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Turkey’s motives in its war on Islamic State

First the Iran nuclear deal and now Turkey’s strategic decision to hit Islamic State in Syria has shaken the Middle East. Both events, however, should be seen as possible steps toward peace.

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A protester holds a placard to protect himself from the sun during a rally in Istanbul, July 26, 2015 to denounce the deaths of 32 people in a suicide bombing attack Monday in Suruc, southeastern Turkey, near the border with Syria. Turkey has subsequently bombed Islamic State positions near the Turkish border in Syria and simultaneously carried out widespread police operations against suspected Kurdish and IS militants and other outlawed groups inside Turkey.

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The best way to track news in the Middle East is to ask this question of big events: Is violence in the name of religion being curbed? The answer may be yes for the July 14 agreement aimed at ending the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. Now a second event has occurred. Turkey has joined the war to roll back the Islamic State. On Friday, Turkish military jets hit IS targets inside Syria. 

If Turkey’s actions are done well and for the right motives, it could add to the momentum of the Iran nuclear deal in reducing violence committed by Mideast actors trying to advance a radical religious cause. As a powerful nonArab state, Turkey has the potential to be a peacemaker. 

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Yet its strategic decision to go after IS fighters is complicated by its unstable politics and its long struggle with violent separatists trying to establish a homeland for the minority Kurds. The fact that Turkey decided to also strike the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq only complicates Western support for its new role in containing the barbaric spread of Islamic State.

In a region with sharp divides along religious and ethnic lines, Turkey could be a better stabilizer than an outside power such as the United States. It is a democracy whose people are largely Sunni, like most of the Middle East, and generally seeks influence by peaceful means. Part of its reluctance to enter the Syria war is driven by past Turkish dominance of the region under the Ottoman empire. Yet with one foot in the West as a long-time Nato ally against communism, it has the strategic ability to contain the spread of Islamic terror committed by either a state or militant group.

Much depends on Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His ruling AK Party essentially lost a parliamentary election in June. It may be seeking to reestablish its legitimacy by joining the war in Syria and attacking the PKK. Its main political opponent is a Kurdish-based party with rising support among urban voters. Mr. Erdogan could also be concerned that Iran’s influence will increase if the nuclear deal brings an end to sanctions on Tehran.

The Middle East often appears messy and hopeless. But sometimes events add to the larger cause of ensuring those who claim to worship a divine presence do not wage war to convert others. The big news is when an understanding of peace prevails. With the Iran nuclear deal and now Turkey’s decision to contain IS, such a peace could be a bit closer.