Turkish war planes struck Islamic State (IS) group targets in Syria for the first time on Friday, in a sign that Turkey’s government has abandoned its hands-off approach towards the Islamist militants.
Turkey has long been reluctant to join the US-led coalition against the IS group. But Friday’s air strikes, which came a day after a Turkish soldier was killed in a cross-border firefight with militants in Syria, indicated a major shift in policy.
Faced with mounting insecurity along its frontier, Turkey also announced on Friday that it had authorised the United States to launch air strikes from its base at Incirlik close to the Syrian border.
The move, which was announced following a phone conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, is highly symbolic. No other Turkish government has ever given its public support to a US-led coalition.
“The operation against IS reached its target and will not stop,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed on Friday. “We will take all necessary measures to protect our borders.”
Turkey’s non-intervention policy in Syria
Turkey’s intervention, however, may have come too late. Up until now, the country has been unwilling to take up arms against the IS group. In 2014, it refused to join the US-led coalition against the extremist organisation, just as it refused to support Syrian Kurds from the People’s Defence Units (YPG) fighting IS militants across the border in northern Syria.
At the time, the country justified its decision by pointing out that the IS group still held 49 Turkish nationals kidnapped in Iraq hostage. It was an official line that suited the government in many ways. Supporting the coalition meant supporting the YPG, a group with close ties to Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey’s government was also slow to secure its 900-km (560-mile) frontier with Syria, allowing numerous would-be jihadists to cross the border, and a thriving black market trade to flourish.
‘The IS group was not a priority’
But Turkey, which has come under fierce criticism over its policy of non-intervention in Syria, has not always been passive in the face of the IS group.
“In 2014, Ankara opened its borders to allow Peshmerga fighters through to Kobane, as well as sent weapons to Iraq’s government,” said Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24's specialist in jihadist movements.
Tancrède Josseran, a Turkey expert with the Comparative Strategy Institute (Institut de Stratégie Comparée or ISC), agreed, pointing out that the country has adopted an “increasingly restrictive attitude towards jihadists who cross the border”.
Despite these efforts, the threat posed by the IS group has continued to grow.
“For a long time, the IS group wasn’t a priority for Turkey,” Josseran said. “Its only objectives were the fall of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region under the PKK’s control. At the time, the IS group was a lesser evil.”
Nasr echoed Josseran’s comments.
“Ankara committed some strategic errors. It betted on Assad’s rapid overthrow and on the Syrian rebels [from the Free Syrian Army], but it didn’t work,” he said.
‘Significant popular support for the IS group in Turkey’
Turkey now finds itself in an extremely difficult situation. Not only is the IS group a problem in neighbouring Syria, but it is also gaining ideological ground within Turkey’s borders, where it enjoys “significant popular support”, according to Nasr.
The IS group was accused of carrying out its first attack on Turkish soil earlier this week after a bomb exploded in the southern town of Suruc, claiming the lives of 32 people.
If the IS group is confirmed to have orchestrated the attack in Suruc, it would mean that the organisation has succeeded in threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey, which bridges the Middle East and Europe.
But Nasr said that the IS group does not pose any real threat to Turkey.
“We should not overestimate the IS group’s power. While [it] may have the means to carry out attacks on the Turkish-Syrian border, it doesn’t have the means to threaten the Turkish state, let alone make it fall. At this point in time, we’re still very far from such a catastrophic scenario,” he said.