Turkey’s relationship with violent extremist group ISIS might generously be described as “permissive” - less generously, “complicit.”
Not only has Turkey adopted a relaxed stance toward ISIS, some claim it has actively aided and abetted the terror group. This is notable because – uniquely – confronting ISIS head-on is one task on which the rest of the world appears united. And even across the Middle East, where every issue is fiercely disputed, historical enmity and sectarian divisions have been temporarily shelved in favor of the larger aim of destroying ISIS. Except by Turkey.
The reason is clear: Turkey has embraced the ancient maxim that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Here, Turkey’s enemy is not ISIS, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned militant organization that seeks autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds, which comprises as much as 20 percent of the total population. As the Turkish government openly concedes, the decades-long “Kurdish problem” is far more pertinent than the “ISIS problem.”
In 2014, Turkey’s laissez-faire stance toward ISIS was illustrated by two exemplary cases. First, Turkey (a NATO member) did not allow U.S. airplanes to use its military base at İncirlik to attack ISIS, which meant NATO pilots were forced to fly from bases in the Gulf, adding thousands of additional flight miles to their missions and thereby increasing the risk of being shot down. Second, it was only after several weeks of intense international pressure – and at the very last moment – that Turkey finally relented and permitted PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish military support for the beleaguered Syrian town of Kobani, whose residents faced imminent slaughter at the hands of ISIS.
While these facts are beyond dispute, Turkey has sharply denied the stronger accusation that it is actually complicit in assisting ISIS. Responding to claims that Turkey has provided weapons, logistical support, financial assistance and military training to ISIS, Turkish President Recep Erdogan entreated the U.S. “to make your assessment about Turkey basing your information on objective sources.”
A reasonable request. Still, an example of a non-objective source might be CNN Türk. While parent CNN International was covering the Kurdish protests that were engulfing the country on June 2, its Turkish subsidiary elected to televise a documentary on penguins. This followed a cooking program showcasing the “Flavors of Nigde” two days earlier when the demonstrations commenced. We might also discount other major Turkish news channels aligned with the ruling AKP party that decided to show a dance competition and a workshop on studying abroad. It was “a classic case of the revolution not being televised.”
Ironical observations aside, such selective reporting illustrates how the “Kurdish Problem” colors Turkish politics both internal and external, even when the rest of the world might be dancing to a different beat. For the Turkish government, the overarching regional foreign policy priority invariably translates into not doing anything that might help the Kurds – led by exiled leader Abdullah Ocalan - inch towards autonomy. The calculus has translated into standing back and allowing ISIS to – in the eyes of Turkey – weaken the PKK and, by extension, the Kurdish independence movement. To the rest of the world, however, such calculated abstention looks like cooperation and complicity with a brutal extremist terrorist organization.
The charge of complicity is probably an unfair assessment overall, given that Turkey has in fact authorized the use of force against ISIS and has finally implemented serious measures to make it much harder for prospective ISIS fighters to cross its once porous border into Syria. (It has also provided millions of dollars of humanitarian aid, and hosts almost 2 million Syrian refugees).
But as regional power with the second-biggest army in NATO after the U.S., and a large, mostly secular population seeking greater integration with the West via EU membership, it is not sufficient. Indeed, despite the White House’s official line (“we respect their internal decision-making processes”), U.S. dissatisfaction with Turkey’s behavior is strong. This became obvious when U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden strayed from the official Administration line by publicly disparaging Turkey’s commitment.
Under the narrow, opaque lens of domestic politics, Turkey’s equivocation is understandable. But in the long-term, it is doubtful that the world will easily forget Turkey’s sluggishness on the ISIS front, especially as it seeks a greater role on the world stage.