The coronation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected to the presidency by the people of Turkey on Sunday, was short lived given how unsurprising the election results were and the realities of the neighborhood that the new president finds himself having to navigate. The inconvenient timing of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) advances in Iraq necessitates decisive action from Ankara that had been put on hold until after the presidential election.
Now that Erdoğan has won, the time is ripe for him to be the foreign policy statesman he has promised not only to his citizens, but to his allies as well. The president-elect’s victory speech seemed to point in this direction as proclaimed from the balcony of his party headquarters that, “Not just Turkey but Baghdad, Islamabad, Kabul, Damascus, Aleppo, Ramallah, Gaza and Jerusalem won today … the only loser was the status quo.”
Indeed there is a short window of opportunity to look beyond his bold domestic political agenda and unite behind an international effort to defeat ISIL or risk lasting damage to Turkey and the region as a whole. For the newly elected Turkish president, no national security issue is as important in the short term as negotiating the safe release of the kidnapped Turkish citizens, yet there are many more challenges ahead in Turkish foreign policy. How Erdoğan will personally affect the calculus ahead for Turkish foreign policymaking will matter even more to Washington than any time since U.S. forces sought to operate in Iraq back in 2003 or when Erdoğan delivered his last victory speech from the same balcony back in 2011 during the optimism of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
No country has more at stake in Iraq than Turkey in the wake of U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian aid ordered in response to the most recent advance of the ISIL in northern Iraq. The fact that 49 Turkish citizens are still being held hostage, including Turkey’s consul general in Mosul whose consulate serves as ISIL’s headquarters, only adds insult to injury. Paradoxically, in the midst of a historic presidential election, Turkey’s media has been banned from covering the plight of its own citizens on national security grounds while Iraqis have begun to turn up on its borders further adding to the numbers of already swelling refugees from Syria.
Turkey lives in a complicated neighborhood that Erdoğan’s national security council recently described as a ring of fire given the unprecedented level of instability. Yet having triumphed in the polls, the new guessing game in Ankara of who the new prime minister will be, along with the resulting character of a post-Erdoğan parliamentary government, will pale in comparison to the consequences of Turkey’s perceived impotence that has been compounded by its Kurdish allies’ withdrawals. Now that ISIL has begun targeting Kurds and Turkmens alike, Turkey’s ability to ignore the threat has evaporated.
Ankara has already lost face in Syria where Turkish airplanes have been shot out of the sky and Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian forces while Assad has remained firmly in place. Despite every Turkish effort to encourage international action in Syria and support the unity of the Syrian opposition, including turning a blind eye to the rise of ISIL, Ankara has been ineffective. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has further isolated Turkey in the Middle East and exacerbated divisions within the Sunni Middle East. While railing against the international community for its lack of responsiveness, Turkey itself has been equally cautious in its regional dealings choosing not to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter to protect its soil against Syria and has toned down its once fiery rhetoric after the election of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.
Now Turkey’s support of its one remaining regional ally in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and President Masoud Barzani in particular, is under serious threat by ISIL. As the Kurds’ main trading partner and the region’s primary conduit to export crude oil to world markets despite vehement opposition by Iraq’s central government, Ankara was already on the front lines in Iraq even before Mosul. Ankara’s frosty relationship with Baghdad not withstanding, working with any new Iraqi Prime Minister other than Nouri al-Maliki and America in driving out ISIL will be necessary. While many in Ankara hoped that the Turkish hostages might be released at then end of Ramadan, ISIL has little incentive to give up the leverage it enjoys over Turkey as it directs its fire on minority Christians and Kurds throughout its territory. In light of Washington’s decision to get off the sidelines in Iraq and directly intervene, Turkey must face the reality that any airstrikes, whether America, Iraqi, or Turkish, must be coordinated to protect the lives of its hostages. Similarly any strikes executed from its territory, such as from its main airbase Incirlik, could drag the country further into a rapidly deteriorating situation. Given the internal focus and charged rhetoric of the presidential election, Turkish public opinion must be conditioned to mitigate a domestic backlash against the use of force in other countries.
The vitriol poured on Israel by Erdoğan over its actions in Gaza has paled in comparison to his more restrained diplomatic language used to describe ISIL’s brutal tactics in Iraq. In addition to inciting international wrath for the unfortunate language used to describe Israeli actions in Gaza, Turkey’s involvement in the conflict on behalf of Hamas, as some have argued, has further strained relations with Israel that were once seen to be a stabilizing factor in Turkish foreign policy and a pillar of U.S.-Turkish relations. The fact that Ankara and Jerusalem see eye-to-eye on Syria and Kurdish independence offers a glimmer of hope, but the golden years of Israeli-Turkish relations have clearly passed while Washington has fully decoupled the relationship in its own individual bilateral relations given the complexities involved in each.
For Washington, Erdoğan is now uniquely positioned to unequivocally denounce ISIL for what it is as a terrorist organization rather than what it claims to be: a model Islamic caliphate. By promoting Turkey’s brand of Sunni Islam, based on the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, other influences such as from Saudi Arabia can and should be effectively countered. The alarming appeal of ISIL even within Turkey, that has galvanized jihadists from Europe to the Middle East needs to be defeated not just on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, but also in the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised that still admire Erdoğan as one of the region’s few charismatic and popularly elected leaders.
Ultimately defeating ISIL and bringing stability to Iraq and Syria can only be accomplished via political compromise on all sides. Turkey can play a key role as a regional champion for the region’s Sunni and Kurdish communities. Rather than sidestepping the crisis in Iraq, Erdoğan should follow President Barack Obama’s example and lead as he has been promising throughout his campaign: Put domestic political concerns aside for the moment, and do all that he can to help bring Iraq back from the brink. Now that he has secured the presidency, he can afford to be a more responsible statesman, to be the “uniter” he once was, rather than the “divider” some former supporters have come to see him as. As Washington’s about face shows, it’s never too late to embrace a more involved and effective Iraq policy. The benefit to Erdoğan is to prove himself a pragmatic international statesman who is an invaluable ally, thus proving his critics wrong who have accused him of being an erratic Islamist sympathizer who is polarizing a volatile region as a liability to Washington.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.