ISTANBUL – Following the recent safe return of 46 Turkish hostages held by the Islamic State, hopes were raised in the United States that Turkey would finally commit to joining the US-led coalition now fighting the group. But Turkey’s willingness to contribute to the coalition remains constrained by the legacy of its ill-fated Syria policy, as well as by a fundamental strategic disconnect between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and US President Barack Obama’s administration.
Since Syria’s civil war began three years ago, Turkey has provided logistical and financial support to virtually all elements of the Syrian opposition, while allowing them to use Turkish territory to regroup after launching military operations across the border. Committed to regime change in Syria, Turkey turned a blind eye to some of these groups’ brutal tactics, radical ideologies, and big ambitions. The fear now is that this benign neglect has allowed the Islamic State to embed itself in Turkey and build the capacity to conduct terrorist activities on Turkish soil – and thus to retaliate for Turkish participation in the US-led coalition.
But there is more behind Turkey’s reticent response to the coalition. Turkey fundamentally disagrees with the US in its interpretation of the threat that the Islamic State poses – and how to address it. Simply put, whereas the US is approaching the Islamic State as the Middle East’s most pressing problem, Turkey views the group as a symptom of deeper pathologies.
According to this view, any campaign that focuses exclusively on destroying the Islamic State will do nothing to prevent the emergence of similar threats in the near future. And, unlike the US, Middle Eastern countries and their neighbors cannot decide to “pivot” away from the region when the consequences of their poorly designed interventions become too unruly.