Turkey weighs risk of military role against Islamic State

Kurds clash with Turkish police, Sanliurfa, 22 Sep 14 Image copyright EPA
Image caption In recent days, Turkish police have clashed with Kurds on the Syria border

The release of Turkish hostages who were held by Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq has left many people wondering whether Ankara will now join the US-led offensive against IS wholeheartedly.

IS released the 46 Turkish hostages on Saturday, ending 101 days of captivity.

At the United Nations on Tuesday the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters that Ankara would support the coalition forces "both militarily and politically". That was an apparent shift in position.

Earlier Turkey had pledged logistical and humanitarian assistance to ease the crisis in neighbouring Iraq and Syria, but refused to take part militarily.

More than 40 countries have offered support for the US-led campaign. But Turkey, with Nato's second biggest army, has not yet explained how it will help the anti-IS coalition.

"This doesn't necessarily mean firing bullets - it could be co-operation in the logistical and intelligence sense," said Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Relief aid is being flown to northern Iraq from Turkey's Incirlik airbase
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some Turkish troops on the Syria border are not far from IS positions

Plugging border gaps

Turkey has a vulnerable border with Syria, more than 900km (560 miles) long.

It has long been accused of permitting the flow of jihadists and resources into Syria and letting IS traffic oil - all of which the Turkish government vehemently denies.

Now the UN Security Council has adopted a binding resolution compelling states to prevent their citizens joining jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

And at the UN on Wednesday Mr Erdogan complained of a lack of co-operation.

He said Turkey could stop the flow of jihadists only if it was aided by the rest of the world.

But he also denounced IS, calling it for the first time "a terrorist organisation with blood on its hands".

The Turkish government formally declared IS a "terror organisation" last year, but no such remark had previously been made by a top Turkish official. The Islamist-rooted AK Party has been in power in Turkey since 2002.

Mr Erdogan warned against Islamophobia and said: "We strongly condemn coupling Islam, which means peace, with terrorism. It is indeed very offensive that Islam and terror are used together."

US intelligence officials estimate that about 12,000 foreigners have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of IS, which is said to have around 31,000 fighters.

Turkey says it has already deported nearly 1,000 foreigners and a further 6,000 have been banned from entering the country.

"Despite our sacrifices and our expectations of solidarity, we have not received the kind of support we've been looking for from the international community,'' Mr Erdogan complained.

Image copyright AP
Image caption At the UN Mr Erdogan warned the world against an Islamophobic backlash

Kurdish influx

The "sacrifice" Mr Erdogan mentioned was clearly a reference to the chaos on Turkey's border with Syria.

Syrian Kurds fleeing clashes between Kurdish militias and IS militants have poured into Turkey from the nearby town of Kobane.

The numbers are overwhelming. In the past two days almost 140,000 Kurds are reported to have entered Turkey, which is already hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.

The financial cost to Turkey so far is more than $3.5bn ( £2.15bn) - but there is a potential political cost too.

Having fought Kurdish PKK guerrillas in the south-east for almost 30 years, Turkey does not want them to consolidate their power in the region, or see Western weapons fall into PKK hands.

Turkey has been negotiating a peace deal with the PKK on and off for years, and the last thing it wants to see is this process ending in tatters.

The PKK may emerge stronger from the fight against IS, but the Kurds appear to want Turkey to get involved militarily in Syria as a precondition for pursuing the peace process.

But Turkey still fears a spill-over effect if it plays an active military role.

Next week, Turkey's parliament is expected to consider a year-long extension to a mandate allowing Turkish troops to go into Iraq and Syria in hot pursuit.

In March 2003 Turkey refused to get involved in the US-led military campaign in Iraq. A decade on, it faces a similar dilemma.