Turkey is turning a deaf ear to insistent pressure to take a more pro-active stance in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, adding to existing strains with the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Western diplomats have repeatedly made clear they want to see the key NATO member play a key role in the coalition against the militants, who are battling for the Syrian town Kobane just a few kilometres from Turkey.
But even with the jihadists so close, Turkey is wary of giving in to Western pressure to allow coalition jets the use of its air bases, let alone deploy its own troops.
Turkish leaders meanwhile are increasingly bitter over being pressured to help save the single settlement of Kobane, when IS jihadists have already snared swathes of Iraq and Syria while the West did nothing.
“It’s not about Kobane,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu snapped angrily this week. “It’s all about putting pressure on Turkey through Kobane. But Turkey has no appetite for adventures.”
Including the latest influx of 200,000 Syrians from the Kobane region, Turkey is already hosting 1.5 million refugees, a number that the government icily points out dwarfs the numbers taken in by the West.
“No-one has a right to teach us a lesson,” said Davutoglu, who in his previous job as foreign minister spearheaded a controversial policy to make Turkey once again the centre of the Middle East diplomacy.
With Erdogan frequently pointing out that the “world is bigger than five” in reference to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the failure Thursday of Turkey’s bid to take a non-permanent seat on the council is hardly going to help.
– ‘West should be careful’ –
According to analysts, Turkey has every reason to be cautious — IS is already camped out just over its own borders and the security implications of Turkish military action would be unpredictable.
A war against IS would “be a disaster for Turkey, with porous borders, vulnerability to terrorist attack and the significant Sunni conservative constituency in Turkey that does not see IS as Turkey’s enemy,” said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group.
“The West should be very careful not to force Turkey to intervene to save Syria and then find that the Syrian mayhem has engulfed Turkey,” he added.
Erdogan has said Turkey could join the coalition but only under strict conditions — that a security zone is created inside Syria, a no-fly zone imposed and a cogent international strategy created to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Removing the Assad regime is currently not a Western priority,” said Marc Pierini of the Carnegie Centre, adding that a no-fly zone was seen in the West as “yesterday’s good idea”.
While the United States has made clear its focus is on halting IS, Turkey wants an overarching, three-pronged strategy against three entities it regards as “terror” groups — IS, the Assad regime and the separatist militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey is hugely concerned that an alliance between the PKK and the Syria-based Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) could create an effective Kurdish fighting force straddling the border.
Yet according to Pierini, Turkey should consider an alliance with the Syrian Kurds who “could eventually be the best buffer force against the Islamic State” jihadists.
– ‘A matter of pride’ –
In a key snub, Turkey has so far refused to allow US forces to use the ideally-situated Incirlik air base in Adana province for bombing raids against IS.
“It has become a matter of pride now that Turkey does not agree that Incirlik be used for military purposes. Otherwise, Ankara would be seen as giving in to American pressure,” said columnist Lale Kemal in the Zaman newspaper.
Turkey is already going through a prickly period in ties with Europe and the United States due to the perceived authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan-led authorities, who have no hesitation in using tear gas or water cannon to disperse anti-government protests.
Erdogan this week took his rhetoric a step further — slamming the modern day “Lawrences of Arabia” who he said were wreaking havoc in the Middle East, referring to the British officer T.E. Lawrence who fought with the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
The only area where Turkey sees eye-to-eye with the West on Syria is the need to train and equip members of the moderate Syrian opposition, with Ankara prepared to let this happen on Turkish territory.
On October 2, Turkey itself fuelled expectations that its position would change dramatically when parliament passed legislation allowing the government to send troops into Syria.
But rather than a move to join the anti-IS coalition, this now appears more aimed at protecting the tiny Turkish exclave inside Syria around the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the mediaeval founder of the Ottoman Empire, in case of attack by IS.
“We will not excuse anyone who poses a threat to Turkey and we will promptly punish them. This is what the mandate is meant for,” said Davutoglu.