Islamic State: Why Turkey’s isn’t rushing to take on ISIS

Watch above: Kurdish fighters are holding on to the Syrian border city of Kobani, but they say without more support from neighbouring Turkey it may not be for much longer. Aarti Pole reports.

Turkey’s president said eliminating ISIS shouldn’t be the endgame when it comes to international efforts to stop atrocities in Syria, and taking out the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be a part of the plan.

“Syria has many Kobanis,” Tayyip Recep Erdogan said in a speech at Istanbul’s Marmara University on Monday, referring to the Kurdish-controlled Syrian border town that has been besieged by ISIS.

“What will happen to Aleppo, Latakia, Turkmen and other people after saving Kobani,” Erdogan asked. “The Assad regime should be the target for a real solution in Syria.”

Turkey has backed the U.S-led international coalition, formed to deal with the threat of ISIS, the militant group that refers to itself as the Islamic State and has declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

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But despite ISIS being in a position to take a third Syria-Turkey border crossing, and the United Nations warning thousands of people could be massacred if ISIS succeeds in taking the town, Erdogan was not willing to get involved.

“The reality is that Turkey has its own set of issues that it has to deal with,” said Dr. Gavin Brockett, an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It’s been dealing with the realities of the crisis in Syria in a way that only really Jordan and Lebanon have been dealing with up until now.

“The problem that a government like Turkey faces, of course, is that it’s trying to deal with its strategic relationship with its neighbours, with the United States, with its own population and trying to make the right decision,” Brockett told Global News.

Erdogan believes Turkey is “the only country that can provide peace in the region.”

READ MORE: Iraqi military camp seized by militants in Anbar; bombings in Baghdad kill 13

His comments at Marmara University came shortly after a Turkish official dismissed reports Turkey had reached an agreement to allow the U.S.-led coalition to launch airstrikes against ISIS from the Incirlik Air Base, in the southern part of the country.

The U.S. and Turkey did reach an agreement to allow moderate Syrian rebel groups to be trained on Turkish soil, although Turkey would like to establish safe-zones inside Syria where those opposition fighters could also be trained.

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The Turkish government approved a motion this month that would allow its military to cross into Syria and Iraq to carry out operations against ISIS and other groups.

“The rising influence of radical groups in Syria threatens Turkey’s national security,” Al Jazeera reported Turkish defence minister Ismet Yilmaz saying. “The aim of this mandate is to minimise as much as possible the impact of the clashes on our borders.” But, Turkey has yet to signal it has any plans to actually deploy troops in Iraq or Syria.

READ MORE: Military advance team heads for Kuwait next week to prepare to battle ISIL

Joining the fight against ISIS presents two scenarios that aren’t favourable for Turkey.

Wiping out ISIS serves to help Assad, something Turkey has no desire to do.

Helping Kurdish forces, who are currently battling to defend Kobani, means aiding a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK — the militant organization Turkey has been fighting within its own borders for decades.

READ MORE: Activists say Kurdish fighters halt Islamic State’s advance in Kobani

“Turkey has for the last 30-plus years been wrestling with the question of its own Kurdish population and the demands on the part of some Kurds for autonomy within Turkey or even, in more extreme cases, for separation,” said Brockett.

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The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has managed to hold back ISIS advances, although the militant group reportedly controls up to 35 per cent of the city now. But the YPG has warned it won’t be able to maintain the battle against ISIS without military help.

The YPG is affiliated with the PKK and Erdogan said the “PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey.”

Turkey, Canada, the U.S. and European Union all consider the PKK a terrorist organization; Turkey also lists the YPG as a terrorist group.

Turkey accepted more than 200,000 Syrians who fled Kobani, but would not allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to cross into Syria in order to aid the YPG — a move that has been decried by Kurds in Turkey and spurned protests that have turned deadly.

It’s also threatening the uneasy peace process between Turkey and the PKK.

“Turkey’s reluctance to get involved for fear of empowering Kurdish militants in Turkey is now contributing to the growing discord between Kurds and the government, ” Gönül Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, wrote for CNN. “Last week, after reports that Turkey closed the border gates to impede the flight of Kurds from Kobani, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, warned that if ISIS carried out a ‘massacre’ in Kobani then the peace process with the PKK could end.”

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