Will the hostages' freedom give Turkey more options?

Turkey's Complicated Position on Islamic State

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the release of 46 citizens held hostage by Islamic State has freed him to cooperate more substantially with the U.S.-led coalition to destroy the group. It might not be that straightforward.

Although the U.S.'s strategy on Islamic State is complicated -- it is attempting to crush the group, while also trying to force a nuclear deal on one of the group's two most powerful regional opponents (Iran) and topple the second (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) -- it's simple compared with that of Turkey.

Erdogan aggressively committed himself to Assad's demise soon after Syria's military began slaughtering protesters in 2011. He opened Turkey's borders and coffers to opposition groups willing to fight the Syrian dictator, including Islamist radicals. Whether or not Islamic State received any of this official support, it has been recruiting within Turkey and is embedded among the 850,000 Syrian refugees on Turkish soil.

Once Islamic State erased the frontier between Syria and Iraq this summer, an already shaky Turkish policy collapsed. The group threatened the Kurdish areas in the north, where Turkish companies have invested billions of dollars in oil wells, pipelines and construction. The enemy of Turkey's enemy in Syria was now attacking Turkish interests in Iraq,

So Erdogan, too, now faces conflicting enemies in Syria. The difference is that Turkey is far more vulnerable than the U.S. to retaliation by Islamic State, even without hostages in the mix.

"Many people are talking about how Turkey is free to join the coalition now the hostages are free, but I see no chance," says Behlul Ozkan, an assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul's Marmara University. Islamic State would be able to carry out terrorist attacks in Turkish cities, including tourist destinations. The country is expected to attract 40 million international tourists this year, accounting for 6 percent of Turkey's gross domestic product, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. A few well-placed bombs could shrivel the industry.

Erdogan also faces conflicting incentives with the Kurds that the U.S. doesn't. Turkey has become a strategic partner for the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, but still has an unresolved conflict with Kurdish insurgents who operate in Turkey from bases across the border. So now Erdogan faces two registered terrorist organizations -- Islamic State and the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK -- that are recruiting among sympathizers in Turkey and fighting each other in Syria and Iraq.

As the PKK has joined the fight against Islamic State, Turkey has grown increasingly nervous about what might happen to the modern weaponry from Germany, the U.S. and other countries that's beginning to flow into Kurdish areas. A PKK affiliate runs the Kurdish areas of Syria, which have just come under assault by Islamic State, driving 130,000 refugees across the border, according to Turkish officials. So Turkey's radical Islamist enemy is now threatening its Kurdish enemy. Turkish police fired warning shots on Sunday to prevent a large group of Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to go fight with their compatriots in Syria.

There's one way of cutting this Gordian knot in Syria. Erdogan has begun to float (again) the idea of creating a "safe zone" in northern Syria. This would have multiple advantages: It would give Erdogan the incentive he needs to risk a terrorist backlash at home to join the military effort against Islamic State in Syria, if in humanitarian guise; provide the coalition with reliable boots on the ground to ensure success against Islamic State; and create a space within Syria to host some of the 3 million refugees who are currently in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The catch is that Turkey's agenda would not be the same as that of the U.S. Turkey would want to use the new safe zone as a place from which to base and train Assad's opponents, including Islamists, because unlike the U.S., Erdogan's top priority remains removing Assad. As a result, not only would Assad forcefully oppose the creation of a safe zone, but so would Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council, giving the enterprise a poor legal basis.

Erdogan doesn't want to break his security alliance with the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and is reportedly unhappy about the way Turkey is being portrayed as a semi-sponsor of Islamic State. So he will try to offer some kind of additional support to the coalition, now that the hostages have been freed. But unless the coalition is willing to adopt Turkey's agenda in Syria and create a safe zone, don't hold your breath for Erdogan to risk contributing Turkish jets or air bases to the effort.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net