By Murat Ulgul
Since the ISIL threat emerged in northern Iraq, Turkish officials have been pressured by Western states to join in the effort to contain and remove the chaos in the region. The Obama administration, which recently announced that they will not be sending troops to the region, especially expects help from Turkey. Turkey has the strongest military in the region and Ankara’s avoidance to date of openly declaring war against ISIL reminds some the country’s denial of American troops’ wish to use Turkish lands during the Second Gulf War. Until now, the presidential election of last month and Turkish hostages in ISIL’s control diminished the degree of Western pressure to some extent. But now, with the new government in place and the recent release of the hostages, Turks may be expected to take a strong position against the Islamist militants. Although domestically the release of the hostages increased the prestige of the new government, it is not likely that it will lead to a major change in Turkey’s position so long as Kurdish issues and Assad’s Syria are the main concerns of the ruling party.
When Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that 49 hostages (46 Turkish, 3 Iraqi) held by Islamic militants had been freed, he must have been quite joyful, not only because none of the hostages was hurt but also because he had achieved a notable accomplishment in less than one month into his tenure as prime minister. Although Davutoglu has had full support from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected president in August and nominated his Foreign Minister Davutoglu as his successor, there were many doubts about him among the opposition and some columnists. According to the opposition, Davutoglu was responsible for the collapse of Turkish foreign policy because he pulled the state into the Middle Eastern quagmire. This argument goes as follows: during Davutoglu’s tenure as the foreign minister from 2009 and 2014, Turkey distanced itself from the objective of European Union membership whereas his “zero-problem policy” with neighbors failed as Turkey had significant conflicts with Assad’s Syria and the Iraqi central government under Nouri al-Maliki’s leadership. In addition, Davutoglu’s plan to make Turkey a regional leader in the Middle East, as his oft-quoted book Strategic Depth outlines, did not work when Turkish relations with Israel deteriorated after the Gaza flotilla incident and Ankara lost its role as a moderator in the Palestinian conflict. Indeed, after learning of Davutoglu’s candidacy for the post of prime minister, both the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party called him a “puppet prime minister” and stated that the incompetent foreign minister was now rewarded with the leadership of the country. In the days when the hostage crisis was ongoing, the opposition parties blamed him as the one who handed over the hostages to the Islamic militants. It was clear that if anything went south over the hostage crisis, Davutoglu’s prestige as the prime minister would have been damaged from the beginning. From this perspective, the release of 49 hostages is more of a domestic achievement than a foreign one and although it is not likely that the opposition will stop criticizing Davutoglu, the pro-government media will polish the event as the successful result of Davutoglu’s leadership.
On the other hand, how the release of the hostages will affect Turkey’s policy against ISIL is not quite clear. So far Turkey has refrained from declaring war against ISIL for many reasons. First, Ankara had concerns that a military operation in the region would lead to an independent Kurdish state especially when the Kurds fighting against ISIL are highly sympathized with by the Western politicians and media. Behind closed doors in the NATO summit two weeks ago, Erdogan called on his Western counterparts to protect Iraqi territorial integrity like they have tried to do in Ukraine. Similarly, Turkish officials have concerns that Kurdish independence in Iraq would negatively affect their negotiations with the Kurdish groups in Turkey. Second, Erdogan had fears that an operation against ISIL would strengthen Assad, his number-one archenemy in the region. While these reasons do not diminish the questions about Erdogan’s tolerance of ISIL as part of Turkey’s conflict with Syria, the most legitimate reason for Ankara not to declare war against the Islamists was the hostages held by the militants. Erdogan made the point repeatedly that he did not want the hostages being murdered like the Western journalists in the region were.
Now that the hostage issue is out of the picture, Western states will expect open support from Turkey against ISIL. Indeed, on September 22nd, a few days after the hostages were released, Secretary of Defense John Kerry called on Turkish officials to increase their efforts against ISIL. However, the first signs from Ankara show that this support is not likely to come. For example, Samil Tayyar, a parliamentarian from the Justice and Development Party, posted a controversial message on Twitter that the release of the hostages was a CIA operation to force Turkey into joining the coalition against ISIL and congratulated the government for not stepping into the trap. His tweet seemed to send the message that Turkey will not be joining the fight anytime soon, but is illogical in two ways. First, why did the CIA provide for the release of Turkish hostages and not for the American citizens who were beheaded by the ISIL? And second, if it is a CIA operation, why congratulate the government? While the release of the hostages brings immense prestige to the new prime minister, it seems that his government will have a difficult time resisting external pressure to join the anti-ISIL coalition now that their most legitimate excuse is gone. From this perspective, Turkish officials may present the principle of pacta sund servanda since the release of the hostages was the product of negotiations. Indeed, the negotiations and communication were the main points Davutoglu made in his statement after the hostages were saved. Erdogan reiterated the same point a day later when he pointed out that the release was the result of diplomatic bargaining. Yet, it is questionable if this factor would convince the Western and regional governments, which are determined to fight against the terrorists.
Therefore, the West cannot simply say “You saved the hostages, now fight.” The way to put strong pressure on the Turkish government is to give reliable assurances on the Kurdish and Syrian issues. So far the Justice and Development Party has proved that they want to solve the Kurdish problem by adopting several reforms and even negotiating with the PKK and its leader Abdullah Ocalan. In addition, the Turkish government established important trade links with the regional Kurdish government in Iraq. Yet, Ankara does not want to meet with a fait accompli in the region by witnessing an independent Kurdish state after the ISIL threat is removed. And second, Turkish officials, especially President Erdogan, do not want Assad to benefit from this crisis. If strong guarantees are given on these issues it will be difficult for Ankara to continue to resist and not to join the anti-ISIL coalition.
Murat Ulgul is a Turkish Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Delaware, where he is studying ethnic conflict and Middle East politics.