Turkey steps up: The anti-Isis coalition will benefit, both practically and symbolically, from the commitment of another Sunni ally


Saturday 25 July 2015 03:31

Within the space of 48 hours, the policy of the Turkish government towards Isis appears to have changed decisively. After months of ambiguous prevarication, there have been air strikes against targets in Syria, arrests of suspected militants in Turkey and agreement that the United States can use the Incirlik air base in its own operations against Isis. These are bold moves, although they are not before time.

It has been clear ever since Isis emerged as a genuine military and political force that its defeat would be possible only if Arab nations acted against it. The sheer depth of America’s armed might meant it has had to be at the forefront of operations – but the only way to crush the notion that Isis is acting in the interests of ordinary, Sunni Muslims is if other Sunni-dominated states in the region join the coalition of forces ranged against it.

The primary hope, of course, is that the involvement of states such as Jordan and Egypt will encourage a Sunni awakening in Isis-controlled areas of the sort in which al-Qaeda was driven from Iraq in 2006. But Isis’s greater strength – and its co-option or murder of Iraqi tribal leaders – makes that less likely now than it was then, which is why the stepping up of Turkey’s war effort is all the more important.

After all, the country has significant fighting resources. According to the Global Firepower Index, its conventional military strength places it 10th on the world list. As to why Turkey’s outlook has changed so dramatically, it may be that last Monday’s suicide bombing in the town of Suruc finally convinced the country’s leaders that the direct threat posed by Isis operatives in Turkey itself can no longer be ignored. Then again, nobody else seems to have been under any illusion that Isis has already been responsible for attacks inside the country, despite claims by Turkish authorities that agents of the Syrian government are to blame.

Here perhaps is the rub. For while the rest of the world has been focusing on Isis, Turkey’s eyes have remained firmly on Damascus and the perceived danger of President Assad’s retention of power through years of civil war. And if a Syria without Assad has been priority number one for Ankara, the next most urgent matter has been to ensure that the Kurds do not take the opportunity provided by the conflict to consolidate their own position on both sides of the border. Indeed, it is notable that the security operations of the past two days have targeted Kurdish militants, as well as Isis targets. Turkey’s troubled relationship with the Kurds is certainly not off the agenda.

Nevertheless, for the most part Turkey’s regional objectives have largely been a failure. Mr Assad remains in charge, albeit amid considerable rubble. And the Kurds have been internationally lauded for taking the fight to Isis, especially around Kobani. A change of tack by President Erdogan was perhaps, therefore, inevitable. It is no less welcome for that, though.

Moreover, while it is easy to be critical of Turkey for not having acted sooner, it cannot be ignored that increased military activity against Isis may increase the threat to Turkish civilians from suicide bombings and other attacks. Just as international recruits have been able to join Isis via Turkey’s poorly policed perimeter, so it will be relatively easy for fighters intent on revenge to make their way back across the border. The war against Isis will benefit from Turkey’s increased flexing of its military muscle. But the region will not become less dangerous soon.

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