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Policy Analysis 28 October, 2014

Turkey and the Question of Military Intervention: Pressures and Constraints


Emad Y. Kaddorah

Head of the Editing department at the ACRPS. He holds a PhD in International Relations and Middle East Studies. He obtained a Master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies. His published works include Turkish Foreign Policy: Orientations, Flexible Alliances, Power Politics (ACRPS, 2021); The Rise of the GCC and Turkey: Convergent and Divergent Regional Agendas (New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021). His research interests focus on Geopolitics, International Relations and Turkish Studies.


Turkey is facing critical choices over immediate military intervention in its own backyard.[1] It can either respond to escalating calls and demands for direct intervention; prioritize its own reading of the internal and regional developments and put its national interests first; or maintain its ambiguous position of pledging solidarity and support for the international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) while avoiding direct military confrontations. Each of these options come with costs and benefits on both domestic and regional fronts. ISIL is almost at the Turkish border, which means Turkey is facing its biggest challenge in decades. The inherent threat in the expansion of ISIL is not only limited to the possibility of attacks on Turkish soil, but also to the prospect of instability that could threaten Turkey internally. There have been escalating calls, especially from Kurds, for Turkey to intervene in Syria, and to rescue Kobane by providing support for the fighters besieged there. Large protests have also erupted, condemning Ankara’s failure to intervene in Kobane, and accusing the Turkish state of indifference toward the fate of the Syrian-Kurdish enclave. Demands for intervention have also been taken up at international level, the US-led coalition being particularly interested in the prospect of military assistance from Turkey.

Turkey took a more active role in the international coalition against the Islamic State following the release of Turkish hostages captured in Mosul. With the announcement of its active backing of the US-led coalition, Turkey also underscored the importance of cooperation with elements on the ground rather than just relying on air strikes. Yet, Ankara’s actions thus far indicate its resolve not to bow to pressure, and its unwillingness to become involved in a battle without an integrated strategy towards the regional situation as a whole, and without international commitments, especially on the part of NATO, of which Turkey is a member. Over the last three years, Turkey has assiduously avoided entering an open-ended war in Syria, despite a Turkish military plane having been brought down by Syrian missiles and accusations that the Syrian regime was orchestrating attacks on Turkish soil, and in spite of the parliamentary mandate granted to the government at the end of 2012 to deploy ground forces outside the country’s borders.

Views on the Turkish Position

There are different views as to why Turkey is reluctant to militarily intervene against ISIL, or to even provide a corridor for aid and military equipment to the besieged town of Kobane. One view is that Turkey is uncomfortable with the level of autonomy gained in the Kurdish region of Syria, which could lay the foundations for the establishment of a larger independent Kurdish entity in the Middle East, and thus strengthen separatist tendencies among Turkey’s Kurds. Another view holds that Turkey’s decades long misgivings regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cannot be suddenly dispelled despite an emergency situation, particularly as Turkey still deems the PKK a terrorist organization. Many put down Turkey’s present position to its perception of Syrian Kurds as allies of the Syrian regime,[2] particularly after the incentives extended by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to obtain the support of Kurds against the armed opposition—such as granting some of them Syrian nationality and cultural rights and opening Kurdish schools. There are also suspicions that the Syrian government made contacts with the PKK in order to create allies within Syria from the PKK ally, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party.[3]

Others take this view further and accuse Turkey of not minding Kobane’s fall since this would actually serve its interests. Amberin Zaman, a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Western press, believes that Ankara sees an opportunity in the fall of the town, despite the risk of wide criticism: “Turkey would probably be happy to see Kobane fall. The town has emerged as a symbol of Kurdish resistance. It hosted [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan when he used to live in Syria [...] Kobane also has huge strategic significance. It lies between a swath of uninterrupted Kurdish-controlled towns and villages to the east collectively known as the canton of Jazeera and the Kurdish-administered town of Afrin to the southwest. The Kurds have long wanted to link the three by pushing out the Islamic State and other Syrian rebels from the areas separating them. The prospect of a Kurdish entity run by the PKK is more than Turkey can stomach. Kobane’s fall would deal a humiliating blow to the PKK and weaken its support among Syria’s Kurds. It would also force [Salih] Muslim [head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)] and the PYD to patch up their differences with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq [...] Although Barzani has spoken in defense of Kobane, he has yet to reproach Turkey over its stance.”[4]

Also, amongst the Kurds in Turkey are those that believe that the continuation of the current peace process between the Kurds and the Turkish government requires Turkey to be more prepared to help the People’s Protection Units in Syria, which are facing a struggle for survival against ISIL. The Turkish assumption that the peace process will not be fundamentally affected by current events and that the PKK will not renounce the ceasefire with Turkey and decide to fight Turkey and ISIL at the same time is facing a serious test. Kurds took to the streets in demonstrations against Turkish reluctance to intervene in Kobane, resulting in tens of fatalities and hundreds of injured across Turkey. The PKK also threatened to pull out of talks completely if Turkey failed to offer support or allow military supplies to reach Kurdish fighters besieged in the town.[5]

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This Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on October 16, 2014, please click here.

[1] As this paper went to print, Turkey unexpectedly announced it would allow Peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to defend Kurds in Kobane, marking an abrupt shift from Ankara's position to date.

[2] “Turkey torn between ISIL and the PKK,” Hurriyet Daily News, http://goo.gl/702ZRW; Sinan Ulgen, “Turkey’s Dangerous Bet on Syria,” The New York Times, October 9, 2014, http://goo.gl/BAQUxF.

[3] Damla Aras, “The Syrian Uprising: Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill,” Middle East Quarterly vol. 19, no. 2 (Spring 2012), p. 50.

[4] “Erdogan’s Syria policies spark riots in Kurdish cities,” Al Monitor, October 10, 2014, http://goo.gl/Tu8qcQ.

[5] “Turkey torn between ISIL and the PKK.”