Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Reluctant Ally: Turkey in the Fight Against the Islamic State

By Christopher ChoPublished November 9, 2014

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Turkey's mere tacit support for the U.S. led anti-ISIL coalition highlights a growing gulf between the long-time allies. Our flagging relations have potent implications on the war against the Islamic State and immediate consequences in the Syrian border town of Kobani.
By Christopher Cho, 11/09/14

An important source of contention in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also a surprising one: Turkey. Though terrorist fighters continue to besiege the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, the long-time American ally has declined to take decisive action in the international conflict now unfolding at its doorstep. The events have highlighted crucial issues that divide the United States and Turkey, raising questions of the viability of the countries' six-decade-old alliance.

Turkey's strategic position on the frontlines makes its cooperation pivotal if the U.S. policy for stability is to succeed in the powder keg region. Yet, Washington and Ankara have failed to reach even basic agreements, including whether ISIL is indeed the principle security threat. Turkey's adamant refusal to allow the U.S. to use its military bases to launch offensives against ISIL, in addition to its harsh anti-American rhetoric, reveals palpable tensions. 

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, made it clear that his country has no intention of intervening on its own. Turkey has, in fact, declared outright opposition to aiding the Syrian Kurds in Kobani, a third of which has already fallen into enemy hands. Turkey's stance stems, in part, from its own violent history with the Kurdish Workers Party, a militant separatist group now heavily involved in the town's defense. Furthermore, Cavusoglu has repeatedly urged the anti-ISIL coalition to prioritize the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a proposition that has fared poorly in Washington.   

Of course, Turkey's reluctance to take up arms against ISIL is not without reason. Its long-running, porous border with Syria is actively penetrated by jihadi fighters. The presence of ISIL recruitment cells in the country is certain. Put simply, open support for the anti-ISIL coalition could spell potent domestic problems for Turkey. It would be, at least within NATO, the single most vulnerable country to potential counterstrikes from ISIL and quite possibly the Assad regime. What's more, the conflict is surfacing deep-rooted divisions, not only between Turks and the Kurds, but also the Sunnis and Shiites, and the religious and secular. 

The Turkish parliament, however, voted to authorize military force against ISIL on October 2, a marked shift in posture from its prior nominal support. A reduction of leverage due to ISIL's release of 46 hostages and sustained American pressure are possible influences behind the decision. It is important to note, however, the distinction between the authorization of the use of force and the imminent use of force; the former does not necessarily warrant action. Identical authorizations against Syria and Iran have, in fact, long been in place. Rather, a more promising development may be Turkey's tentative agreement to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross the border into Kobani. 

 Strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey are certainly nothing new. In 1974, the U.S. placed an arms embargo on its ally after Turkish troops invaded Cyprus. Relations hit a low ebb in 2003 when Turkey denied American troops use of Turkish soil as the staging grounds for the Iraq War. Indeed, doubts have been cast regarding the continued relevance of a relationship forged in the Cold War era. ISIL and the Syrian conflict could simply be unmasking our alliance for what it has become—hollow, barren, and token.