Time for Turkey to pick a side.
The Islamic State suicide bombing in Istanbul yesterday shows that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should stop worrying about the Kurds and take on the fundamentalists instead
In the war against the so-called Islamic State (Isil), the position of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is laced with contradictions. On one hand the leader of a country regarded as a key Nato ally professes to be committed to destroying the Islamist fanatics who are attempting to establish their hate-filled caliphate across the border in neighbouring Syria. US air force F-16 fighters and drones regularly fly combat missions from Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base, while the Turks have even launched attacks of their own against Isil positions in Syria.The question Mr Erdogan now faces is whether, in the wake of yesterday’s suicide bombing in Istanbul by a suspected Isil terrorist that killed at least 10 people and injured many more, he can continue to maintain his decidedly ambivalent approach to the Syria crisis.
And yet, for all Mr Erdogan’s constant claims that Turkey is the “top target for all terrorist groups in the region”, strong suspicions remain that Mr Erdogan is guilty of double standards for turning a blind eye to its highly lucrative smuggling activities across the Turkish border.It is highly unlikely that Isil would be able to sustain its attempts to establish its caliphate without the continuous flow of funds and new recruits that regularly cross the Turkish border. But despite repeated demands from its Nato allies that Turkey act to close Isil’s smuggling routes, Ankara has been reluctant to move decisively.
It is the same with Turkey’s half-hearted response to the migrant crisis that now threatens the security of Europe’s borders. The vast majority of the million or so migrants who have flooded Europe during the past year have made their way to the continent by making the treacherous crossing over the Aegean Sea from Turkey to EU member states such as Greece.
Any assistance the Turkish authorities may have provided to Isil will have been on the basis that the Islamist fighters are at war with the Kurds, whom the Turks regard as a far greater threat to their long-term security.
A tacit understanding like this – such as the Turks turning a blind eye to Isil’s smuggling operations – works only so long as Isil does not pose a direct threat to Turkey’s own security interests. If, as now seems likely, Isil was behind yesterday’s Istanbul bombing, then the terrorists have clearly crossed an important red line for the Turks, one that could have a profound impact on the future of the US-led coalition’s military campaign to destroy Isil.
While the ambitions of both regional superpowers like Iran and Saudi Arabia should not be underestimated, Turkey potentially has an even more pivotal role to play – assuming, that is, that Mr Erdogan can make up his mind whose side he is on in Syria’s brutal conflict.
Closing all crossings along the Turkish border with Isil-controlled Syria, for example, could have a devastating impact on the financial wellbeing of Isil, which relies heavily on revenues generated by its oil-smuggling operations into Turkey. Without these, many experts in the region believe the so-called caliphate would collapse in a matter of weeks.
A more committed approach by Mr Erdogan could also help to stem the flood of migrants to Europe, thereby easing the pressure on governments from the Balkans to Berlin.
In order to play a more constructive role in resolving the Syrian crisis, though, Mr Erdogan must first get over his obsession with the Kurds, the one group that has provided effective ground forces in the war against Isil. The Turkish government fears that any victories the Kurds enjoy over Isil, such as last year’s success in liberating Isil-controlled Kobani, will encourage Kurdish aspirations for independence, when the reality is that the Kurds’ main objective in Syria is simply to reclaim their territory from Isil.
After yesterday’s terror attacks in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan should realise the Kurds are the least of his problems and that, if he wants to prevent further terror attacks, then his best course of action is to support the international campaign to destroy Isil.