By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
Widely criticized in Armenia and watched with cautious hope by the Caucasus peace-wishers, the visit, so far, has amounted to no more than a walk-on role.
The inauguration in Ankara was mainly noted for the absence of Western leaders and outcries by the Turkish opposition in response to Erdoğan’s perceived authoritarian drift. Against this backdrop, Nalbandian’s visit offered a bit of positive relief. It came after almost 100 years of feuding over Ottoman Turkey’s annihilation of ethnic Armenians and republican Turkey’s subsequent denial that the actions amounted to genocide.
For Erdoğan, the presence of a token Armenian could help him add some favorable spin to his international reputation, badly damaged by a crackdown on free voices and alleged corruption, among other ills.
With the power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or, as it now calls itself, the Islamic State) growing and the amount of territory it controls increasing, Ankara is now facing some uncomfortable questions about what role it played in facilitating the organization's rise.
In a Washington Post piece from last week, reporters Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet provide a fascinating insight into this issue, visiting Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where until recently ISIS fighters had the run of the place. From their article:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
With the battle against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) heating up in Iraq and Turkey -- along with the United States and other countries -- getting involved by providing support for the Kurdish forces fighting there, it's clear that regional foreign policy questions will dominate Ankara's agenda for the foreseeable future.
As Turks head to polls on Sunday to elect a new president, a vote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to win, the question now is what might Turkish foreign policy during his presidency look like, especially considering that Erdogan is widely expected to even further consolidate his power once he takes office?
Writing in The National Interest, analyst Sinan Ulgen lays out the fairly serious foreign policy challenges that Turkey's next president will face:
Turkey’s new government will also inherit a difficult foreign-policy portfolio. Erdogan’s initial vision to normalize the county’s relationships with its Southern neighbors and to position Turkey as a regional power interested in advancing peace and prosperity by emphasizing economic cooperation and mediation allowed Ankara to gain substantial ground. But Turkish policy makers misinterpreted the extent of the country’s growing soft-power influence by becoming overconfident about their ability to shape regional dynamics.
The last few years have seen Ankara's regional role in the Middle East become severly diminished as its relations with one neighbor after another went downhill. But could the current war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel offer Turkey a chance to reassert its regional relevance?
The promise of that happening is certainly there, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was included in a mini-summit this past Saturday in Paris that brought him together with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Qatar, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in a failed effort to create a ceasefire in Gaza.
The inclusion of Turkey made certain sense, since -- like Qatar -- it is has been a strong supporter of Hamas in recent years and is considered to have an open line to the organization's leadership. Ankara has also been showing its support for Gaza in material terms, recently sending some 17 tons of medicine to the besieged area and also providing funding for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.
Turkey's recent approach to regional Kurdish issues has been highly contradictory. In northern Iraq, in an effort to diversify its energy supplies and further establish itself as an oil and gas hub, Ankara has entered into energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), something which has infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad but which has helped the Kurds further build a foundation for their independence.
In northern Syria, on the other hand, Ankara has been so alarmed by the growing Kurdish autonomy there that it reportedly has provided support for radical Islamist groups (including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)) in their fight against the the Kurdish militia that controls the region, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
As noted in a recent post on this blog, Russia's moves regarding Crimea left Turkey facing something of a conundrum, unable to protest too much because of its crucial trade and energy ties with Moscow.
As the crisis in Ukraine continues, Turkey's dilemma regarding how to respond to developments there has only deepened, posing an even stickier challenge for Turkish-Russian relations -- something which Eurasianet's Dorian Jones covered in an article today.
In an analysis that was also released today, Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office, takes a further look at how the conflict over the future of Ukraine is testing Turkish foreign policy. Writes Lesser:
Like the rest of Syria's neighbors, Turkey has found itself dealing with severe problems and worries resulting from the bloody conflict next door. From taking in a massive number of refugees to figuring out how to deal with the violent spillover from the Syrian conflict, Ankara faces a series of difficult policy choices.
A year ago, the International Crisis Group took a look at the challenges the crisis in Syria posed for Turkey, suggesting:
Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria. Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would likewise do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey, in particular to Hatay province.
This week, ICG released a followup report, one that find Ankara still dangerously vulnerable to what's happening in Syria. From the report:
The annual April 24 commemoration of the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians has long played out according to an unchanged script, with Ankara refusing to acknowledge the horrible deeds of the past and Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora using the refusal to again remind the world that Turkey remains unrepentant for what took place almost 100 years ago.
This year, though, things played out a bit differently, with mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan going off script and issuing a statement yesterday that offered Turkey's "condolences" to the grandchildren of those Armenians who lost their lives during the events of 1915. "Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences - such as relocation - during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another," Erdogan's statement, which was translated into nine languages, including Armenian, further said.
Erdogan's words were certainly a change from the blanket denials of the past and were welcomed by some in Turkey's small Armenian community. Rather than groundbreaking, though, they were more of an elaboration on a statement Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made this past December during a visit to Yerevan, when he called the "deportation" of Armenians in 1915 "inhumane."