The U.S. sent six F-16 aircraft to its Incirlik Air Base in Turkey this weekend to much fanfare.
But this is really not a headline about escalating U.S. involvement in the fight against Islamic State. It is an indicator about Turkey’s restrained approach to balancing allies’ interests with the goals of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and thus a cautionary tale about U.S. involvement. Under the authoritarian, Islam-inspired AKP, Turkey’s priorities are simply not the same as those of its NATO partners.
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2013 file photo, a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet, center, lands on the runway during a military exercise. (AP Photo/Bae Jung-hyun, Yonhap, File)
Turkey borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran and the frontier is home to millions of stateless Kurds straddling the borders. Instability in the region always makes Turkey a destination for refugees, whether during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the aftermath of the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, or the past four years of Syrian civil war. Any party ruling in Ankara, regardless of ideology, wants stability in the region.
Like the Arab countries to its south, Turkey would far prefer that if a regional fight must be had, that outsiders do the work. This is why Arab leaders prefer to have a strong Western military presence in the region, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. Arab Sunnis would love for the U.S. and its allies to pay the cost of containing Shiite Iran and destroying violent Islamists like Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
The West has been frustrated with Turkey for several years. Its borders have been porous, allowing wannabe-jihadists from around the globe to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Islamic State was even allowed to quietly recruit in major Turkish cities. Turkey let it be known early in the Syrian civil war that it was not going to act unless the war crossed its own border. Over time, the AKP’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has determined that Syrian President Bashar al Assad must go, but Turkey has been cautious about providing much support other than convening space to the opposition.
[sharequote align="center"]If Ankara thinks Islamic State only wants to create a caliphate in Iraq, it is dead wrong.[/sharequote]
Turkey’s NATO partners see Islamic State’s successes, both on the battlefield as well as via cyber-propaganda, as the cause for increased terrorist activity in Europe and the U.S. Moreover, one of the only actors on the ground that has consistently, and somewhat successfully, stood up to Islamic State is Kurdish peshmerga forces, primarily in Iraq. The valiant defense of Kobane is a case in point.
The Syrian civil war and Islamic State’s successful holy war in Syria and Iraq have left Turkey with an estimated two million refugees and chaos on its borders, but it appears to have done little. What are we to make of Turkish policy?
First, the Islamist AKP is far more interested in consolidating and maintaining its grip on power at home than it is in any foreign adventurism. After decades of watching its neighbors fall apart into sectarian violence, from Beirut to Baghdad, Ankara is far more interested in domestic stability and economic growth. This is particularly true because Ankara seems to have finally realized that Europe will continue to block what was its top foreign policy priority of the past decade: formal accession to the European Union.
Second, the AKP’s consolidation is not just raw party politics. Rather, the AKP is committed to a nationalist agenda that de-secularizes elements of Turkish society. For more than a decade it has slowly attempted to reverse decades of Kemalist policies, such as the ban on wearing the headscarf in public places, although the AKP has consistently argued that favors “constitutional democracy” and not some sort of Islamic theocracy. The AKP has been just as tough on Kurds as its predecessors and in the past couple of years has cracked down on dissenting voices in the media and civil society in ways reminiscent of previous military regimes. The policies have been popular with a plurality of the population, at least in the context of a decade of economic growth. But, the AKP was shocked in June elections to have opposition parties knock it back by approximately 10 percentage points.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his lawmakers in Ankara, on March 26, 2013. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The AKP is increasingly authoritarian at home, aggressive in taking on the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and reluctant to get involved in Syria or Iraq. The AKP’s clear goal is effective one-party ruling for the future under a strengthened presidential system led by Erdogan (in contrast to its current parliamentary system). A recent survey suggests that this strategy seems to be working, with the AKP bouncing back up in the polls. None of this squares with the stated policy goals of the Obama administration and its Western counterparts.
It is no wonder then, that the Turks have finally “allowed” the U.S. to send six F-16 fighters from Italy to Incirlik as a sign of increased resolve against Islamic State. It is not Turkish aircraft or crews who will be doing the work (if work is to be done). It does not alter the balance of power in the region in any appreciable way. Indeed, it allows Ankara to continue to focus its military on threats from Kurds and keep Turkish military personnel from directly engaging Syrian or Islamic State armies. It does allow leaders like President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to tell their national legislatures that the Turks are in the fight, but that seems to be a fig leaf for everyone involved.
What would be best is for Ankara to back off on its anti-Kurdish obsession and focus on long-terms plans for regional security, even if it includes a weakened Assad regime in Damascus. The focus needs to be on limiting the radicalization of young men in the region, including in Turkey, by radical Islamists like Islamic State. The West must continue to pressure the AKP to be democratic at home while be strong in its resolve to counter Islamic State in the Syro-Iraq heartland.
Finally, the West must help Ankara see reality: if Ankara thinks that Islamic State only wants to create an ethnically Arab, religiously Sunni caliphate in the old capital of Baghdad, then it is dead wrong. Islamic State wants to conquer the entirety of the ancient caliphate, which includes not only Baghdad, but also Damascus and ultimately Istanbul (Constantinople) and beyond. If Islamic State is successful in Syria and Iraq, it will not be content and Turkey will be in far greater trouble than it currently is. Six American F-16s will not be enough.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and author or editor of 11 books, including "Ending Wars Well" and "Ethics Beyond War’s End."
Feature Image: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser
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