x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Turkey moves closer to the coalition

Ankara is a crucial ally in the fight against ISIL but it must not confuse its priorities

A Turkish Air Force A400M tactical transport aircraft is parked at Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey. Murad Sezer / Reuters
A Turkish Air Force A400M tactical transport aircraft is parked at Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey. Murad Sezer / Reuters

After months of negotiations, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to open the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey to coalition fighter jets attacking ISIL positions in Syria and Iraq. The airbase opening along with Turkish air strikes on ISIL positions mark a turning point for the coalition partly due to Incirlik’s proximity to ISIL’s unofficial capital of Raqqa in northern Syria.

Turkey has a porous 900-kilometre border with Syria and an aggressive anti-Assad stance. The Turkish leadership has been condemned for allowing extremists groups like ISIL relatively free movement in and out of Syria over the past four years. As the US-led coalition has intensified efforts against ISIL, Turkey’s cooperation in the fight has been a point of contention between Ankara and the region. Finally, this appears to be changing.

Last week’s suicide bombing in the Turkish border city of Suruc, which was reportedly carried out by ISIL, appears to have been the tipping point. Following the attack, Turkey launched air raids against ISIL positions in Syria, and Ankara has vowed that this is only the beginning of its efforts against the group.

Turkey’s decision to open the Incerlik airbase is a positive step towards the ultimate defeat of ISIL, but the Turkish government’s next step will bear many consequences on the ground. As Turkish fighter jets were attacking ISIL positions, their targets also included Kurdish positions in Syria and northern Iraq. As Turkish police arrested scores of ISIL militants in Istanbul, they also apprehended members of the outlawed Kurdish PKK group.

Given the gravity of the ISIL threat and the international efforts in place to contain it, renewed fighting between Turkey and the Kurds will help no one. Kurdish fighters have proven to be important allies of the anti-ISIL coalition. Turkish attacks on their positions will only serve to destabilise the region at a time when unity and clarity of vision is critical.

Ultimately, Ankara must break free of foreign policy decisions taken years ago – when the region looked like a radically different place – and embrace regional efforts against ISIL. Mr Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbours” strategy has ultimately failed. As the attack in Suruc demonstrated, Turkey is not immune from the borderless ISIL threat. Ankara appears to be on the right track in this long fight against ISIL, but the road is full of dangerous diversions.