Turkish foreign policy is a mess. In 2009, then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared Turkey had a “zero problems” foreign policy, allowing it to reach out to countries throughout the Middle East. Within three years, its relationships with both Israel and Syria had collapsed. Turkey was thinking of becoming Hamas’ main patron and was willing to do anything to overthrow Damascus.
Now Turkey is trapped. They have fewer friends and no good options. Experts like Professor Efraim Inbar see Turkey as complacent, if not complicit, in ISIS’ continued tyranny in Syria and Iraq. According to Inbar, all Sunni Islamist groups function as an extension of a relationship that relies on the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni militias around the Middle East.
Gabriel Mitchell, expert on Turkish foreign policy at Mitvim, sees a much more convoluted picture in Syria. Turkey wants out of its old policy.
“My perspective is that they aren’t complicit at this point,” he says.
Turkey’s relationship with Syria fell apart in a beautiful chaos when it began massacring civilians in 2011. Very quickly, Turkey moved to support every emerging rebel group in the country to depose him. Mixed in those groups were several Islamist ones, but at some point President Recep Tayyip Erdogan realized that the country had to reorient its approach.
“Their stance has changed because of two reasons, the first being that the Western perspective has changed and US involvement has gotten more intimate. The Turks feel they need to be on right side of this war,” said Mitchell.
The second reason? ISIS’ murder of several American hostages and targeting of minority groups for enslavement or extermination has revitalized global interest in the Syrian civil war.
“Turks’ views changed with the hostage crisis.”
It was far too late by the summer of 2014 to understand just how irresponsible Turkish policy in Syria had been. ISIS captured over 40 Turks in the Turkish consulate in Kurdistan, demanding an undisclosed random that included at least some sort of prisoner trade but might also have included the transfer of heavy weapons to ISIS. A media blackout kept the likely humiliating terms of the deal out of the Turkish press.
The Turks have been accused of turning a blind eye to managing their border. Those accusations are correct according to Mitchell, but they might be in a situation where they have no choice.
“When Turkey took its anti-Assad stance, the number of rebel groups that popped up in 2011-12 were numerous, diverse and disorganized. Most of them were also in Northern Syria. They decided to help them with logistical support and light arms,” he said.
“There was this tacit agreement to ensure the Turkish-Syrian border was protected but remained open and porous. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS grew in strength and at this point are still taking advantage of that porous border.”
Turkey has let ISIS import recruits and export black market oil at upwards of $1 million a day. Turkey’s border is almost 400 miles long though and makes the Israeli-Egyptian border look like a fortress. Additionally, Ankara might not be as effectively in charge of local border guards as they let on, who are vulnerable to payoffs from ISIS.
Would Turkey Invade Syria?
Last month, Turkey sent troops to recover the remains of the Suleyman Shah– an ancestor of the Ottoman Empire’s founder – and the soldiers guarding his tomb. Beyond that limited operation, it is hard for Mitchell to see Turkey expanding a military effort there.
“Direct intervention would probably be a political disaster. Most Turks are not interested in engaging militarily in Syria. They see their role as humanitarian. Plus in the near term, there are elections in June. They do not want to rock boat domestically,” he said.
Turkey has no great options going forward in Syria. In the past, ISIS was useful as an opposition to Bashar al-Assad, but now Syria has broken up into two separate theaters of war: Damascus controls most of the western half of the country and ISIS the majority of the north.
The trigger to get Turkey to intervene might be found in the Syrian refugee crisis. Just weeks ago, the UN announced it would no longer fund the creation and maintenance of new refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border. Anywhere between 1 and 1.5 million Syrians are languishing in Turkey and weighing down the country’s resources.
“Turkey is tweaking its policy to push for to create this buffer zone in the north to allow refugees back to Syria. But a no-fly zone would be expensive for the coalition and mainly fall on the US. Turkey is advocating for it, but it does not have the resources or the fighting forces to ensure it.”
When asked if the idea that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS can be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, he says it is vague.
“Jabhat al-Nusra did have a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood early on that the Turks noticed, and saw in them one and the same.”
How Turkey moves forward depends on whether or not they can get Western – read that American – help in securing a buffer zone along the border that would also keep ISIS far away from the Turkish border. On that last point though, the Turks might be too late.