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Turkey’s task: Fighting against Assad?

The Turkish government is still discussing the extent of its actions within the anti-ISIS coalition

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

The U.S.-led coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has been widening in the past weeks. However, Ankara’s role in the anti-ISIS coalition has yet to be announced in detail.

The Turkish government is still discussing the extent of its actions within the anti-ISIS coalition, which started pounding ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria last week. Turkish authorities will present the Parliament two motions to authorize cross-border military action in Syria and Iraq next week. The Turkish government has already been authorization to engage militarily in Syria and Iraq, but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says the renewed motions will have some modifications based on “current circumstances.”

From reluctant ally to ambitious partner

For a long time, Turkey was blamed for not joining the coalition. Ankara said it is worried about 46 hostages ISIS held as captives for 100 days while its critics accused the Turkish government of fostering the extremists in Syria to fight against the Assad regime. Rumors have it that Turkey transferred arms and money to help rebels fighting the army loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey’s biggest obstacle at the moment is persuading the West to agree on the no-fly zone over Syria

Mahir Zeynalov

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, reportedly believes that the Iraqi army left the American weapons and artillery to ISIS, thanks to the incompetent rule of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Whatever the truth is, Erdogan realizes that ISIS in Syria and Iraq is a “swampland that needs to be cleaned.” The Turkish government perhapns understands that ISIS is a clear threat and danger to Turkey and that it has no agenda of fighting the Assad regime, Erdogan’s chief nemesis. “The coalition against ISIS is no doubt important,” the Turkish president said on Sunday. “But it is not enough,” Erdogan added, referring to the failure of the West to include the removal of Assad in their grand strategy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Turkey will be on the front lines in fighting ISIS as 46 Turkish hostages were released. It is still not clear what type of role Turkey will have in the coalition. Shortly after the release of the hostages, ISIS said Ankara promised not to join the “Crusaders’ Alliance” as part of their deal. Erdogan implicitly confirmed this claim during his interview with Charlie Rose. When asked what ISIS got in exchange for the hostages, Erdogan said “ISIS doesn’t want to increase its number of foes.” Although the hostages were released, some reports claim that ISIS has a number of cells in Turkey’s big cities and that it still poses a danger for Turkey. The PKK claims that Ankara made a deal with ISIS against Kurds through hostages.

What will Turkey do?

Erdogan said on Sunday that his country cannot stay idle amid the air campaign in Syria and Iraq. But Turkey said it won’t join the coalition in the form of combat operations as well as it will not allow the U.S. to use its air base in Incirlik, in southern Turkey. What then will Turkey do?

The anti-ISIS campaign is in fact a golden opportunity for Turkey. Ankara could believe that the ongoing choas may be the right time to also strike the Assad regime and finish it once and for all. In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that the U.S.-led military campaign against the ISIS is helping Assad. “Right now, we’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq. Syria is a more challenging situation,” Obama said. Turkey’s help could be crucial at this point.

Destroying ISIS in Syria is equal to inviting the Assad regime to reoccupy lands it lost for almost two years, a nightmare scenario for Turkey. Any campaign in Syria and Iraq should be comprehensive, according to Ankara, and must include the removal of the Assad regime. To bring about this change, I believe that Ankara has some suggestions.

Three-step plan

First, Turkey apparently wants to create a buffer zone. This will both help transfer populous Syrian refugees inside Syria and avoid catastrophic consequences of unceasing refugee influx into Turkish territory. The buffer zone may also be used in training and arming the Syrian rebels who will fight both ISIS on the ground and the mighty Assad regime.

Second, Turkey believes that Assad’s air superiority is its strongest suit and must be dealt with. Erdogan said on Sunday that a no-fly zone is necessary over Syria as part of the overall strategy in bringing peace to the region. Without a no-fly zone, Assad’s air force could easily defeat rebels no matter to what degree they’re armed and trained.

Third, that Ankara plans to proceed with training and arming the rebels. The buffer zone, supervised by the Turkish army, could be a suitable ground for such an activity. Although Erdogan proposed training and arming rebels as an essential step in the campaign, he avoided elaborating where the training of rebels may take place.

Turkey’s biggest obstacle at the moment is persuading the West to agree on the no-fly zone over Syria. The U.S. said it is considering Erdogan’s request to establish a no-fly zone.

Ankara’s plan seems unlikely at the moment and the hope will further be dashed if anything goes wrong in the ongoing campaign. If ISIS is easily and quickly defeated in Iraq and Syria, the grand strategy in the region could also include removing the Assad regime, which is still a distant possibility.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.