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Turkey's Dilemma Against IS In Syria

Turkish tanks near the Syrian border look on as smoke rises from the besieged city of Kobani on October 8.
Turkish tanks near the Syrian border look on as smoke rises from the besieged city of Kobani on October 8.

As Islamic State (IS) militants threaten to overrun the outgunned Syrian city of Kobani, Turkish forces stand a stone's throw away, poised to intervene at any moment.

Yet Turkey's ground troops and tanks across the border have not budged from their hilltop positions a few hundred meters from Kobani. Despite pledges that it would not let the predominantly Kurdish city fall, Ankara faces a very real dilemma when considering backing up its words with military action.

If it does act, Turkey risks the wrath of IS extremists and being sucked into a ground war. But if it does not intervene, Ankara threatens to inflame tensions with Turkey’s ethnic Kurds and to derail the nascent peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group.

Bigger Target

If Turkey were to take military action against IS militants in Kobani -- either by way of a ground invasion or aerial bombardment -- it could make itself a target for the jihadists. Experts have gone as far as saying that IS poses an existential threat to Turkey considering the group's territorial ambitions of establishing an Islamic caliphate comprising the entire Muslim world.

Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkey, says Ankara's intervention in Syria would considerably increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

"[There would be] increased threats of terrorist attacks inside Turkey from either the Islamic State itself or Islamic State sympathizers," says Jenkins, who adds that there have been several reports of planned IS terrorist attacks in Turkey recently. "The Islamic State has already publicly described Turkey as an 'apostate' regime, which makes it a legitimate target for hard-line Islamists."

Loss Of Credibility

Jenkins says that if Turkey turns its guns on IS -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fiercest enemy in Syria -- it risks tarnishing its credibility in the region.

Ankara, which Jenkins says has positioned itself as a regional superpower, has actively pursued regime change in Syria and has been among the most fervent supporters of air strikes against Assad's regime.

With an eye on its foreign-policy interests, Ankara has made some demands on the West before Turkish forces enter the fight. Speaking to Syrian refugees, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "we asked for three things: One, for a no-fly zone to be created; two, for a secure zone parallel to the region to be declared; and for the moderate opposition in Syria and Iraq to be trained and equipped."

If those demands were met, it would keep the heat on Assad's regime and Ankara’s credibility intact.

"If [Turkey] goes militarily against one of Assad's most formidable enemies, then the whole basis of its foreign policy over the last couple of years will be called into question," says Jenkins.

Inflame Tensions With Kurds

If Turkey does not take military action against IS in Kobani, it risks inflaming tensions with the country's marginalized ethnic Kurds.

Protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration against Islamic State in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey on October 7.
Protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration against Islamic State in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey on October 7.

This is already in motion. On October 7, anger over Turkey's perceived inaction boiled over in the country's predominately Kurdish southeast, with violent protests in a number of cities leaving over a dozen dead. The Kurdish diaspora also held protests in Europe, with dozens of demonstrators bursting into the European Parliament in Brussels.

Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, says Kobani is the flashpoint for what has been several years of Kurdish anger at Ankara.

"The Kurds are largely upset with [Turkey's ruling] AKP [party] for keeping an open-border policy, which they think was part of a larger strategy on the part of Ankara to support the Islamic State against the Kurds," he says.

Jenkins says Kurdish anger over Turkish inaction will "take a long time to go away," adding that Ankara's decision not to allow Kurds from Turkey to cross the border to fight has further alienated the minority group.

End Of Peace Process

By extension, experts say Turkish inaction in Kobani will derail the fragile peace process between Ankara and the banned PKK.

Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the group, last week warned that a massacre of Kurds in Kobani would doom a peace process with Ankara aimed at ending the group's 30-year insurgency to demand more autonomy, which has left an estimated 40,000 people dead.

Stein says the rifts between the PKK and Ankara are becoming wider as the IS onslaught on Kobani continues.

"I see a direct link between the fighting and problems with the peace process. The peace process may not be able to continue if Abdullah Ocalan feels it necessary to end it, which he has threatened to do," Stein says.

At the same time, experts say one reason for Ankara's hesitance toward military intervention in Kobani is that it would strengthen the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Kurdish militias closely linked with the PKK that have been fighting IS militants in Kobani.

Stein says Ankara fears that as Syrian Kurdish groups move closer to having a de facto autonomous enclave, the aspirations of Turkey's own Kurdish community will rise.

Damaged Ties With Iraqi Kurdistan

Experts have also warned that Ankara could risk jeopardizing its close relationship with the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Iraq. The autonomous region has become Ankara's key trade partner and ally in the region.

Jenkins says relations between Turkey and the KRG were already damaged when Ankara failed to heed a call for military and humanitarian help in August, when IS militants overran Kurdish areas in northern and western Iraq.

"Even though that relationship has been badly damaged, the KRG, in order to export its oil and its gas, which it needs if it's going to have an independent state -- Turkey is still the only viable option," says Jenkins. "So even though there are tensions in the relationship, I don't think it's going to destroy it completely."

International Condemnation

In addition to internal pressure, Turkey has come under mounting international pressure to intervene in Kobani. By not acting, Jenkins says, Ankara has already lost a huge amount of international credibility.

"[It] definitely looks to a large proportion of the international community that Turkey is callously standing by and allowing lives to be put at threat from what is -- the Islamic State -- a very barbaric organization," Jenkins says. "And it's making up excuses not to get involved."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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