Turkey's parliament has approved a motion giving the government new powers to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq, and to let foreign forces use Turkish territory for possible operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — toward whom Turkey has long been accused of turning a blind eye.
Turkey, a NATO member with a large and modern military, has yet to define what role it intends to play in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. The alliance has already begun airstrikes to roll back the insurgents in both Iraq and Syria.
The Turkish parliament on Thursday voted 298-98 in favor of the motion, which sets the legal framework for any Turkish military involvement in Iraq or Syria, and for the potential use of Turkish bases by foreign troops.
Parliament had previously approved operations in Iraq and Syria to attack Kurdish separatists, or to thwart threats from the Syrian regime. Thursday's motion expands those powers to address threats from ISIL fighters who control a large cross-border swath of Iraq and Syria — in some parts right up to the Turkish border.
“The threat against Turkey has gained a new dimension,” Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz told parliament Thursday. “It’s our obligation to take measures against this threat and to protect our citizens in the frame of international law.”
Asked what measures Turkey would take after the motion is approved, Yilmaz said had said earlier not to expect any “immediate steps."
"The motion prepares the legal ground for possible interventions, but it is too early to say what those interventions will be," said Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science and columnist for Today's Zaman newspaper.
Ergil said the motion could, for example, let Iraqi Kurdish fighters use Turkey's territory to cross safely into Syria and help Syrian Kurdish forces there. It could also allow the deployment of coalition forces' drones.
Meanwhile, ISIL fighters pressed their offensive against a beleaguered Kurdish town along the Syria-Turkey border. The assault, which has forced about 160,000 people to flee across the frontier in recent days, left Kurdish militiamen scrambling Thursday to push the extremists back on the outskirts of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab.
Turkey is threatened by ISIL both outside its borders and within, since the group is known to operate in major cities and many of its fighters transit through Turkey en route to Syria. But Ankara was reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem until a couple weeks ago, when ISIL released 49 Turkish hostages it had taken in Iraq.
Turkey’s calculations for participating in the U.S.-led coalition will have to factor in its geographic position on the frontlines of the battle against ISIL, its hundreds of miles of porous border with the group in Syria and Iraq, and the dilemma that defeating ISIL would bolster two other enemies in Syria: The Bashar al-Assad regime and Syria’s semi-autonomous Kurds, who are battling ISIL.
“Turkey always sees Syria through the lens of its Kurdish problem,” said Gonul Tol, founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “If you bomb ISIL, you’re not only removing the most effective force against Assad, but the PYD will also benefit,” she said.
Wire services. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.