Turkish lawmakers Thursday overwhelmingly approved a possible deployment of Turkish ground forces in Syria and opened the door to basing foreign troops in Turkey.
But when and if Turkey will act to join the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State remained uncertain.
The Turkish government disagrees with the Obama administration over what the coalition’s aims should be in Syria, while its decision on whether to intervene in the seemingly imminent Islamic State capture of Kobane, a Kurdish Syrian town just across the border, is tied to its own battle against Kurdish separatists. The lopsided 298-98 vote also authorized sending ground troops into Iraq to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK, which has waged a war for Kurdish autonomy against Turkey for three decades.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday derided U.S. tactics in Syria, which for the past 10 days have centered on airstrikes against tanks and checkpoints of the Islamic State, while avoiding Syrian government forces. Erdogan is a longtime advocate of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
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Calling for a “decisive struggle against all terrorist groups in the region,” Erdogan said Turkey’s proposals for a long-term solution should be “taken into account, otherwise, tons of bombs that would be dropped from the air would only delay the threat and the danger.”
“In the struggle against terrorism, we are open and ready for any kind of cooperation,” he said at the opening session of Parliament. “However, Turkey is not a country that will allow itself to be used for temporary solutions.”
Erdogan blames the rise of the Islamic State on Assad. He said an effective war against the Islamic State is a Turkish priority, but he added: “The immediate removal of the administration in Damascus, Syria’s territorial unity and the installation of an administration which embraces all will continue to be our priority.”
Defense Minister Ismet Yilmez told Parliament during Thursday’s debate that Turkey’s priorities in Syria are to establish safe havens inside Syria for those fleeing the bombings of the Assad regime, no-fly zones within Syria, and training and equipping anti-Assad rebels in Turkey.
But the Obama administration is extremely reluctant to support safe zones inside Syria because they’d put the U.S. in a direct conflict with Syria and might require sending in ground troops.
In the parliamentary debate, a leader of the Republican People’s Party, whose members voted against the new war powers, said a safe zone or a no-fly zone “will be an attack on a neighbor.” Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of the party, said that a close look at the legislation showed only one reference to the Islamic State and many references to the Syrian regime.
“It is clear that the government’s concern is not” the Islamic State, he told Parliament. “This motion is the result of an adventurous foreign policy, and we should all vote against it,” Logoglu said.
The most immediate aspect of the Syrian war now facing Turkey is the advance of Islamic State forces on Kobane, which lies on the other side of the tracks from this Turkish village of what used to be the rail line linking Berlin and Baghdad.
Islamic State forces, equipped with tanks and other heavy artillery, are now less than two miles from the town, whose civilian population has largely fled to Turkey.
On Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition announced a single airstrike near Kobane that destroyed an Islamic State checkpoint, the latest example of an intervention that to former Kobane residents appears so minimal that it may actually be encouraging the extremists to press their battle.
A spokesman for the administration in Kobane, which is controlled by the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, estimated that the Islamic State had 1,000 fighters surrounding the town. He would not give the number of defenders but acknowledged that they are equipped only with light arms.
Here at the Turkish-Syrian border, there was no sign that Turkey will act anytime soon to save Kobane.
Turkish tanks deployed earlier this week remained parked in a field near a military facility close to the border, and there was no sign of heightened military activity.
Defense Minister Yılmaz told reporters in Ankara Thursday not to expect immediate military moves following passage of the authorization, which takes effect Friday and will expire in a year.
Inaction, however, could risk another of Erdogan’s high-priority domestic goals: to reach peace with Turkey’s Kurds and end the long war with PKK insurgents. Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader, warned Thursday that if Islamic State forces seize Kobane and massacre defenders and residents, “it will end the (peace) process.”
How to avoid that outcome is unclear, for domestic politics in dealing with the PKK prevent Turkey from shipping in heavy arms, and it is almost too late to prepare an armed intervention.
At the same time, a leader of the Kobane government warned that if Turkey acts without the approval of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, which controls the area, Turkey will quickly find itself fighting the Kurdish militia there.
“We are sure Turkey is planning to invade Kobane,” said Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the canton. If Turkey acts without the approval of the local Kobane government, “there will be no acceptance by the Kurdish people inside,” Nassan said.
Another possible flashpoint is the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is located on a small plot of land about 15 miles inside Syria, not far from Kobane, and guarded by a small contingent of Turkish soldiers. The war powers legislation specifically authorized sending troops to protect it.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınc earlier this week confirmed that Islamic State fighters had surrounded the tomb, though Erdogan later said there was no threat, and one news organization, Sanliurfa.com, reported that after a three-day buildup, many of the Islamic State fighters had left in the direction of Kobane.
Whatever the situation at the tomb, it is clearly on the minds of the Turkish military. In a message to the several dozen Turkish troops guarding the tomb, the chief of the army general staff told them the army will defend them.
“Remember that you are not alone. Remember that the esteemed Turkish nation stands behind you,” said Gen. Necdet Ozel. “Rest assured that the Turkish Armed Forces will come to your side the moment we receive any word about you.”