September 28, 2014

The war against ISIS - where are the Turks?

Turkish soldier on the Syrian border and Kurdish refugees

Turkey possesses the sixth largest armed forces in the world, with over 650,000 active duty personnel. Many of my fellow media military analysts agree with my assessment that Turkey has "serious military capability." It is a key member of the NATO alliance - its forces are second only to those of the United States in number, and are larger than the military forces of the United Kingdom, France and Germany combined. It fields modern aircraft and equipment - including the F-16 Fighting Falcon and M-1 Abrams tank - and has trained and deployed extensively with its NATO partners. Its air bases meet NATO standards and are well-positioned for operations in Syria.

So, why have the Turks not agreed to participate in the international coalition arrayed against the radical self-proclaimed Islamic State/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Given its geographic location and capable armed forces, it would be a formidable asset to the coalition.

The answer is, as are many things in this part of the world, complicated.

Initially, Turkey's reluctance to join the coalition was understandable. When ISIS forces moved out of Syria in June and successfully and rapidly seized al-Mawsil (Mosul), Iraq's second largest city, they also seized the Turkish consulate in the city and took 49 Turkish diplomats and citizens as hostages. As the anti-ISIS coalition was forming, the Turks were concerned that joining the international alliance would put their personnel at risk. Given ISIS's brutal treatment of their enemies, Turkey's reluctance was not surprising.

It was not until September that the Turks were able to secure the release of their hostages. The details of that release are still unclear, but the Turks insist that they did not enter into an agreement to prevent the coalition from using Turkish facilities, nor did they commit to remain neutral in the conflict. On September 25, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey would no longer be a bystander; there is a special session of the Turkish Parliament on October 2 to discuss authorizing Turkish military action in Syria.

Should the Turkish Parliament give President Erdogan the authority to employ the Turkish armed forces against ISIS, that will likely also include allowing coalition aircraft to use Turkish air bases. That will allow coalition aircraft to dramatically increase the intensity of operations over Syria, with much less risk to pilots now flying long flight routes from bases in the region (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar) or the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf.

The Turkish air force is well trained and flies the F-16 as its primary fighter aircraft. The Turks could play a major role by providing additional firepower against targets in northern and eastern Syria. Although less likely, the authorization to use the Turkish army in Syria would provide the elusive "boots on the ground" capability that has so far been lacking in the Syria portion of the alliance strategy against ISIS. It would also allow coalition aircraft to provide close air support to Syrian Kurds opposing ISIS. That would answer much of the unfounded and uninformed criticism of coalition airstrikes in stopping ISIS from advancing on Kurdish border towns inside Syria. It is irresponsible to expect coalition pilots to drop ordnance on troops in contact without positive control on the ground. Doing so is a recipe for disaster - there would inevitably be casualties among friendly forces.

All that said, what are the reasons the Turks have waited even after their hostages have been released to join the coalition against ISIS?

Turkey's relationship with Syria has been contentious for almost as long as the two modern nations of Turkey and Syria have existed - both coming into existence in the aftermath of World War I. There are border issues revolving around the "sanjak of Alexandretta," a piece of land on the Mediterranean Sea claimed by Syria but ceded to Turkey by France as the mandatory power in what is now Syria and Lebanon. It remains an issue between the two countries to this day.

Water issues have also played a role in the geopolitics of the region. The Euphrates River, arguably the most important waterway for Syria, begins in Turkey. When the Turks began to fill the huge Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates in southern Turkey, the flow of the river was reduced to the amount specified in the agreement between Turkey, Syria and Iraq (the three nations who share the water resources). That reduction, although in compliance with the treaty, caused a dramatic drop in Syria's electricity power generation capability. In response, the Syrians provided a safe haven to fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party, more commonly known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The Syrian government allowed the PKK to stage cross-border raids into Turkey. Turkey responded with artillery fire and threats of armed intervention.

That brings us to the most likely reason for Turkey's reluctance to support the coalition - fear of the rise of Kurdish nationalism. Support for the coalition will by necessity mean support for the Syrian Kurds. The use of the term "Syrian Kurds" should not be confused with Syrian - the operative term here is Kurds. The Kurds in Syria and the Kurds in Turkey are the same people; they speak the same Kurdish dialect and have close family ties on both sides of the border. Kurds in both countries, like their brethren in Iraq, want an independent Kurdistan. Providing support to the Kurds will only fan the flames of that nationalist desire. It is a desire the Turks have spent decades and huge amounts of resources to extinguish, with limited success.

There are other reasons for Turkish reluctance to join the coalition. Turkey has been and remains the gateway for weapons and personnel entering Syria - for all groups, including the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front, the al-Qa'idah presence in the country) and of course, ISIS. Why has that been allowed? Turkish politics come into play here. President Erdogan's party the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, is an Islamic party. That in no way means the party espouses the radical theology of ISIS, but it did in the past lead the Turkish government to turn a blind eye toward all the men and materiel flowing into Syria. Hopefully, that has changed. Even Erdogan cannot excuse the brutality and inhumanity that is ISIS.

So, where are the Turks? Hopefully, they are on the way.