US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel paid a visit to Turkey on Monday to talk about the possible ways that Turkey can contribute as a member of a 10-nation core coalition in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The coalition against ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State” — is initially planned to comprise 10 countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, Denmark, as well as the US and Turkey. This decision came during the NATO summit held in Wales last week. Turkey is the only Muslim nation in this coalition, which is planned to be expanded in the near future.
Hagel, along with US Secretary of State John Kerry, held private meetings with the defense and foreign ministers of the core coalition countries, including Turkey.
The US-led coalition will pursue ISIL in Iraq militarily as well as financially, with the hope of building a plan by the time the UN General Assembly meets in New York in about two weeks. Many countries are not willing to engage in military strikes but they are expected to provide intelligence, equipment, ammunition or weapons.
Following the NATO summit, Hagel visited Georgia before arriving in Turkey. Early on Monday he first met with Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel. He later met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and also Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz. Hagel, who is known for his admiration of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also visited Anıtkabir — Atatürk’s mausoleum.
Turkish officials have been wary of saying anything in support of the US air strikes on ISIL targets that started last month, partly due to still not knowing the fate of 49 Turkish nationals who were kidnapped by ISIL militants back in June. The militants kidnapped the group of Turks, including diplomatic staff, special forces members and their dependents, from the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul on June 11. Turkish government officials have avoided doing or saying anything that might put the hostages’ lives at risk.
US President Barack Obama, in an interview with the American TV station NBC on Sunday, also emphasized that the US needs Sunni states to support the US against the ISIL threat.
“…We’re going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed are — are more directed at them right now than they are us,” said Obama, speaking on “Meet the Press.”
“Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they [Sunni countries in the region] face right now. And with that understanding, it gives us the capacity for them to start getting more active and more involved. And, by the way, some of that [involvement] is military,” said Obama.
He also added that some of it is giving political support to Baghdad and strengthening relations with Shiite leaders in Baghdad, while some of it is reaching out to the Sunni tribes in Iraq and identifying people who the coalition can work with.
Obama also stressed that it’s important for moderate Sunni states and leaders to say, “What ISIL represents isn’t Islam.” He said: “It is an abortion — a distortion — an abomination of that — that has, you know, somehow tied Islam to the kind of nihilistic thinking that any civilized nation should — should eliminate.”
The US president met with Erdoğan on the sidelines of the NATO summit on Friday and said he would welcome Turkey’s cooperation against ISIL.
“Part of the point of this visit is to follow up… to really see how far they’re willing to go, understanding that they have tremendous national security challenges at home — just given the refugee problem and then of course this hostage situation,” a US official told reporters traveling with Hagel.
Turkey’s close proximity to the area also makes this country’s support vital, the US official said. “Geographically, Turkey is going to be absolutely indispensable to the ongoing fight against ISIL, just because of where they are, the access we currently already have militarily and the cooperation that we have militarily,” the senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lale Kemal, an Ankara-based senior columnist, and expert on defence issues, comments:
Ankara has long come under criticism from its Western allies for giving arms as well as facilities in towns close to its southern border with Syria to radical militants including ISIS fighters. Turkey is suspected of having supported radical fighters for the sake of seeing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime fall in its more than three-year-old civil war against opposition fighters. Over the years however, radical Islamic fighters have mushroomed in this country as the civil war has spilled over into Turkey while Assad has strengthened his position.
US President Barack Obama met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the NATO summit to discuss the Turkish contribution to the planned coalition’s fight against ISIS. Turkey, however, is not expected to be an active partner in the coalition, partly out of fear that ISIS militants might kill the estimated 49 Turks, including consulate personnel and two children, that it took hostage in early June when it entered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Turkey may allow the planned coalition to use its İncirlik base in southern Turkey for purely logistical purposes and is likely to oppose the deployment of fighter jets from its base.
The Turkish government will do everything possible to keep from getting involved in this coalition.
According to a Western analyst in Ankara, Turkey will be happy to have a seat at any table where decisions are being made, but even then the Americans will only drip feed their international partners as they really don’t want them getting in their way.
As for the “coalition,” it reminds us of the 2003 Iraq “coalition” which was largely designed to give what was really an American-led effort the impression of international cooperation. Turkey had no choice but to join given its proximity and the belief in NATO circles that Ankara has influence and knowledge about the region, which it seems it does not.
The real coalition against ISIS is expected to be between America, Iraq and Iran, and I would say either now or soon, Damascus (although their participation in the fight against ISIS will be denied by Washington). ISIS will be dealt with and its foreign fighters either killed, captured or forced out, while the Iraqi and Syrian elements of ISIS melt away or become part of the moderate Syrian opposition.
In the meantime, it is hard not to imagine that the US and Iran are not talking on one or more levels. Both are providing support to the Iraqi regime and at some point, if not already, have to discuss what is going on and how each is operating in Iraq, although they are not expected to share everything.
Iran and Syria will never be a part of the official coalition, but one can see them as silent partners of the US until the ISIS threat is dealt with, and then the relationships will reset: the US against Iran for influence in Iraq and the US calling for the removal of Assad.