Turkey straddles more than simply the continental divide between the West and Asia. A majority Sunni Muslim nation, it is also a Nato member and was once a trusted ally of Washington and London. Since the first poll triumph in 2002 of Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, however, ties with this crucial regional partner have become strained. Indeed, with the rise of Isil, Turkey has been accused of deliberately, if tacitly, helping the terrorists, by turning a blind eye to fighters crossing into Syria from Turkish territory, among other things.
Turkey has suddenly reversed its position, announcing that it will both take the fight to Isil itself, and allow allied air forces to operate from its bases. This is a move that has the potential significantly to realign the pieces on the Middle Eastern chess board. It is undoubtedly a blow to Isil, as proximity to their targets will give Western strike aircraft greater potency and liberty of action. Many of Isil’s supply lines should also be cut off. For this reason alone, Turkey’s change of heart should be celebrated.
Long-standing diplomatic pressure, combined with elections in June that brought the end of AKP single-party rule, can be partly credited. But perhaps the greatest incentive for Turkey to act came earlier this week, when a suicide bomber killed 32 people in the Turkish town of Suruc. From Ankara to Riyadh, there are many in the Islamic world who now consider Isil every bit as threatening as officials do in Western capitals. If anything, their concern is greater.
Certainly, by getting involved in northern Syria, Turkey has another agenda – ensuring that Kurds there cannot carve out a mini-state and so encourage the separatist dreams of its own Kurdish population. But the very fact that there is once again a coincidence between Western and Turkish interests is a major advance – and one that could contribute to an Isil retreat.