To visit parts of Istanbul, the Turkish metropolis, you would easily think you’re in a cosmopolitan capital in the heart of Europe, and many there wish it were so.
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But life in the northwestern part of the country is radically different from the southeast. There, Turkey shares a long and once-sleepy border with Syria, as well as swaths of territory that abut Iraq and Iran.
Turkey has something of a love-hate relationship with that tricky bit of location fate has dealt it. On the one hand, its position between Europe and the Middle East, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean makes it an indispensible political and economic bridge between East and West. On the other, expectations that it serve as a territorial bridge in times of war puts Turkey in an uncomfortable position of feeling torn between being a good neighbor and being a team player in the war on terror.
Wedged somewhere between the vastly differing northwest and southeast lies Ankara, a capital city in which I spent weeks upon weeks in the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Turkish Parliament was then debating an American request to use Turkey as a launch pad for an assault from the north, one that would afford the Bush administration a second front from which to attack the regime of Saddam Hussein. A number of Turkish politicians were uncomfortable with allowing their soil to be used by the U.S. and the U.K. to attack a neighboring Muslim country – and the foremost among these was the newly-elected Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There was no great love of Saddam in Turkey, but rather, there were economic interests in the status quo, a fear that toppling the despised Sunni dictator would serve ipso facto as a boon to the Kurds, and a general disdain for the concept of being used as a springboard for starting an American war against Iraq – a regime change mission for which there was far from universal consensus.
But Erdogan elevated an undercurrent in Turkey, in which some people felt that the country was too cozy with the United States and Israel at the expense of fellow Muslim states throughout the region – both Arab nations and Iran. I covered Erdogan and his AK Party on the campaign trail as he made promises to rectify that wrong as he and his followers perceived it.
Now as then, Washington was hoping to use Turkey as a base for launching attacks on the Islamic State. And so far, Erdogan has balked at the Obama administration as he balked at Bush, essentially choosing to downgrade the strategic relationship nurtured over decades. Now, however, Erdogan may be having a turnaround. 2014 is not 2003, and the Islamic State is not Saddam. Given the horrors that the Islamic State has perpetrated against almost everyone in its path – and the myriad ways in which Turkey itself is threatened by the fighting and taxed by the influx of refugees - it’s become increasingly hard for Turkey to justify opting out this round.
Now, amid mounting international pressure to take a stance against the Islamic State, Erdogan’s team has prompted Turkish parliamentarians to debate a motion Thursday authorizing the deployment of Turkish forces in Iraq and Syria. It’s not just heavy hitting from Washington and European capitals, with whom Turkey is officially allied as part of NATO, that has Turkey reconsidering, but the shocking and fast-moving aggression of the Islamic State itself. On Tuesday, Turkey said Islamic State militants had advanced on a tiny exclave considered Turkish territory in northern Syria, AFP reported: The tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, had been guarded by several Turkish troops under a 1920 treaty. The troops were overwhelmed by about 1,000 Islamic State militants, the Turkish paper Yeni Shafak reported, and the soldiers may have been captured. The Islamic State is also reported to have seized as many as 325 villages and towns on the way to the border, prompting Turkey to deploy soldiers and tanks while senior political officials scrambled to prepare the parliamentary vote.
It seems, according to one of the most insightful analysts in Istanbul, that Erdogan is rushing to recalibrate his policy on the Islamic State in light of these events.
“I think after other countries in the Middle East expressed a willingness to deal with the Islamic State problem, Turkey’s reluctance to become involved put Turkey in a rather difficult and isolated position, and now it’s trying to get out of it,” Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Haaretz. “Turkey wants to be part of the coalition but it’s not clear what it means. And the argument of the Turkish government is that its policy should not be exclusively against the Islamic State but also the regime of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,” Turan said. “There seems to be some inclination in Ankara to reconsider our path, but there also seems to be a number of reasons that will make it rather difficult to change policy,” he added.
The heart of the dilemma for Turkey is the Kurds. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey has long viewed as a terrorist group and a mortal enemy, is helping people in the area of Kobani, a Kurdish area of Aleppo under siege. “The Kurdish movement in Turkey is trying to send people in there and fight, and Turkey is reluctant to allow its own citizens to independently conduct activities on Syrian soil. At the same time, there is a softening attitude towards PKK because it is turning out to be useful in fighting the Islamic state,” Turan explained.
Turkey worries that the net result will be a huge boost for all Kurdish nationalists’ international legitimacy. But Kurdish nationalism may no longer be Turkey’s worst nightmare, and shouldn’t be, especially not in an era where the Islamic State is knocking at its door.
Though the Islamic State does not present an existential threat to Turkey, it can further destabilize the border, harm Turkish citizens and soldiers, and make Erdogan look like the Chamberlain of the Middle East. My secular friends in the Istanbul intelligentsia dislike Erdogan and his Islamist authoritarian leanings. But thankfully, when he looks southeast and sees the march of the black and white flag, he knows that this is not the more brotherly Islamic neighborhood he had in mind.