January 26, 2015
As world leaders work to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), one thing is clear, no country is on the frontlines more, or has more to lose from this growing crisis, than Turkey. Volatility created by the Syrian civil war has contributed to the growth of ISIS, which is a threat to national security in Turkey and to stability in the region as a whole. Now more than ever, Turkey's location and its role as a bridge between East and West makes it a lynchpin for the mutual goal of defeating ISIS and other violent extremists in the region. Despite Turkey's clear interest in combating terrorism and quelling the spread of ISIS in the region, critics continue to question the country's commitment to its NATO allies.
Much criticism has been levied at the country following the revelation that Hayat Boumeddiene, the woman connected to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, fled to Syria through Turkey. Yet, many of those same detractors fail to mention that she was not on a no-fly list, and that she arrived in Istanbul from Madrid on Jan. 2, several days before the attacks. In fact, no such no-fly list exists in the EU, which is a symptom of a larger gap in information-sharing among allies. As a result, Boumeddiene was already in Syria by the time she became France's most wanted woman. In addition, the same critics ignore all that Turkey has done to help in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently announced that the country has deported nearly 2,000 people and put restrictions on another 7,000 in the name of counter-terrorism.
But the reality is that no state can adequately fight terrorism and secure a 911-kilometer border with one hand tied behind its back. To suggest that Turkey lacks a genuine interest in vanquishing violent extremists is to ignore the painful reality that the majority of the victims of terrorist attacks are Muslim. Just this month, Istanbul withstood two attacks on the police by a homegrown extremist group. For Turkey, the threat of ISIS is more than at its doorstep, as exemplified by ISIS's advances on Kobani - it is in its living room. The continued action by ISIS has further driven Syrians to flee to Turkey adding to the country's more than 1.6 million refugees fleeing from Iraq and Syria at a cost to date of $5.5 billion. Critics in the West should recognize the humanitarian burden ISIS presents for Turkey.
Likewise, Westerners should acknowledge Turkey's complex security situation. Because of its proximity to ISIS-controlled territory, Turkey must weigh its every move carefully. Already, Turkey regularly endures cross-border fire from ISIS and the Syrian regime. If it were to more forcibly engage ISIS without a plan to fill the political vacuum left by the Syrian civil war, Turkey would risk retaliatory terrorist attacks. A recent Turkish intelligence report found that as many as 3,000 people in Turkey are believed to be linked to ISIS and, as with Western countries who have in-country terrorist groups, Turkey is focusing on efforts to arrest these people.
Despite a surge in criticism from allied countries, recent actions have given many hope that there will be a more cooperative and effective effort. The EU announced on Monday that it will share intelligence on suspected terrorists and possible attacks with not only member states, but also with other countries, beginning with Turkey, Egypt, Gulf countries and North Africa.
In addition, last week the U.S. government announced that Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar will host more than 400 U.S. troops this spring and work alongside them in training Syrian opposition forces. The goal of the training is threefold: to ready Syrian rebels to defend their communities, to prepare them to defend against ISIS in Syria and to help them work with political opposition to resolve the Syrian civil war. Both of these new initiatives are steps in the right direction, but to truly resolve one of today's gravest security threats, Turkey and its Western allies need to continue working together more closely with the understanding that Turkey faces unique and complex challenges.
Halil Danismaz, President, Turkish Heritage Organization