Policy of Ankara towards Islamic State is wrong and dangerous

(Interview with Gareth Jenkins, non-resident Turkey expert at the USA's Johns Hopkins University)

Question:  In fact, the world today speaks about the threat from  the extremist groups The Islamic State. How dangerous is the threat from the Group?

I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Islamic State (IS) is a major threat both to the region and beyond it. In terms of sadism, simple-minded bigotry and delight in murdering innocent people I think it exceeds all other terrorist groups of whatever political persuasion.

Question: Turkey is one of the regional forces that are actively involved in addressing the IS. Ankara  position is different from  the position of allies on this issue. How do you assess this position?

One of the main problems  Turkey can  face Turkey is that the government – which effectively means President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu – increasingly views the world through an ideological prism, which means that it sees what it wants to see rather than what is actually there. At best, this results in a willful naivety, at worst callous self-interest and double standards. Its priority in Syria is not, as the government claims, humanitarian considerations – though these do sometimes play a role, albeit highly selectively – but getting rid of Assad. This makes it reluctant to weaken any organization that it regards as being opposed to him. Of course, at the moment, the Islamic State is also fighting the Syrian PYD, which is allied with the PKK, which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey for the last 30 years. Having said that, I think there is more sympathy for the Islamic State’s goals than its methods. I am sure many in Turkey’s ruling AKP are genuinely appalled by the organization’s bloodthirsty sadism. But, of course, it is also ridiculous to suggest that Islamic State and the PKK are equally bad. After all, even Al Qaeda has tried to distance itself from the Islamic State on account of the atrocities it has committed.

I think there is also a naïve assumption in the Turkish government that the Islamic State either poses no threat at all to Turkey or, if there is one, it is much less than that posed by the PKK. I think they were genuinely surprised when the Islamic State overran the Turkish Consulate in Mosul in June this year and took 49 people hostage. The day before the incident, Davutoglu – who was then foreign minister – even famously tweeted that Turkey had done everything to ensure that the people in the consulate were safe.

In reality, the Islamic State poses a major threat to Turkey. Ultimately I don’t think that there is any doubt that it is a much greater threat to the PKK. In theory in least – although unfortunately not yet in practice – it is possible to defuse the PKK insurgency through negotiations. It is impossible to do the same with the Islamic State.

The AKP’s policies towards the Islamic State have already sown the seeds of problems that will haunt Turkey for years to come. One example is the radicalization of young people by Islamic State supporters in Turkey, who have been allowed to recruit and propagandize with impunity. Of course, these radicalized young people form only a tiny proportion of the population as a whole. But extremists can inflict damage on a society out of all proportion to their numbers.

In addition, the AKP’s policies towards the Islamic State have further alienated Kurdish nationalists in Turkey. The impression the AKP has given – and this remains the case despite the rather halfhearted agreement to allow some peshmerga into Kobane – is that it is prepared to allow Kurdish civilians in Syria to be massacred by the Islamic State. And, of course, in addition to murders, the Islamic State also boasts of how its members rape and sell into slavery women and young girls. From a Kurdish nationalist perspective, it is difficult to avoid comparing the alacrity with which the AKP defends the rights of Palestinians killed by Israelis in Gaza and its apparent indifference to the plight of Kurds on Turkey’s own border.

Question: By the way,  the Kurdish nationalists say that Turkey's policy regarding the IS almost openly demonstrates interest in the destruction of as more Kurds in Syria.

I think it would be more accurate to say that the AKP wants to weaken the Kurdish nationalist movement rather than physically exterminating Kurds. Although it has often displayed an alarming lack of concern for human life, I don’t think the AKP is genocidal. But I also think that this is how it is perceived by a large number of Kurdish nationalists and that perception – regardless of whether or not it is accurate – has repercussions. Ultimately, whatever the political framework in which it occurs, Turks and Kurds need to resolve their differences peacefully through negotiations. This requires a level of mutual trust and a confidence that the other side will abide by any agreement. At the moment, this trust is not there. And the impression that the AKP has given to the Kurds is not helping to build it.

Question: The USA and Turkey are having difficult negotiations on cooperation in neutralizing the threat posed by the IS. What is the stumbling block in the negotiations?

The US sees military action against the Islamic State as a moral imperative. Although I have often been very critical of US foreign policy in the past, in this instance even I think the US is right.

However, the AKP government does not want to get involved. It has quietly allowed the US to conduct intelligence gathering activities and – as far as I understand -- also permitted non-lethal US drones to operate out of Turkey. But it is refusing to play an active role in the military campaign against the Islamic State or to open its airbases to coalition planes. If Turkey did so, then it would lead to an increase in the firepower that the coalition could bring to bear against the Islamic State.

Question:  Are you sure  that Turkey will permit to the use  its territory for US military invasion in Syria?

No. I am not sure. One of the problems with the deinstitutionalization of policy making in Turkey and the concentration of so much power in one person’s hands is that it has become very difficult to predict. President Erdogan sometimes says or does one thing one day and then something completely different a few days later. All I am sure of is that, even if Turkey does eventually relent and either join the coalition against the Islamic State or allow the coalition’s forces to operate out of Turkey, it will at most only reduce the damage that its recent policies have done both to Ankara’s ties with other countries – including not only NATO but other Muslim countries, who are virtually all very much aware of the danger posed by the Islamic State – but also to its broader international reputation.

Question: Though Azerbaijan does not have  common borders with Syria,  the IS  extremists have already  threaten to come  to  the Caucasus. Should we take the threat seriously?

I don’t think the Islamic State poses an immediate serious threat to Azerbaijan. From Azerbaijan’s perspective, one of the unintended benefits of the current fighting is that the Islamic State is very much focused on Syria and Iraq. The hope is that it will be seriously weakened before it is able to focus its attention on other countries. The nature of Azeri society also means that it would be very difficult for the Islamic State to establish a firm foothold in the country. There are other regions in the northern Caucasus which are arguably at much greater risk. This is not to say that there is no threat at all. I think the Islamic State poses a threat to a very large number of countries in the Middle East, Europe and the Caucasus. But I think that the risk for Azerbaijan is less than for many other countries.



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