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Turkey and the War Against ISIS: A Reliable Ally?

October 15, 2015
Cornell Law School, Myron Taylor Hall, Room 276, Ithaca, NY
Speaker: Sinan Ciddi, Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies

On Thursday, October 15th, the Ottoman & Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI), an initiative of the Cornell Institute for European Studies, hosted Dr. Sinan Ciddi for a talk on Turkey's role in the fight against the Islamic State. Dr. Ciddi is the Executive Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, where he also teaches courses on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and has written a book and several articles on Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party.

(Photo: Dr. Ciddi with Mostafa Minawi, Director, OTSI)
Dr. Ciddi laid the foundations for his talk by noting that in discussions of regional and global security pundits and scholars alike traditionally approach the question of dealing with the Islamic State (IS) from a US perspective. Asserting that IS poses the greatest threat to collective peace and security in the region since World War II, and that it has contributed to one of the greatest displacements of people in recent history, Dr. Ciddi argued that any comprehensive analysis of the IS threat needs to take into account Turkey's complex web of interests. Turkey shares a porous and conflict-ridden border with both Iraq and Syria, and currently hosts between 2.5 and 3 million refugees fleeing IS barbarism and the Syrian civil war.

Dr. Ciddi began by noting that there have been significant changes in Turkey's behavior toward IS over the past several years. He presented evidence suggesting that up until recently Turkey was not only turning a blind eye to militants crossing Turkey's border on the "jihadi highway" to IS camps in Syria, but had been arming IS, the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, and other radical Islamist groups in an effort. Dr. Ciddi suggested this behavior stems in great part from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's "vendetta" against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who refused to comply with Erdoğan's demands to reform during the Arab Spring. Following "NATO's call on Turkey to step up its obligations and stop arming the IS," Dr. Ciddi argued, Turkey no longer provides aid to such groups.

Turkey also changed its position to allow the US access to Incirlik airbase to conduct airstrikes against IS targets, a provision that greatly improves the efficiency and efficacy of US operations. While previously withholding access unless the US agreed to make the removal of Assad a part of its overall approach, Turkey pivoted 180 degrees to allow access and conduct airstrikes itself following the IS-linked bombing deaths of 33 people in Turkey's southeastern city of Suruç. Dr. Ciddi argued that the shift toward IS is also deeply rooted in Erdoğan's "wag the dog" efforts to shore up political support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of snap elections to be held November 1. Citing the party's "flagrant abuse of the law" on a scale "to which Watergate isn't even comparable," Dr. Ciddi stated the party has an "existential requirement" to achieve at least a parliamentary majority a majority it lost for the first time in 12 years in the June 7 election and continue to allow its members to avoid prosecution. Highlighting Erdoğan's ambitions of instituting a presidential system that would concentrate as many powers as possible in his own hands, Dr. Ciddi stated that Turkey's president is engaged in a form of "desperate politics" to try and gain the parliamentary seats that would allow him to do so. These tactics have included attempts to declare a state of national emergency in mainly Kurdish areas to prevent votes being cast for the Kurdish-based Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the party the AKP blames most for its losses in June.

In concluding, Dr. Ciddi asked the audience to reflect on the reliability of Turkey as a NATO ally given the very personal- and party-specific interests pursued by the AKP under the de facto leadership of Erdoğan. He hoped that US and EU policy-makers would very carefully consider the volatility Turkey has displayed in its foreign policy behavior when assessing its trustworthiness as a regional partner.