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Turkey Votes to Allow Operations Against ISIS 3 octobre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The New York Times (USA) Friday, October 3, 2014, p. A 6

By Ceylan Yeginsu

Turkey appeared to take a big political step toward joining the American-led campaign against the militants of the Islamic State when its Parliament voted Thursday to authorize expanded military operations in Iraq and Syria and to allow foreign forces to launch operations from its territory.

But it was far from clear whether the political step would soon translate into military action.

In many ways Turkey’s stance is a crucial question mark hanging over the campaign against the Islamic State. Alone among the potential coalition members, it has a large, capable army already on station along the borders of Syria and Iraq, with bases and logistical support close at hand and long experience at working with other NATO members, including the United States.

But it has been deeply cautious about intervening against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the militants have so far been careful not to draw Turkey directly into the conflict.

On Turkish television on Thursday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Turkey preferred to be part of an international coalition and repeated concerns that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad would fill a vacuum once airstrikes forced the Islamic State to retreat.

The Turkish Army does not appear to be preparing for an imminent incursion. It has increased its strength along the 560-mile border with Syria in recent days, dispatching busloads of troops and columns of armored vehicles to take up positions near the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani.

But « the military deployments are thus far not out of the ordinary, » said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research group. « Ankara has moved tanks to border hot spots throughout the conflict. The recent deployments suggest that they are Kobani-specific. »

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that his government is unlikely to send the army across the border unless an internationally supported no-fly zone is imposed first, to keep the Syrian Air Force from attacking Turkish troops. The United States has said it is pondering that idea.

And Turkey’s willingness to participate even in the air campaign against the Islamic State is still unclear. Analysts said that despite the vote on Thursday, Ankara was still unlikely to allow the United States and its partners to use the large air base in Incirlik in southeastern Turkey to mount strikes. So far it has allowed the base to be used only for humanitarian flights.

Turkey is no friend of the Islamic State, whose goal of sweeping away the nation-states of the Middle East in favor of a fundamentalist caliphate has emerged as the greatest existential threat to Turkey since 1946, according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. In that year, Stalin demanded that the Bosporus and other territory be ceded to Soviet control.

Still, the government in Ankara is worried that joining a campaign aimed only at the Islamic State would backfire for Turkey by aiding and emboldening two other opponents: the Assad government and the Kurdish separatist forces in southeastern Turkey.

« Turkey wants to see a comprehensive approach to Iraq and Syria, and not just a strategy that targets ISIS, because Turkey believes that the emergence of the militant group is related to the broader conflicts in the region, » Mr. Cagaptay said. « And on that, Turkey is right. You can’t tackle ISIS without tackling the fundamental issue that has taken Iraq and Syria. »

Mr. Erdogan told his Parliament on Wednesday that Turkey would not allow its allies to use its military bases or its territory to fight the militants unless the overthrow of Mr. Assad remained a priority.

« We will never tolerate any terrorist organizations in our lands, in our region or indeed in the world — we are open and ready for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism, » he said.

Turkey has found itself under mounting pressure to take a more active stance, both from Washington and from what it sees on its own border. Islamic State fighters have gained ground in Syria near the Turkish frontier in recent days, and have advanced close to a very sensitive site: the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Though the tomb is in Syria, it has been treated for nearly a century as a Turkish enclave, guarded by Turkish soldiers; an assault on it would make Turkish intervention much more likely, analysts said.

And the release last month of 46 Turkish hostages who were held by the Islamic State gave Ankara more room to maneuver.

The huge influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict — by some estimates, more than 1.5 million so far — has complicated matters for Turkey. Over the past two weeks, militant attacks on Kobani, whose population is mainly Kurdish, have prompted more than 160,000 Kurds to flee across the border. The Turkish government wants to set up a buffer zone in Syria, in part to stem the tide of refugees.

On Thursday, the imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan warned Ankara that the fragile peace talks underway between the government and the main Kurdish rebel group in Turkey would be threatened if Islamic State fighters were allowed to massacre Kurds in Kobani.

The new mandate for military action replaces an earlier, more narrow one that allowed Turkish forces to retaliate across the border against attacks; that mandate had been about to expire. Parliament gave the government a freer hand, authorizing any military action deemed necessary for national security.

Before Thursday, Turkey had not approved allowing foreign forces to operate from its territory since 2003, and it did not allow American forces to use Turkey to invade Iraq. Analysts said the Parliament did so now mainly to allow allied air forces to use Turkish bases in enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria if one is set up.

Still, « there is not much in the mandate that is new, » Mr. Stein said. « Frankly, I think the government is spinning this a little bit to its advantage to win sympathy, » he said, « after it was beaten up so badly by the Western press and governments for its relatively hands-off approach. »

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Dan Bilefsky from Paris.

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