Why is Turkey reluctant to intervene against IS?

Why won’t Turkey intervene against Islamic State (IS). The answer is always more complex than apparent.

  1. Religion. Turkey is reluctant to participate in any operation that will result in the death of Muslims, itself being a Muslim majority country. Although this may not be said outright but deference made to treaties, a policy of non-intervention, neutrality, it also explains why the Turkish parliament sided with public opinion before the US led military invasion in Iraq in 2003 and did not participate. This is nothing new, and looking back to Turkey’s Ottoman history, any military operation involving attack against Muslims required justification (in other words the issuance of a religious edict (fatwa) which is what happened during Ottoman times to justify against (Shiite) Muslims, the Safavids.
  2. Infrastructure Turkey is already hosting over 800,000 Syrians who have fled across the border. To host refugees, countries need to be at a certain level of development. Turkey is still considered a developing country, which means that although it is providing for this guest population, it does require resource and commitment from elsewhere. Problems have already commenced in Turkey with local resentment of the population is some areas, and the presence of more Syrian beggars in population centres.
  3. The Kurdish issue. The majority of the population freeing Kobane, the border down which ISIS is pressing on, is Kurdish. One fifth of Turkey’s 75 million population is Kurdish. Turkey experienced a prolonged internal conflict with the internationally recognized terror organization, the PKK (Kurdistan workers party). The seeming recent reluctance to accept the fleeing Kobane population has been perceived as double standards and reluctance to open the doors to Kurds. This is what led to protests on the evening of 7th of October including a curfew in 5 Kurdish majority cities in south eastern Turkey: Diyarbakır, Batman, Muş, Siirt, Mardin and Van and resulting in 12 deaths.
  4. Internal security threat. ISIS recruitment is happening in Turkey’s capital according to this New York Times article. Could attacking ISIS therefore awaken internal sympathy towards them within Turkey?
  5. NATO Article 5. There are already coalition airstrikes taking place on Kobane, which as of Thursday 8 October, seems to have stymied the IS advance. However, should IS advance and attack Turkey, this would invoke NATO’s article 5; that an attack on one member state, is considered an attack on all, invoking article 5.
  6. Anti government sentiment. While the ruling AKP government led by now President Erdogan has increased its proportion of the vote in 4 subsequent elections, there is a sizeable population who are anti-government and anti-Erdogan. This was born out during the Gezi protests in May-June 2013, and a number of other instances which have given rise to anti government protest and expression. While this is not the most important issue of the lot, it does subject government behaviour to criticism, and lack of a unified public support to potential internal and external security threats.
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Istanbul on Saturday night: what was done, what is to come

Updated: 17 June, 2013 (A quick write up, will be edited properly in due time)

My great grandmothers brother was Lutfi Kirdar. He became mayor of Istanbul in 1938. In 1940, he tore down the Ottoman barracks and in its place built a park. That park is Gezi park centre of Turkey and media attention for the past three weeks.

Last night, following the calls by President Gul (on Twitter) and Prime Minister Erdogan (at an Ankara public rally) for the protestors to leave Gezi Park, who had been acknowledged as peaceful, they were moved out. Protestors in the park had been singled out of the crowds gathering daily at Taksim square protesting. They were not to be interfered with. In the park were hundreds of camping tents and impromptu services – food for those who needed it, triage and gas masks, even a library. There were performances in the park, activities for children and even yoga. It had the feel of a calm community oasis, its central point the base of the protest: to stop the removal of trees in the park to make way for planned development. During the afternoon, after calls from police to leave, a series of water cannons and tear gas were dispersed in the park, and with it all its habitants. Some press remained and live images started to come through – police knocking down tents in what appeared to be making sure no one was hiding out and then the ‘clean up’ began. First the bulldozers then the municipal workers. The bulldozers moved the barricades, including one overturned car while the municipal workers started to take down banners, tents, the makeshift stall, everything. A ‘wishing tree’ had been set up where people had written their hopes and tied them with string.. which was then burnt after police took control of the park.

Wish tree before via https://twitter.com/zeynep/status/346000092148420608

Wish tree before via Zeynep Tufekci

Where were the thousands of people who had been previously assembled? Where did they go? They were cordoned off into various streets that feed into Taksim Square. Children who had been separated from their parents were taken to the Divan Hotel, at one edge of the park. All this of course, was organised on social media. Accounts set up for the Gezi ‘resistance’ have tens to hundreds of thousands of followers. Word gets around quickly. But what happened shortly after was police firing teargas into the hotel. Arda Kutsal founder of Webrazzi, Turkey’s dominant digital blog, said on Twitter “No one in this country will justify those who threw tear gas into the hotel, when children were inside.” Turkish commentator Ziya Meral responded “it beggars belief.” Reports, again on Twitter began to circulate that press was being removed from the park. Shortly after, the live streams went down.

Wish tree after via Zeynep Tufekci

Wish tree after via Zeynep Tufekci

As a journalist your responsibility is to report – to be neutral, objective, fair and furnish analysis with context. But what happens when the issue becomes personal and when your stores of rationality are no longer able to explain events? How do you explain tear gas being targeted towards a hospital? Writer for the Economist, Amberin Zaman expressed the shock and speechlessness that accompanied the events. First shock – no more words to explain unnecessary police force. Didn’t a delegation of protestors meet with the Prime Minister, didn’t he say a referendum should be held on planned developments? Hadn’t the police drawn back and allowed the festival, peaceful like atmosphere to continue? This became dismay of witnessing what had been left in the past, and unimaginable in today’s Turkey, a country whose inhabitants are known for their sense of pride and ownership. Where was the rationality in all of this? Why do this on a Saturday night, a weekend when protestors have no reason to go home?  The progression of sentiment is predictable. Shock at removal from the park, sadness of the ending, not by their own accord, of the collective community they had built. This can only spur anger. People will feel robbed of reason and a perceived sense of justice. Their grievances had been listened to, there was hope, and now… this…

At the same time a pro government rally is to be held tomorrow (Sunday 16 June) in Istanbul. Not good timing. Why create a potential situation for political ideologies to clash. Up until this point, this was not an issue of contention. The Gezi and related protests were marked as an organic movement that swelled in response to excessive or unnecessary use of police force. This was acknowledged by President Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Arinc. Protestors were drawn from a diverse cross section of society: the students, the unions, the lawyers, conservatives, the Kurds, and yes even government supporters. Although protestors chants did include anti government and anti Erdogan cries, this did not translate into the oft repeated objectives of the cause: the cessation of the planned Gezi park development, a ban on tear gas and those responsible for excessive police force to be held to account. These objectives have been acknowledged but are not in play.

By forcefully removing people, by continued dispersal of tear gas, sound grenades, water cannons on the heals of understanding and dialogue; by holding rallies that will now draw diametrically drawn political lines, hopes for resolution are fading. That resolution could have been negotiated space. But as characteristic of so much in Turkey, this too can turn into a “my way or the high-way” approach. Some protestors have made the call that the Prime Minister also represents them, even if they might not have voted for him, that he is still their Prime Minister too, meaning they want him to act in the best interests of the entire country, not just his constituents. Calls for him to resign and his government to step down are unrealistic and unhelpful. He is after all a popularly elected figure increasing at each subsequent election his share of the vote. Perhaps its the words of Gurkan Zengin, head of news of Al Jazeera Turk, which will remind the check to be kept – that “Erdogan is an important brand for Turkey, but Turkey is more important than Erdogan.”