Turkey Gets Tough (Finally) on ISIS

along the Turkish border with Syria near Jurayjiriyah, Syria

Photo along Turkish border with Syria near Jurayjiriyah, Syria; photo by Kutiba Barii.

Turkey Gets Tough (Finally) on ISIS
| published July 25, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Turkey has been in a tough spot for more than two years because of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

ISIS’s rise from the chaos and lawlessness of northern Syria began to present serious challenges for Turkey, a key member of NATO and a country which sits on the hinge between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. ISIS also presented an immediate set of problems along Turkey’s long southern and southeastern borders—with Syria, with Iraq, and even with Armenia and Georgia.

That border, which stretches for more than 700 miles along the northern edges of Syria and Iraq, has seen millions of refugees—sometimes as many as 10,000 per day—enter Turkey to seek refuge from the fighting between ISIS and local anti-ISIS groups, and to escape the tyranny of ISIS itself. The battles between ISIS and its foes, such as Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, have created one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis; those who cannot flee into Jordan, to the south, travel on foot toward Turkey, where they often end up in one of scores of refugee camps just inside Turkey.

Near border towns like Kobani and Tell Abiad, refugees can sometimes hear and see the fighting taking place as close as a few hundred yards from the fence separating the countries, and under the ever wary eyes of Turkish border patrol security and soldiers. Other refugee camps have sprung up inside Turkey but away from border checkpoints—where Syrian families have fled across the sometimes lightly patrolled border from tiny towns and villages now under ISIS militant control.

But a more sinister reverse migration has also been taking place for more than 18 months as hundreds—by some estimates even thousands—of young people (mostly young men) illegally cross the border from Turkey into northern Syria and northwestern Iraq. This in-migration for the Islamic State’s contiguous area of control represents a serious military threat to the rebel groups fighting ISIS, we well as to the Iraqi Army and the so-called Free Syrian Army. Drawn in by slick ISIS propaganda and the allure of fighting a religious war, these migrant warriors come from all over Europe and North Africa—from Germany and Italy, from Denmark and the Netherlands, from Sweden and Norway, from France and Spain. British Intelligence and the FBI believe that between 500 and 900 have come from the United Kingdom. Hundreds may hail from the United States and Canada as well. Most of these would-be fighters have traveled by bus or rail across Europe to Istanbul, then—armed with little more than a backpack, snacks and bottled water, they hitchhike or travel on foot to the border, crossing into the war zone by simply edging their way through any one of hundreds of known weak spots along the fence line—a demarcation which for many miles consist of little more than a few parallel strands of barbed wire (see photo) and an occasional empty observation post.

On the Syrian and Iraqi side of that border, the warriors-to-be link up with ISIS militants, where they are folded into the terrorist army’s operations, boosting its numbers with eager, energetic blood and talent, ready to fire weapons after a brief period of training.

Turkey has for more than two years attempted to steer clear of committing itself to a firm position on the growing crisis. Turkey has also repeatedly declined to participate (or even condone) the U.S. led-airstrike campaign began last year, an aerial campaign designed at first to simply halt the rapid forward advance of ISIS, but which quickly turned instead into a process of attrition and endurance. Though the U.S. was joined in the air campaign by other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, Turkey remained steadfastly neutral, though it did cooperate strategically with the United States through some intelligence sharing and other backchannel operations. Later, after Jordan joined the air campaign—prompted by the capture and burning alive of one of its pilots—Turkey still remained, metaphorically and literally, on the fence, centering most of its resources on refugee containment and border security.

But last week, after a series of border clashes between ISIS units and Turkish security and army personnel, and after an ISIS-inspired suicide bomber killed 32 people in the border town of Suruc, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu got angry. Davutoglu and top Turkish officials say that ISIS is now attempting to expand its war—and its territory—into Turkey, a strategic move anticipated in the U.S. and the U.K. by some intelligence and military data showing ISIS turning its attention to its northern flanks. With the air campaign and Iraq army pushback essentially bringing its momentum along the southern battle-lines to a standstill, ISIS seeks to expand its reach north, and it may begin to frequently test the resolve of Turkey’s military while also testing the effectiveness of a largely porous, lightly guarded border with another predominantly Muslim nation—one with a direct pipeline into Europe.

Turkey calls it an anti-terrorism campaign, and last week Turkish police and military units made more than 600 arrests across the country. Turkey is also bolstering its military presence along that long border, deploying thousands of additional soldiers to a fenceline increasingly prone to confrontations with ISIS. Last week one Turkish soldier was killed in a violent, sustained attack near a border checkpoint.

Turkey has also unseated itself from the fence, as it were, adding its formidable air power to the campaign to disrupt and defang ISIS. Between late Friday and early Saturday, Turkish fighter jets and bombers targeted dozens of ISIS controlled locations in Syria and in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, hitting militant camps and ISIS weapons caches, and striking at Kurdistan Workers Party encampments in Iraq. Turkey has also made its position clear publicly and for all the world to know and understand: it intends to remain engaged in the war on ISIS for as long as it takes for a sense of security to return to Turkey.

“These operations are not one-point operations,” Davutoglu said, “and will continue as long as there is a threat against Turkey.”

The suicide bombing came as a horrific shock to many in Turkey, where outrage quickly morphed into political and cultural pressure to reassess the danger posed by ISIS, a militant group with substantial fighting strength just across that long border. Turkey also maintains a professional army with heavy cultural investment in nationalism and border integrity, and the death of s soldier during one of many recent border clashes has galvanized many within the upper echelons of Turkey’s largely modern, well-equipped army. Political reticence to interfere with the progress of ISIS along its southern frontier has been replaced with a sudden resolve to engage proactively with a large and growing militant organization which could pose a serious threat to Turkish political and economic stability. In short, Turkish military leaders want to take the fight to ISIS—even at the risk, always present, that the battle could offend Islamic conservatives and hardliners inside Turkey.

Turkey has also accused ISIS-inspired and PKK cells of assassinating policemen and attempting to kill Turkish border security personnel. Turkish officials also say that the breakaway political group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is exploiting the border tensions with ISIS for its own agenda, and Ankara accuses the PKK of direct involvement in the murders of the policemen. The PKK has been advocating for independence from Turkey for decades, though relations between Turkey and the separatists had been improving.

Turkey’s recent surge into the war against ISIS began this week after ISIS militants launched a direct attack on Turkish military forces along the border. In at least one of those attacks, a Turkish soldier was killed by heavy gunfire. Weeks of border tensions between Turkey and the ISIS units just across the fence in Syria and Iraq have led some Middle East analysts to worry that the Islamic State may be looking to expand its geographic footprint.

Though police have not concluded their extensive investigation into the suicide bombing, initial evidence points to ISIS as the group most likely responsible. The attack killed 32, and many of the victims were Kurds—members of the same ethnic group which in Iraq and Syria is presenting the most strenuous challenge for ISIS’s long range plans for territorial consolidation.

The Turkish military conducted airstrikes on ISIS positions Friday and again on Saturday, according to Ankara and sources with NATO. Turkish officials say they have no firm timetable for the air campaign, except to suggest that more strikes are likely over the next few days.

Turkish officials also said that a renewed emphasis will be placed on border security, which will include sending more personnel to border areas—especially those adjacent to areas under ISIS control. Turkey says it will also begin a rapid and immediate upgrade to its fence line along its hundreds of miles of border with Syria.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS Militants Take Ramadi; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; May 18, 2015.

U.S. to Send More Troops to Iraq; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; June 10, 2015.

ISIS, The Kurds, & the Fight for Kobani; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review (Archives); October 20, 2014.