The Fight Against ISIS: Mistrust Cannot be the Cure for the Extremist Disease

On Saturday President Obama called his Turkish counterpart President Erdoğan to discuss the details of both countries’ cooperation against ISIS. While high-level consultations are ongoing at multiple levels, Western media’s Turkey bashing has become an escapist route to divert attention from the upheaval in the Middle East. Media outlets are wide open to clichés ranging from pan-Islamism to anti-Westernism that portray Turkey as failing the fight against ISIS for ideological reasons. The invalidity of these characterizations aside, they are neither a cure for reining in the regional chaos nor the best way to win over the Turkish public, which is already skeptical about further activism especially in Syria. If the United States and Western partners are genuinely willing to confront the threats of sectarianism and extremism, Ankara has a consequential role to play, which requires a common agenda and a clear endgame.

 

 

Undeniably, there has been growing mistrust among all actors to pursue a common cause in the Middle East. The U.S.-Iran talks have raised eyebrows among pro-Western regional capitals, while ongoing confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia undermines peaceful transitions in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The July 2013 coup in Cairo weakened the democratic cause in the Middle East. Israel’s resettlement policy has neutralized U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts and other international plans for peace. And finally, non-state actors have gained unprecedented ground toward invalidating territorial borders.

 

The Arab Spring has been a bitter experience of dashed hopes and broken promises. The United States failed to stand up to uphold democracy and human rights as “central components of its foreign policy.” The EU and other partners stood as mere onlookers. Russia, Iran, and Iran’s Shiite proxies were emboldened by Western inaction and indecisiveness.

 

The current situation vindicates earlier Turkish premonitions to stand firm against Assad’s narrow-minded opportunism. The Syrian regime unleashed all possible forces in its fight against the Syrian people, which radicalized the whole country with spillover effects in neighboring countries. This created ample ground for the entrenchment of the jihadist, sectarian and ethnonationalist groups, which also benefited from the political wrangling in Iraq.

 

Against this murky background, Turkey and its visionary agenda have become vulnerable to the growing security threats now risking the country’s internal stability. Hopeful of acting in tandem with Western partners to ensure a smooth transition early on, it is now under pressure to give way to the status quoist current, which yearns for a return to the pre-Arab Spring regional order. Indeed, there is a debate within Western policy circles about whether to yield to the possibility of supporting the Assad regime against the scourge of extremism.

 

Turkey feels the heat due to political and security, along with the economic and demographic risks of this spillover. ISIS’s threats of attack on Turkey combine with disingenuous illusions for greater Kurdistan. Domestic political debates contradict the need for a broader Turkish role to cope with the burgeoning security risks, if not the ethos of the reconciliation process with the Kurds.

 

Ankara has thus moved to gradually readjust its approach to security cooperation. The current policy of heightened border security and control of transnational flow of jihadists entails further support from NATO allies, while intelligence cooperation has to be supplemented by closer regional networks. This might also provide an opportunity for Ankara to resuscitate its impaired regional and transatlantic ties. On that note, Turkey’s relations with regional capitals need fine-tuning and can help to restore the vanishing regional vision. However, Turkey also needs to rehash its “open-door” policy, which overstretched its national capacities in response to over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. To that end, humanitarian approaches, such as an enforced safe haven in the Syrian-Turkish border, can provide some sanctuary against the jihadist cause of ethnic and sectarian cleansing.  

 

Given the reluctance of all Western allies to commit significant resources, the United States expects Ankara to undertake the fight against ISIS in Syria. The expectation gap stems from Ankara’s “cannot go alone” and Washington’s “cannot do more” approaches. However, this is a menace both will have to confront soon and better together.

 

American reengagement in the Middle East will not automatically fix the burgeoning fissures in the region. The emerging anti-ISIS coalition will have to account not only for the Sunni-Shia divide, but also the national, intraregional, and even global discords. This is because a move on one front is likely to empower and disempower certain groups.

 

This risk of undoing regional balances comes on top of broken state structures in both Syria and Iraq. The former has preserved, but delegitimized state institutions. One way or the other the post-Assad political regime will entail a new political definition. Iraq failed to establish public order due mainly to foreign meddling and lack of national consciousness. Unless Iraqi groups sacrifice their particular interests in favor of national reconciliation, the unity of the country will be increasingly tenuous. Even worse, the side effects of enlisting centrifugal forces in the fight against ISIS could further undermine both Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity, which might in turn trigger further regional security dilemmas.

 

Against complex regional dynamics, it is important to espouse a more comprehensive and holistic approach to restoring at least a semblance of order and security in the region. To that end, power projection is a prerequisite to build the necessary framework with clear goals and selective partners. And Turkey is ready to take the challenge provided a visionary approach to address the root causes of the current turmoil is jointly formulated.

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© 2015 The Foreign Policy Institute

The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
The Johns Hopkins University

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