WASHINGTON, October 8, 2014 — Despite the encroachment by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on its border, Turkey continues to refuse to fight the militants. The assault by ISIS on the border town of Kobane is increasing international frustration with Turkey, whose reluctance to join the effort against the terrorists is raising serious questions about the motivations and intentions of Ankara.
Activists inside Kobane, a Kurdish town in Syria on the border with Turkey, report that air strikes on Tuesday night have pushed ISIS back, but have not ended the assault. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS was in control of the industrial district in the city. Kurdish forces also told civilians to leave the city immediately, causing refugees to flee into Turkey. There are already more than 180,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Militants are now flying the black ISIS flag on the outskirts of Kobane, and have not yet left the city.
ISIS is attempting to take Kobane, which it has surrounded for a year, to open a strategic highway connecting its strongholds of Aleppo and Raqqa. The corridor would not only allow goods, weapons and fighters to transit the three areas easily, but would also provide access across the Syrian-Turkish border. Controlling the border town would also allow ISIS to easily export oil from Syria to sell on the black market.
Last week, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation renewing the mandate against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The bill authorizes Turkish military operations in both Iraq and Syria and allows foreign troops to stage in Turkey in an effort to fight ISIS. However, the country so far has failed to provide any support for coalition efforts against ISIS.
Turkey’s refusal to engage ISIS is based on a multiple foreign policy concerns, including the over-riding emphasis on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from Syria. Turkey has lobbied heavily for Assad’s removal since the start of the civil war, and has pushed the international community to arm the opposition. Turkey has provided training, weapons and supplies for anti-Assad rebel groups, allowing them open access across the 510-mile border, dubbed “the two way jihadist highway” both to bring supplies and personnel in and to export oil.
Any effort against ISIS would strengthen Assad, which Turkey refuses to do.
Turkey is also worried about the impact a strike on ISIS would have on the fate of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is a small Turkish-ruled enclave inside of Syria. Any attack by Turkey against ISIS would almost certainly prompt ISIS to launch a devastating assault against the Tomb and the Turkish forces that protect it.
Finally, Turkey is concerned about the rise of Kurdish forces, several of which are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey has fought PKK separatists for more than 30 years, and considers them terrorists.
This reluctance by Turkey to act could reflect an internal strategy to draw the West deeper into the Syrian and Iraq conflicts. Recently leaked audio tapes of discussions among high-ranking Turkish leaders suggest Turkey may use an attack by ISIS as a way to achieve its goals in the region. Specifically, Turkey would call on its NATO allies to intervene in Syria and Iraq and to create a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey and, ultimately, assist in its goal of deposing Assad.