GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The Turkish government is deploying tanks along the border with Syria and its parliament is poised to pass measures that would authorize Turkish soldiers from NATO’s second-largest army to deploy south of the frontier. But despite the saber-rattling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears likely to continue his country’s conspicuous absence from frontline airstrikes mounted by the U.S.-led coalition against militants of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
When Turkey’s lawmakers give the government the go-ahead Thursday to deploy troops against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the move will likely be trumpeted in Washington as a welcome sign that the Turkish president is at last fully on board with the coalition and is making good on promises he gave last week in New York to President Barack Obama during the U.N. General Assembly.
Following his meeting with Obama, Erdogan said there would be “both military and political” contributions to the coalition from Turkey. But he and his aides have been vague on the detail, and on Monday the Turkish leader painted the West as “anti- Islam” in a speech in Istanbul.
On the eve of this week’s parliamentary vote Turkey’s military dispatched more than a dozen tanks to hills overlooking the Syrian border town of Kobane, currently besieged by fighters from ISIS, after artillery shells fired by the militants landed near a refugee camp on Turkish soil.
But the tanks with their guns bristling ominously toward Syrian territory failed to respond to the shelling. Turkish military spokesmen claim their troops have traded mortar fire with ISIS fighters, but this has not been independently verified.
Diplomats here say they suspect Turkey will limit its military role—doing a bare minimum as a NATO member to avoid embarrassing the Western alliance but not enough to undermine the anti-Western narrative that thrills Erdogan’s Islamist supporters and other religious conservatives in the country.
“As much as Turkey enjoys the protection of NATO’s Patriot missiles against the Syrian regime, Ankara is perhaps not willing to appear an active member of a war operation against what was initially a Sunni insurgency movement in Syria,” according to Marc Pierini, a former ambassador of the European Union in Ankara. “Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never wanted to appear to be aligning itself with Western policies.”
Erdogan’s domestic critics say he has to some degree helped the rise of ISIS, as well as other Islamic militants. At the very least Turkey has turned a blind eye to them as they emerged in the Syrian civil war and increasingly formed the vanguard in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some critics argue that Turkey’s intelligence agencies have gone farther and actively channeled arms supplies to the jihadists.
Bayram Balci, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., ascribes the Turkish leader’s prevarications to Ankara’s fears that Assad will survive and the Turkish worry that as the Syrian civil war is prolonged, Kurdish separatists on both sides of the border will grow stronger.
“While Turkey can hardly be considered the direct father of the Islamic State, Ankara’s policy since the escalation of the Syrian crisis has contributed to strengthening jihadism in both Iraq and Syria,” said Balci. He argues Erdogan doesn’t have a clear and well-defined policy toward ISIS. “On the contrary, the Turkish government manages every Middle Eastern crisis through a day-to-day approach that is defined according to how the situation evolves.”
In a speech laden with disdain for the West delivered Monday, Erdogan himself linked his response to ISIS with the question of the Kurds. He queried why the West is so focused on the jihadist Islamic State while being less worried about the violent separatism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“The world is trying to bring a coalition together to cooperate against the threat of ISIS,” he said. “While the ISIS terror organization is causing turmoil in the Middle East, there has been ongoing PKK terror in my country for the last 32 years and yet the world was never troubled by it. Why?” He argued: “Because this terror organization did not carry the name ‘Islam.’”
In fact, the United States played a key role capturing the leader of the PKK in 1999 and consistently supported Turkey in its fight against an organization Washington has formally branded a terrorist organization since 1997.
Although Erdogan denounced ISIS as terrorists, his speech failed to outline clearly what role he sees Turkey playing in the coalition against the al Qaeda breakaway that now controls huge swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
There has long been Western frustration about the ease with which jihadists use Turkey for logistical purposes.
Both al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS have channeled foreign fighters through Turkey, many of whom fly to Istanbul, take so-called “jihadi express” flights or buses down to border towns such as Hatay or Gaziantep and are then ferried into Syria. Black market fuel dealers have been virtually unmolested by the Turkish authorities when buying smuggled oil from ISIS, which is estimated to control 60 percent of Syria’s oilfields.
Turkish banks have been accused also of laundering jihadist money—the proceeds not only from gas sales but also from the selling of antiquities looted from Syrian and Iraqi museums and archeological sites.
“Where do you think the ransom money for Western hostages is going?” said a senior European intelligence.
In his speech on Monday, Erdogan sought to turn the criticism that Turkey has not done enough to interdict jihadists by blaming the West for the presence of foreign fighters in jihadist ranks. This has long been the refrain of senior members of Erdogan’s party.
Last year, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is now the prime minister, asked rhetorically, “On what basis should we stop them? Turkey is receiving 34 million tourists. Should we say, ‘You have a beard, you may be a terrorist’?”
Opponents of the Turkish president note the mandate authorizing the sending of troops into Syria and Iraq for a year, if needed, is linked also with the establishment of an internationally backed safe haven inside Syria, and that is unlikely to happen.
Fearing being drawn deeper into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war, U.S. officials already have ruled out the possibility of establishing such a haven inside Syria, saying it is not part of President Obama’s military campaign against ISIS.
Ankara still considers the main problem in Syria to be Assad’s authoritarian government. Turkish officials fault the Obama policy for not containing a clear strategy to help topple Assad and the West for failing to take in more Syrian refugees.
But there is sympathy for jihadists battling in Syria along the border among Erdogan’s rural base. Journalist Ahu Özyurt reported last weekend in the Hurriyet Daily News that local officials in Turkey’s southeast province of Şanlıurfa had confided to her their respect for the jihadists. “I was shocked to hear words of admiration for ISIL,” wrote Özyurt, a senior editor for CNN Turk. The officials said: “They are like us, fighting against seven great powers in the War of Independence.” And the officials maintained they would rather have the jihadists than the Kurds south of the border as neighbors.
The title of Özyurt’s column: “Sympathy for the Devil that is ISIL.”