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Turkey treads the tightrope on ISIL, egged on by Washington

Under pressure to take more active stance in coalition, Ankara is mindful of potential backlash from border extremists

Turkey is set to vote Thursday over expanding its role in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a decision that could have long-lasting consequences for a country highly susceptible to an ISIL backlash and fearful of inadvertently strengthening other regional enemies.

Ankara has long been accused of turning a blind eye toward ISIL, but under pressure from NATO-ally Washington, Turkey’s parliament will vote Thursday on its options for bearing down on the extremist group in Syria and Iraq. It is expected to consider opening up Turkey's Incirlik airbase to the U.S.-led coalition and may discuss provisional approval for Turkish ground forces to enter Syria, should Turkey come under attack from ISIL.

With porous borders that have become the front lines in the battle against the Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency, Turkey is vulnerable to fallout both inside and outside its boundaries. Not to mention that Turkey has been reluctant to assume a more prominent role in the U.S.-led coalition for fear it would undo years of Turkish efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and contain Syria and Iraq's Kurdish minorities — who are allied to the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group designated by both Ankara and Washington as a terrorist organization.

“Turkey has always seen Syria through the lens of its Kurdish problem,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center Studies for Turkish at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. However fearful the Turks are of ISIL’s indiscriminate brutality, the group has been helpful in combatting Turkey’s foremost enemies in Syria: the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the PYD, the PKK’s sister party in Syria.

“If you bomb ISIL, you’re not only removing the most effective force against Assad, but the PYD will also benefit,” Tol said.

Whatever course Ankara chooses will mark a new phase in — and a radical departure from — Turkey’s Syria policy. For over a year, ISIL fighters were allegedly permitted to stream across Turkey’s border with Syria to take up arms, while the group’s black market oil passed under the nose of Turkish border patrols via corrupt Kurdish and Turkish businessmen.

Ever since ISIL turned its guns against other rebel groups that Turkey backs, the winds in Ankara had begun to turn against ISIL. All the while, the domestic threat to Turkey metastasized.

But the turning point in Ankara's rhetoric came earlier this month when ISIL released 49 Turkish diplomats it had been holding hostage in Iraq. In a speech last week before the UN General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deviated from his previous reticence about plunging Turkey directly into his neighbors’ crises and suggested Ankara had finally been freed up to take a stronger line against ISIL. Turkey “cannot stay outside of [the U.S. led] coalition” because “we share 1,200-kilometer-long [745 mile] borders, we are being targeted and we have a million and a half refugees on our land," Erdogan said.

But Turkey's trepidations about intervention in Syria's mulitfarious war have always run much deeper than just the hostage crisis. As Ankara navigates seemingly contradictory interests with regards to ISIL, most analysts believe it will favor more conservative, middle-ground options.

Some say lessons from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Washington had requested be launched from Turkish territory, loom large. Ankara's refusal to cooperate with that invasion soured relations with the U.S. at the same time as it boosted Turkey’s soft power regionally. This time around, Turkey feels more obligated to cooperate with its NATO ally’s effort but perhaps not to such a degree that it undermines the “create zero problems” foreign policy doctrine that has boosted its reputation.

One working theory is that Turkey will peg its participation in the fight against ISIL to certain preconditions, including the creation of a no-fly zone and a buffer zone on the ground along the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq. Ankara has long pushed for those measures in Syria not only to protect its own security, but also to undermine the PYD, which has carved out a semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria that might fall within said buffer zone.

Washington has long rejected that request on the grounds it was too costly and complicated, contributing to Turkish frustrations about the U.S.'s halfhearted support of the Syrian rebels. But the unexpected ISIL surge across U.S.-allied Iraq has changed that equation, said Tol.

“Now that Obama is willing to do more in Syria, Turkey feels it's in a better position to ask for a buffer zone,” which could even be supported by Turkish ground troops. “I think that’s the main target here,” she said.

Turkey's entrance into the U.S.-led coalition will likely compile pressure on the Obama administration to maintain focus on unseating Assad, the original priority in Syria that Washington once shared with Ankara but which has long since been overshadowed by the ISIL threat.

Erdogan himself has expressed concerns about the missing ground component that would partner the ongoing strikes in Syria, because the Western-backed “moderate” rebels that Obama plans to arm and train remain the weakest faction on the ground. Turkish support, on the other hand, has cast a wider net to include more powerful Islamist factions deemed higher-risk by the U.S.

Thursday’s vote in parliament will bring more clarity. In the meantime, cautious voices in Turkey advise the government not to act too swiftly or get derailed by its regional ambitions. Once Turkey adopts a more aggressive stance against ISIL, there could be no turning back.

Opinion polling in Turkey indicates that while Turks are wary of the national security threat posed by ISIL, they are lukewarm about their government hooking its line to a prolonged "counter-terror" operation, such as that Obama has laid out for Iraq and Syria. With elections just around the corner and Erdogan proposing an ambitious plan to redistribute power away from the prime minister and toward a presidential system, political capital for an extended military campaign could be in short supply.

Writing in Turkish daily Hurriyet, columnist Murat Yetkin said the best option for Turkey might be to avoid direct military operations altogether, "and instead seal the borders against ISIL and carry out a law-enforcement fight against their supporters here, without dragging the country into the Middle Eastern quagmire any further."

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