Since the Islamic State (IS) threat emerged in northern Iraq, Turkish officials have been pressured by Western states to join in the effort to contain and eliminate the chaos in the region. The Obama administration, which recently announced it would not be sending troops to the region, especially expects help from Turkey.
Ankara’s avoidance of openly declaring war against IS reminds some of the country’s denial of American troops’ wish to use Turkish territory during the Second Gulf War. Up until now, last month’s presidential election and Turkish hostages in IS’s possession 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 IS.
Although domestically the release of the hostages increased the prestige of the new government, it is not likely to 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, three 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 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 former foreign minister Davutoglu as his successor to the premiership, there were many doubts about him among the opposition and some in the media.
According to the opposition, Davutoglu was the one responsible for the collapse of Turkish foreign policy because he pulled the state into the Middle East quagmire. This argument goes as follows: during Davutoglu’s tenure as foreign minister, 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 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; 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 an incompetent foreign minister had now been 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 IS.
It was clear that if anything went south with regard to 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 spin 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 IS is not quite clear. So far Turkey has refrained from declaring war against IS 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 IS 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 also 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 IS would strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad, his number-one enemy in the region.
While these factors do not diminish the questions about Erdogan’s tolerance of IS as part of Turkey’s conflict with Syria, the most legitimate reason for Ankara not to declare war against the Islamists was the hostages. 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 IS. Indeed, on September 22, a few days after the hostages were released, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Turkish officials to increase their efforts against IS.
However, signs from Ankara indicate that this support is not likely to be forthcoming. Although there has been no official statement about this issue, with the focus being on celebrating the arrival of the hostages, 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 IS, 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.
So 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 the external pressure to join the anti-IS coalition now that its most legitimate excuse is gone. In this regard, 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 rescued. Erdogan reiterated the same point a day later when he pointed out that the release was the result of diplomatic bargaining.
It is questionable, however, whether this approach could possibly convince Western and regional governments, which are determined to fight against the terrorists.
But 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 it wants 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 the fait accompli of a Kurdish state in the region after the IS 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 joining the anti-IS coalition.
The author is a Turkish PhD candidate in political science at the University of Delaware, this article initially appeared in Turkey Agenda.