Turkey must get off the sidelines and respond to ISIS threat

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the parliamentary group meeting of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on May 13, 2014 in Ankara.</p>

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the parliamentary group meeting of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on May 13, 2014 in Ankara.

WASHINGTON — Few countries are as directly threatened by the crisis in Iraq as Turkey, a US ally and NATO member. Not only does it share a border with Iraq, but more than 100 of its citizens, including several diplomats and soldiers, have been kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since it overran Mosul last month.

In contrast to the Obama administration, which wisely jettisoned its misguided passive Iraq policy in favor of actively brokering a political solution in Iraq, Ankara remains publicly disengaged. Turkey must get off the diplomatic sidelines and look beyond its domestic political agenda — as the White House has done — or risk lasting damage to Turkey and the region as a whole.

So far, Turkey’s only response to ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State, seizing large swathes of territory in Iraq has been to impose a total media blackout within Turkey on vague national security grounds. The Turkish Government seems to regard the kidnapping of its consul general and staff in Mosul as cause for the media blackout. Three journalists who reported on the situation have been jailed under Turkey’s draconian press laws.

While most of the Turkish truck drivers who were rounded-up by ISIS after Mosul’s collapse have been released, all of Turkey’s officials remain hostages.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government is not making public statements about ISIS’s gains, Turkey’s support of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the importance of replacing incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki with a more conciliatory figure, or the host of related issues with which Washington and every capital in the region is currently preoccupied.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is instead exclusively focused on next month’s presidential election where he is running as the ruling AKP Party’s nominee and will likely triumph against a divided and weak opposition. The election will be the first time Turkey’s president is chosen via a national vote. The grandeur and symbolism of the post exceed its traditionally ceremonial role, but it is an important election nonetheless.

Even from Turkey’s domestic political perspective, ignoring Iraq is shortsighted.

Few national security issues are as important as negotiating the safe release of kidnapped Turkish citizens. Turkey must also face the reality that potential American airstrikes — recently requested by Baghdad but still under consideration by Washington — would originate from Turkish territory.

Assuming such strikes materialize, refusing US requests to launch from Incirlik Air Base would create real friction with the US; allowing them to proceed, however, could prompt a domestic backlash given general Turkish public opposition to the United States’ use of force in other countries.

Turkey is not motivated by a lack policy options in Iraq. In fact, Ankara has no shortage of allies and influence there. A central pillar of Erdogan’s foreign policy has been his savvy building of close ties with the KRG over Iraq’s central government.

Now as the Kurd’s contemplate true independence, Turkey is the KRG’s main trading partner and its primary conduit to export crude oil to world markets despite vehement opposition by Iraq’s Central Government. Ankara’s frosty relationship with Baghdad is understandably driven by the belief that Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki is unreliable and heavily influenced by Turkey’s historical rival Iran.

Now that the Kurds control Kirkuk — the traditional homeland they have long sought to reclaim — the KRG’s quest for independence may very well accelerate. For the first time in its history, Turkey may have to contend with a “soft partition” of Iraq and the emergence of a truly independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s borders. Turkey’s deep relationship with the Kurds gives Turkey influence as the KRG considers its future within or separate from Iraq.

Likewise, Turkey has friends within Iraq’s Sunni minority. Rather than ignore the crisis they face, Turkey should be working with leading Sunnis, including Osama Al Nujeifi and his Mutahidoon Party, to forge a political solution. It should also engage tribal elements and insurgent groups to dampen their support for ISIS.

As the largest Sunni state in the Middle East, Turkey has the resources and relationships to facilitate the active involvement of moderate Sunnis in Iraq’s government formation process, whenever it is completed.
Defeating ISIS and bringing stability to Iraq can only be accomplished via political compromise on all sides.

Turkey can play a key role as a regional champion for Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities. Rather than simply ignoring the crisis in Iraq, Prime Minister Erdogan should follow President Obama’s example: put domestic political concerns aside for the moment, and do all that he can to help bring Iraq back from brink.

As Washington’s about face shows, it’s never too late to embrace a more involved and effective Iraq policy.
Eli Sugarman is a Truman National Security Fellow and senior director at Gryphon Partners, an emerging markets firm. Dr. Joshua Walker is a Truman National Security Fellow and formerly was a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State. They are regional experts who recently co-authored the policy report “Iraqi-Kurdistan and Turkey: America’s Middle-Eastern Silver Lining.”