Turkey’s Syria and Iraq Policy Hostage to Islamic State

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - The Middle East Institute | Sep 01, 2014
Turkey’s Syria and Iraq Policy Hostage to Islamic State
A destroyed building near the Turkish-Syria border

As the United States struggles to mobilize a coalition of allies including Turkey behind potential military action against the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Syria, Turkey’s Iraq and Syria policies remain captive to ISIS and the 49 Turkish hostages it holds. Turkey might be key to the U.S. effort to confront ISIS, and it is in a very tough spot.

In June, ISIS militants raided the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraq city of Mosul and captured 49 Turkish citizens, including the consul general, staff members, and their families. The government has imposed a media blackout on the hostage issue, claiming that news stories may provoke the militants and put the hostages’ lives in danger. While the world is uniting behind the U.S.-led effort to counter the ISIS threat, Turkey has been reluctant to join the international call for military action against the group. Prime Minister Erdogan declared that he opposed the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and would not allow the United States to use the Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana as a launching point.

The hostage situation will continue to complicate the West's efforts because the Syrian-Turkish border has been very important to the rise of the Islamic State. In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, Turkey maintained an open door policy to Syrian refugees, and it lacks an institutional mechanism to monitor the 1.2 million of them who have flocked into the cities. The large refugee community makes it easier for ISIS militants to move about the country freely, and consequently, Turkey has been used as a major route for militants to go in and out of Syria (and indirectly, Iraq). The group seeks to reopen its main artery for foreign fighters and is pushing to recapture the area in northwest Syria that borders Turkey.  The Turkish border also serves as the group’s main gateway to smuggle oil and weapons, and wounded ISIS militants have received treatments in hospitals in border towns.

Turkey also has become an organizational hub for the Syrian opposition and has turned a blind eye to weapons transfers to Al-Qa‘ida linked groups from its territory.  Complicating the matter further has been the thousands of foreign fighters from countries around the region and the world, including the United States and Europe, entering Syria via flights into Turkey. Reportedly, there are now well-established networks of radical Islamist factions who have been fighting in Syria, including ISIS, and who now also have a presence within Turkey’s borders.[1] In June, the Shi‘i Allahu Akbar Mosque and the Muhammediye Mosque in Istanbul's Esenyurt district were set on fire by groups affiliated with ISIS.[2] In July, an ISIS-affiliated group held an open-air mass rally calling for jihad in Istanbul, raising questions about the intelligence failures, lack of institutional capacity, and the political will to address the domestic threat these radical groups pose to Turkey.

The rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and the growing threat the group poses to Turkey’s own national security seem to have changed Turkey’s calculation. After having resisted Western calls to prevent weapons transfers to ISIS from its territory, stop jihadis passing through to Syria, and monitor its southern border, Turkey finally seems to be coming around. It recently stepped up intelligence sharing and tightened security cooperation with its Western allies. In collaboration with the European Union, it is now conducting tighter screening of passengers on flights into Turkey, and it recently beefed up border patrols on the frontier with Syria. Only three of 13 border gates between Syria and Turkey are open, and foreign nationals are only allowed to pass through two of them.

Despite the government's growing concern over the ISIS threat, securing the safe return of 49 Turkish nationals held captive by the group remains Erdogan’s priority. Turkey will probably take part in Western effort to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition through training and arms delivery, but it is unlikely to join the U.S.-led coalition for potential American military action in Syria as long as ISIS holds Turkish hostages.

Turkey might press for U.S. help to resolve the hostage situation. The United States's unarmed Predator drones, based at the İncirlik air base in southern Turkey, have already been conducting flights in Iraq and have allegedly pinpointed the whereabouts of the Turkish hostages.[3] Turkey might change its current stance toward military action if the hostages are released. But if the United States decides to act without Turkey, and ISIS does not release Turkish nationals, the two allies might find themselves at odds in Syria, which will complicate efforts to contain the Islamic militants.

[1]Orhan Kemal Cengiz, “Turkey Wakes Up to Islamic State Threat,” Al-Monitor, 6 August 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/cengiz-isis-mosul-iraq...

[2]Pinar Tremblay, “Turkish Shiites Fear Growing Hate Crimes,” Al-Monitor, 11 July 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/tremblay-turkish-shiit...

[3]Lale Kemal, “Turkey, US Get Closer to Cooperation on ISIS,” todayszaman.com, 28 August 2014, https://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/lale-kemal/turkey-us-get-closer-to...