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Turkey at the heart of the battle: the goals and dangers

October 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Eleven years after the Turkish parliament refused to allow the Coalition of the Gulf War to use Turkish territories during the war on Iraq, the Turkish government has authorised Turkish Armed Forces and foreign military forces to use Turkish territories. This raises many questions regarding the goals, paths, and results.

An active role

This is due to the fact that the Turkish position changed 180 degrees after the Turkish hostages were released from the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) organisation. Once the hostages were out of danger, the head of Turkish diplomacy described ISIS as a terrorist organisation and made several statements to that effect. Such statements included the statement made by the president before he headed to the UN General Assembly meetings in which he confirms that Turkey will be playing an “active” role in the recently formed international coalition and completely abandoned terms like “negative role” or logistical and humanitarian support.

In addition to Turkey freeing itself from the limitations of the hostages, it believes that the subsequent developments in the field pose a threat to its national security because the battles that are now occurring in the area of Kobani, which has a Kurdish majority, are very close to its borders. This would mean that it could fall into the hands of ISIS and put ISIS in direct contact with Turkey.

On the other hand, it seems that the siege imposed by ISIS on the Suleiman Shah tomb in Aleppo is a great pressure point for Ankara, as the tomb is the only geographical area outside the Turkish border (except for the embassies and consulates) that is considered by the Turkish Constitution as “Turkish territory”. The tomb is guarded by a Turkish military unit consisting of 50 soldiers inside Syrian territories, and it would require a response to any attack on it.

Turkish goals

However, the authorisation that the parliament gave government by a majority vote of 298 votes to 98 does not necessarily mean that Turkey will fuse into the alliance in order to only achieve the goals determined by the international parties. It seems that some goals specific to Turkey are looming in the horizon, which are evident if we read between the lines of the memorandum issued by Turkey.

Observers did not miss the fact that the memorandum focused on the Syrian regime more than ISIS, which was supposedly the reason for issuing the authorisation. Turkey accused the Syrian regime of supporting terrorist organisations and encouraging them to head towards the Turkish borders, and thus, the regime that lost its legitimacy poses a threat to the Turkish national security, according to the memorandum.

While government sources said that the text addressed “any threat or operation that harms Turkish national security” the opposition, particularly the Republican People’s Party, saw that it focused on overthrowing Al-Assad more than combatting “terrorism”. This drove the opposition to reject the memorandum despite its constant pressure on the government to fight ISIS.

On the other hand, comprehensiveness and inclusiveness is also evident throughout the text. When it refers to the danger of terrorism, it mentions “all terrorist groups” in Syria and Iraq, which widens the Turkish government’s horizons for any potential scenario in the two countries. Also, the new text is different from the first memorandum issued in March 2003, as it does not specify a time or number limit for the foreign forces or even determine specific countries, and instead was content with referring to “foreign military forces”. This seems to be a sign of a possibility of embracing and training forces opposed to Al-Assad in Turkish territories in an effort to bring him down.


Although the memorandum is basically an extension and integration of two previous memorandums for Iraq and Syria, it shows signs of a renewed Turkish position that is open to many horizons, and regional and international forces have had no trouble grasping its signs.

The United States, which leads the international coalition, expressed its joy with the parliament authorisation. It also believes that “the time has come for action” after it had understood the slowness of Turkey’s interaction with the US due to the hostages held by ISIS. However, there is still the question regarding the extent of the understanding between the two parties in terms of the goals and operations that Turkey will participate in, especially since the airstrikes have been ongoing daily for quite a while on Turkey’s borders, even before it had agreed to it, and in light of the clear contrast between the two allies in terms of their position on the Syrian regime or the buffer zone, for example.

As for Iran, the powerful and closest ally of Bashar Al-Assad in the equation, it did not delay issuing a warning through its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to his Turkish counterpart alerting him about the need to refrain from causing more tension in the region. He also warned against targeting Damascus being one of Turkey’s goals and to remain content with the announced goals of combatting “terrorism”. It goes without saying that Ankara can do without having a direct, military or non-military confrontation with Tehran, especially with no cover, help, or even participate from the alliance as a whole.

What happens after the authorisation?

In the world of politics, it is given that texts define the minimum requirements, not the maximum ceiling for political action, and therefore, this document, which expresses Turkey and its government’s willingness to “respond” to any threat to its national security, opens the door to any action Turkey wants to take outside its borders, as determined by its interests.

Although the Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz said that “quick and direct Turkish movements must not be expected” after the authorisation and that Turkey will invest such movements only in the event of defending itself and its borders, the general text gives Turkey a lot of room for manoeuvre and to action. This space is referred to by Erdogan when he said: “In light of the crises witnessed in our region, we cannot remain bound or reluctant.” This is also illustrated by the words of Prime Minister Davutoglu regarding “a complete and prepared Turkish strategy” to face all possibilities, and it is confirmed by the current exercises carried out by the Turkish Armed Forces, including the simulation of real war.

In this regard, we can draw attention to three very sensitive and top priority issues for Ankara. First, the buffer or safe zone on the Turkish-Syrian border which Turkey wants in order to protect its borders from any offensive operations from Al-Assad’s regime or ISIS, to contain the waves of refugees, and to protect it from being used as a focal point for any future ground military action.

The statement made by the US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying that they “are not effectively discussing the matter” indicates Ankara’s failure as of now to convince its allies of its vision. Therefore, it seems that Turkey is heading towards achieving the matter through its own decision and local capabilities. This explains the recent confirmation of Turkish politicians that the matter does not require a new resolution from the Security Council and that Resolution 688 issued in 1991 constitutes a legal cover for this region with humanitarian goals.

The second issue is protecting its borders from ISIS’ progression; the battles currently taking place between ISIS on one hand and the Kurdish groups on the other are taking place close to the Turkish borders. In addition to this, the Suleiman Shah tomb in Aleppo constitutes a reason for any Turkish military action. It is worth noting the leaked news of a Turkish plan ready to be activated if the tomb or troops guarding it are attacked, which includes F16 planes that can reach the site within minutes and a full unit on standby, drones and supporting missiles.

The third issue is the balances and effects of the ongoing battles on the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey. This is due to the fact that several Kurdish officials have warned that the peace process would fail if Kobani fell into the hands of ISIS. However, Turkey stressed that it would “do everything necessary” to stop this from happening, especially since the latter fears that a clear victory for the Kurds would lead to them strengthening their position or would allow them to communicate politically, geographically and strategically with the Kurds in Iraq (especially if they get heavy weapons), which would threaten the entire peace process.

In the general scene, it seems that the authorisation memorandum has given Ankara a chance to strongly bargain with the international coalition, especially with the US, in order to accept the establishment of the buffer zone on its borders, as Turkey sees that the international community tends to understand Turkey’s approach for the need for a comprehensive solution for the crises in the region, rather than being content with only fighting the effects of ISIS militarily. In this sense, it seems that Turkey is foreseeing a historical opportunity through joining the alliance to achieve the issue that has been the cornerstone of its foreign policy for years, i.e. overthrowing Al-Assad’s regime.

In this context, we are able to understand Davutoglu’s words regarding Turkey’s refusal to “determine the fate of Syria and Iraq without using Turkey’s decision mechanisms”.

In addition to this, Ankara fears a three-dimension organisation that may pose a threat to its interests and national security instead of guaranteeing them. The three dimensions are made up of, first, the ground war swamp that Turkey does not want to get involved in and instead wants to remain content with airstrikes and a buffer zone.

The second dimension is caution against any regional or international confrontations with Damascus’ allies, and therefore, it may seek to train the opposition’s military groups to work on the ground.

The third dimension of this organisation is looking out for long-term goals and consequences of the international coalition, which may lead to the prolonging the war and hence lead to undermining Turkey’s interests which include stability and economic development. This, in turn, will negatively impact Turkey’s role and status in the future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.