The Turkish government faces a major dilemma in Iraq after the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) raided its Mosul consulate and took 49 of its personnel hostage, including its consul general, in addition to 31 others. The hostages are just one element of the crisis facing Turkey: The sweep by ISIS that netted it Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.8 million, as well as Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, Tikrit, threaten to plunge Iraq into a civil war from which the ramifications will be felt in Turkey for years to come. Already, the Syrian civil war has led some 1 million to seek refuge in Turkey.
As it decides what to do about Iraq and its hostages, Turkey has to balance a myriad of factors. The hostage crisis has two dimensions: foreign and domestic. On the foreign side of the ledger, the Syrian and Iraqi theaters of civil conflict have now finally meshed into a single one. Turkey had been heavily engaged in the civil war that pits Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and a series of opposition groups, some moderate and others jihadist. ISIS is a hybrid organization: an offshoot of al-Qaeda, opposed to Assad and yet has chosen to attack the Syrian opposition often with dreadful consequences for anyone caught up in the fighting. But ISIS has its roots in Iraq and it chose to make its most dramatic splash in its own country.
Ankara was already at odds with Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister. It accused the Iraqi leader of implementing a sectarian, that is, exclusively Shiite policy that alienated many Sunnis from Baghdad and Iraq. Ankara’s only allies in the region with any muscle paradoxically are the Kurds in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which Ankara had tried to muzzle for many years.
Domestically, the timing of the ISIS sweep through Iraq could not have come at a worse time for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For a year, Erdogan and the AKP have faced substantial protests, massive corruption allegations, mining tragedies and most recently revolts in the Kurdish provinces in the country’s southeast. Its relations with Europe are in tatters; Washington, which feels obliged to cooperate with Ankara, keeps it at arms length. Looming over everything is a fragile domestic peace process with Turkey’s own Kurds that could fall victim to increased regional and domestic instability. Come August, there will be presidential elections, which Erdogan would very much like to contest and win in the first round.
Erdogan’s paramount concern is how his own electorate will perceive the crisis. The government's first preference is to resolve it quickly and diplomatically by relying on a series of intermediaries that Turkey has developed over the course of the Syrian civil war. They range from domestic nongovernmental organizations such as the Islamist IHH, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which has been an important conduit for arms and people with the Syrian jihadist groups, to Iraqi Sunni leaders who may have some sway with the tribes supporting ISIS.
While there are confusing reports emanating from the Turkish press regarding a possible release of the hostages, a military operation is extremely difficult and tricky. The terrain, that is the city of Mosul, is not conducive to such efforts and Turkey has had little experience in conducting them. A failure could create a backlash at home. Success or failure could upset the delicate civil-military relations in the country.
Relying on NATO and its American allies is also problematic. On the one hand, any display of alliance solidarity is important to the government, but on the other hand this demonstrates its inability to defend its own national interests in the face of a bunch of jihadist elements. ISIS may also choose to keep the hostages as a way to dissuade the Turks from providing the US Air Force use of the joint Incirlik air base on Turkish soil were Washington to decide to support an Iraqi counteroffensive against ISIS. Even if the United States were to use its aircraft carriers in the Gulf, ISIS could still make threats.
Of course, if there were to be any American operation, it's quite conceivable that the Turks would have no other choice but to mount a rescue operation presumably with extensive American help.
The crisis may force the Turks to rethink some of their policies in Syria. To date, Ankara’s friendship with the Kurds stopped in Iraq; Erdogan and his government have taken an uncompromising position against Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish insurgent group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD has emerged as the strongest Kurdish group in Syria and has put together an impressive fighting force to defend its territory from both ISIS and the regime. The idea of another autonomous Kurdish region on its borders after the KRG has been anathema to Ankara. Paradoxically, the PYD’s armed elements are some of the only ones that have scored blows against the jihadists. In the face of the ISIS sweep, the PYD and the KRG, which have also had antagonistic relations, appear to be cooperating on defensive measures against ISIS. Turkey may have to reconsider its boycott of the Syrian Kurds to enlarge the anti-ISIS coalition.
The ISIS sweep represents a form of blowback for the Turkish government; it had hoped that past support had immunized Turkey from Islamists' wrath. In fact, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the government had guarantees that its staff would not be harmed; hence the slowness in evacuating them. More people in Turkey will be questioning the benefit of their government’s decision to side with jihadists in Syria.
On the other hand, with KRG forces representing the only credible and committed military force — they have assumed control of the critical city Kirkuk while the Iraqi army units abandoned it — the Turkish strategy of depending on them has been vindicated. Also vindicated, in contrast with Washington, is Ankara’s anti-Maliki stand. The collapse of the Iraqi army is proof that Maliki, despite all the military equipment his government received from the United States, was incapable of creating a force loyal to Iraq because he never aspired to construct a national identity for Iraq.
The gains and losses for Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds are complex if not confusing. In an ultimate irony, Kurdish forces today protect Kirkuk, a city Turkey had always viewed as Turkmen (in reality it is a Turkmen-Kurdish-Arab city) and off-limits to the KRG. This is despite the demand by Iraqi Turkmen leadership that Turkey intervene directly to protect the city. The weakening of central authority increases the relative power of Iraqi Kurds. Still, this may be a Pyrrhic victory for the Kurds. If, because of this crisis, Baghdad is unable to live up to its commitment to transfer the 17% of its budget revenues to the KRG, then the KRG — and indirectly Turkey, which has a large trade relationship with it — will pay a stiff price.
Even though Turkey’s immediate options seem almost nonexistent, the ISIS victory, however temporary it may turn out to be, is a wake-up call for all the countries in the region. Turkey’s bigger problem is that its policymaking is completely dominated by domestic concerns, power struggles within the Islamic family that ruled the country and an almost paranoid vision of politics where everyone is perceived to be part of bigger and smaller conspiracies threatening Erdogan.
In many ways, the ISIS crisis may also force the Erdogan government to come to grips with a complex reality that is genuinely threatening the region, and by extension, Turkey.