syria not against IS in either Iraq or Syria. Even MHP (Nationalist Action) warned the government that their support to the resolution did not mean support to their ‘Syria policy’. All parties are acutely aware of the repercussions of an international conflict as the Turkish economy and particularly foreign trade has already gravely suffered from the conflicts in the region.
Internationally, Turkish and American officials are obviously not seeing eye-to-eye. Secretary Chuck Hagel said that they needed ‘long-term commitments to a diplomatic, economic and military campaign to weaken and destroy [IS]’, hinting lack of such a commitment on the part of Turkey. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent casual remarks at Harvard about Turkey’s role in supporting ‘the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world’ actually reflected a widely shared perception in the West. Erdogan’s explanation was lacking: ‘Foreign fighters… may come… as tourists and cross into Syria.’ Although Biden apologized immediately, ground for cooperation is even more precarious now.
In addition, the Ottoman legacy is still deeply seated in the Arab memory and psyche—and is reciprocated across the border. The New Ottomanism rhetoric in certain academic and political circles simply fuels anti-Turkish sentiments.
However if Turkey, against overwhelming odds, attempts some form of military action in Syria with the intent to topple Assad, either unilaterally or as part of a coalition plan, then things would get even more complicated than they already are.
First of all, concepts such as a buffer zone are not currently on the agenda of other members of the coalition against IS. If a buffer zone inside Syria - and Iraq - were to be established, it would have to be enforced and protected by military forces and include a no-fly zone larger than the land zone. Both would require authorisation by the United Nations Security Council, which is highly unlikely. Also Damascus would never accept such a Turkish presence within its borders for whatever reason. The Iraqi central government fully supports the American-led airstrikes in Syria against IS but opposes any broadening of the air campaign to Assad forces and so is unlikely to tolerate any Turkish military action against Syrian forces.
The so-called Free Syrian Army is practically non-existent as a coherent organisational unit. Even the Nusra Front to which so much hope as ‘moderates’ was naively attached for such a long time by the Turkish government is now seeking reconciliation with IS to fight what it characterizes as a crusader campaign against Islam. Besides, IS is now controlling areas adjacent to the Turkish-Syrian border, hence the more recent talk about isolated security ‘pockets’ rather than a continuous buffer zone along the border. Indeed, Turkey may find itself fighting an all-out war in a hostile country, on a 360 degree front, amidst shifting alliances, rear area in Turkey and supply routes are more vulnerable than ever.
Neither the Kurdish administration nor the Iraqi central government, like Assad, is likely to accept Turkish troop presence inside Iraq. They refused this even in 2003 when they desperately needed assistance against infiltrations from Syria—actually a precursor to what we witness today. They (particularly Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq) would love to have the equipment, heavy weapon systems and ammunition in addition to logistic support that Turkey could offer, but this would be hard to swallow for the Turkish government—and particularly the army—and very difficult to sell to the Turkish people.
Above all, in spite of the parliamentary majority that voted to pass the resolution, there is strong public resistance to any intervention which could drag Turkey into a sectarian quagmire and this includes also the AKP constituency. Turkey already has serious difficulties with its own Kurdish population, without increasing them further.
So, despite the carte-blanche given to President Erdogan, an active Turkish involvement in the fight against IS is highly unlikely any time soon. It is equally unlikely that, despite the current sabre-rattling, Turkey will attempt a unilateral intervention in Syria, particularly now as the country heads for one of the most critical general elections of its modern history and desperately struggling to resolve its centuries-old Kurdish question, in an extremely polarized and confrontational domestic political environment.
Should military ‘boots’ ever set foot in Iraq or Syria to fight IS, unless regional circumstances and the military situation change dramatically, they are unlikely to be those belonging to Turkish soldiers.
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