Alex Rowell

Turkish intervention talk more bark than bite

Ankara’s plans for “safe zones” in Syria, though ostensibly approved by parliament Thursday, will likely be restrained by Washington

A Turkish tank faces Syria near the border town of Kobane. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Three days after Turkish tanks deployed along Syria’s northern border following the shelling of Turkish villages from Syrian territory, the parliament in Ankara approved a motion Thursday night authorizing, for the first time, the use of military force in both Syria and Iraq.


The motion, which also allows foreign troops to use Turkish soil in the course of military action, comes amid speculation in the Turkish press that Ankara may be preparing for a more muscular response to the conflicts raging in neighboring Syria and Iraq, potentially involving adding its own firepower to US-led attacks against Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants in both countries and even creating so-called “safe” or “buffer” zones in areas of northern Syria to assist non-jihadist rebel factions in their fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime, which an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently described as the “root cause” of the ISIS problem.


While both those courses of action would theoretically be authorized by Thursday’s parliament decision, there have nonetheless been several signs that no action is imminent. Even before the parliament session began, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz was quoted saying no immediate steps would be taken following its passing. And on Friday, it was reported that Turkey would enter talks with Washington “in the coming weeks” to decide on the motion’s implementation. In any event, analysts told NOW that Erdoğan’s hopes of broadening the US-led military campaign to include greater pressure on Assad would likely not be realized.


“What the Turks would probably like to happen, which probably won’t happen, would be a buffer zone or no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the border,” said Andrew Finkel, author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-founder of P24, a nonprofit organization promoting Turkish press freedom. “That would be unprecedented […] One thing the Turkish army doesn’t like is fighting wars. And if they were to go in, it would be a quagmire.”


A key obstacle to Turkey’s “safe zone” goal is American opposition. Asked explicitly about the proposal Wednesday, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said it was not “something we’re actively considering.” A number of analysts told NOW this opposition stems from a belief in Washington that the fall of the Assad regime would be ill-conducive to what President Barack Obama views as the more urgent goal of defeating ISIS.


“Turkish [and American] priorities are different,” said Finkel. “[The US] might even be nervous if the Assad regime were to go.”


ISIS on the doorstep


Longer-term regional strategy aside, Turkey is currently faced with a much more immediate problem to manage: the siege by ISIS fighters of the Kurdish town of Kobane, just meters south of the Turkish-Syrian border. Clashes there between ISIS and local Kurdish forces have already sent upwards of 150,000 refugees into Turkey in the space of a week, and with reports of the jihadists beheading Kurdish captives, including women, there are fears of mass atrocities should the town succumb to their advance.


Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Kobane is precarious. On the one hand, domestic Kurdish dissidents have threatened that the fall of the town to ISIS would spell the end of peace talks between their factions and Ankara. On the other, if Turkey were to intervene directly against ISIS, it would risk the slaughter of its 80 soldiers stationed at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah – a tiny island of Turkish sovereignty within Syria effectively surrounded by ISIS some 25 miles south of Kobane – as well as possible revenge attacks by ISIS cells in major Turkish cities. For these and other reasons, analysts told NOW that Turkey was in a damned-if-it-does, damned-if-it-doesn’t predicament regarding its response to the town’s crisis.


“If Kobane falls with the Turks sitting on the sidelines, then people will be very unhappy with Turkey,” said Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But if they go in and rescue the [Kurds], then that has its own implications.”


“I don’t see them taking action,” Finkel told NOW, pointing out that Ankara had thus far not allowed Kurdish militants within Turkey to cross the border and defend the town.


“Of course, if Kobane were to fall, it would be horrendous […] but my feeling is military intervention would be their last resort.”


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod

Even before Thursday’s parliament motion passed, defense officials were saying no action would be imminent (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

One thing the Turkish army doesn’t like is fighting wars.”