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No Thanksgiving Without Turkey

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No Thanksgiving Without Turkey

Benjamin Newhart

It is estimated that ten million people are under the direct control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an organization claiming authority over Muslims worldwide and dedicated to building a Sunni Islamic Caliphate through “widespread ethnic and religious cleansing.”[1] [2]  The November 13th attacks in Paris highlight a growing threat to European safety and security, as ISIL continues to gain power and influence in the region.

The Republic of Turkey represents the southern boundary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), separating threats in Iran, Iraq, and Syria from the rest of Europe.  As a western ally with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, Turkey’s geostrategic importance and ideological role is critical in tempering the rise of Islamic extremism.  In order to deliver security to the region and safety to its inhabitants, Turkey must take action to control their borders, project military strength via an international coalition, and openly challenge the violent ideology proposed by the Islamic State.

Internal Security

Turkish towns on the border with Syria have become “destination[s] for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war.”[3]  In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee on February 25, 2015, General Breedlove, Commander, U.S. European Command, reflected on the challenges faced by Turkey with regard to the “influx of refugees and foreign terrorist fighters, and increased terrorist activity,” citing a specific threat to U.S. forces stationed in Europe.[4]

While many argue that porous borders are part of “an intentional policy decision by the [Turkish] Justice and Development (AKP) government to support the Syrian opposition — that it is purely politically motivated,” the risks to internal stability make those claims difficult to rationalize.[5]  Turkey has 1,711 miles of land border; including 348 miles with Iran, 239 miles with Iraq, and 566 miles with Syria.[6]  While “tough topography and weather conditions severely impede border security and supervision,” the problems are compounded by a dizzying array of provincial and district governors, which retain joint responsibility for border control.[7]  Left unchecked, this freedom of movement enjoyed by jihadists through the Republic of Turkey perpetuates the hostilities in Syria, increases the threat of “lone-wolf attackers,” and spreads the risk of wholesale violence and instability in Europe. [8]

The first step towards establishing safety and security in the region must be bolstering the internal security of Turkey and fortifying the borders.  Check points and border crossings must be more tightly controlled.  The bureaucratic “circus of authority and responsibility,” which currently defines the administration of border control in Turkey, must be reformed.[9]  The United States and Europe must improve intelligence sharing so that prospective fighters can be denied entry at airports and other transportation hubs.  Immigration reform must also become a political priority, leveraged by a growing majority of Turks who disapprove of how their country is handling its migrant population and favor more restrictive refugee policies.[10]  While most Turks believe immigrants are coming to their country to seek asylum, refugees must be safely segregated until they can be appropriately screened and processed.[11]

The Republic of Turkey’s goal, in cooperation with NATO and other stakeholders in Europe, must be to create a sanctuary from violent Islamic extremism.  The internal security of the country must be assured before ideological change in the region can take root.

Power Projection

The fundamental contract binding NATO’s member nations to a concept of collective defense is the North Atlantic Treaty, Article 5, which cites that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”[12]  When Article 5 was first implemented in response to the 9/11 attacks against the United States, it was with the understanding that a unified effort was required to counter the terrorist threat.  Despite fourteen years of coordinated effort, the threat to regional security from violent Islamic extremists remains.

In 2014, Turks were found to have a growing interest in NATO involvement, with “49% saying it remained essential to their security – a ten percentage point increase from 2013 and the highest level of support measured since 2005.”[13]  A broader number, 57%, supported its role in the “territorial defense of Europe.”[14]  While not overwhelming, these numbers demonstrate a Turkish understanding that their peace and security are dependent on the collective strength of international cooperation. 

While military dominance generally proves insufficient to defeat an insurgent force, it does underpin a broader strategy of establishing persistent pressure to diminish the enemy’s ability to project power and influence.  The United States and NATO must seize this opportunity to work with Turkey and press for increased military presence within the country for physical security, as well as permanent basing rights to conduct offensive operations in Syria and beyond.  It is further incumbent upon the Republic of Turkey to evaluate their weaknesses and request the requisite forces necessary to provide for the defense of NATO’s southern flank. 

The NATO Land Forces Command in Izmir and the AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar are a beginning, however more substantial forward deployed forces in Turkey would serve both as a credible deterrent and a fast reaction force, should hostilities dictate action.  Temporary access to places like İncirlik Air Base should evolve to permanent NATO presence.  The penalty for a perceived failure or hesitation by NATO to “respond to a threat to Turkey could provoke a serious crisis in Ankara’s ties with NATO and could lead to domestic pressures for Turkey to withdraw or suspend its membership in NATO.”[15]  Turkey’s continued participation in NATO and mounting leadership responsibilities in the region require the utmost care and attention to ensure their lasting success.

Ideological Shift

The Republic of Turkey is a republican parliamentary democracy based on secular values.  While Muslims represent 99.8% of the population, most of whom are Sunni, Turkey remains committed to a strict policy separating church and state.[16]  Likewise, Turks are “simultaneously a European, Balkan, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Black Sea country,” providing a unique opportunity for regional leadership.[17]  The Islamic State shares a common Sunni heritage with Turkey, but the rhetoric and violent actions they’ve taken to secure power in the region are fundamentally at odds with Turkish values.  President Obama captures the essence of this conflict and the task ahead when he argues that “in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield.”[18]

As a long-time NATO ally, Turkey has a contractual obligation to support the collective defense of the alliance.   As a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation, they have a moral obligation to advocate an alternate ideology to violent extremism.  Turkey must author a new narrative for Sunni Muslims that addresses the religious and political realities of today, captures a sense of purpose and belonging, and accounts for the economic and social conditions that until now has led many to resort to armed conflict.[19]

To that end, the United States must be willing to empower Turkey to take on a leadership role in the region.  Traditional military action, an arena where the United States typically dominates, has only a limited role in a conflict where the battlefield is defined by the hearts and minds of the people.   If the goal is to end violent religious extremism in the Middle East, Sunni Muslim Turks must be allowed to exert their influence and project a new vision for a prosperous, peaceful future.

Risk of Isolationism

Turkey’s alternative to capitalizing on geostrategic and ideological opportunities is to adopt a neo-isolationist foreign policy and hope it serves to negate the growing threat of Islamic extremists.  The general premise of this approach is to abstain from all forms of regional and ethnic conflict, to include humanitarian intervention, and depart from partnerships and alliances to avoid external influence or obligation.[20]  While nuclear weapons are not part of Turkey’s model, they do have over a million active, reserve, and paramilitary forces ready to serve as a strategic deterrent.[21]

With regard to security cooperation, there is a strong plurality of Turks that prefer ”taking an independent approach toward the Middle East (46%).”[22]  Europe’s marginalization of Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union only solidifies the growing feeling “about the incompatibility of the West and Islam.”[23]  The United States, through NATO, may opt to support Turkey withdrawing from international engagement in an effort to build a barrier between Europe and the Middle East.  A disengaged Turkey may create the buffer NATO and the European Union are hoping to achieve.

The risk of isolationism, however, may be best summarized by the words of Edmund Burke, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”[24]  History is replete with examples that demonstrate why intentionally overlooking, discounting, or ignoring a problem rarely accomplishes the intended goal of solving the problem.  For a movement and it’s associated ideology to be defeated, it must be presented with an alternative for people to gravitate towards.  In the absence of the correct path, people will take the one presented to them. 

Conclusion

Turkey is the “lynchpin to security” in the region.[25]  As a Sunni Muslim nation and a NATO ally situated precisely between Europe and the Middle East, their geostrategic importance and ideological role in tempering the rise of Islamic extremism cannot be oversold.  Containing the spread of destabilizing violence in the region requires a three stage approach beginning with Turkey’s internal security issues to include border control, refugees, and the flow foreign fighters; followed by the projection of military power through NATO presence and international cooperation; and lastly extending the fight to an ideological struggle.

The United States military’s “might, technology, and geostrategic reach is unrivaled” in the modern world, however some battles require our “unique capability to mobilize and lead the international community” more than our physical strength.[26]  The Republic of Turkey’s rise as a regional power has long been predicted.[27]  From a western perspective, they represent as near to an ideal model for political and cultural balance in the region as one can hope to expect.  Perhaps most importantly, as a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation, they are capable of offering a credible alternative to violent Islamic extremism.  Empowering the Republic of Turkey and encouraging them to lead may be the single most important foreign policy initiative the United States embarks upon this decade.  The future of the region and safety and security of Europe depend upon it.

The contents of this paper reflect my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.

Bibliography

  1. Burke, Edmund.  “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.”  1770.
  2. Harding, Luke.  "Isis accused of ethnic cleansing as story of Shia prison massacre emerges.”  The Guardian Website, 25 August 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/25/isis-ethnic-cleansing-shia-prisoners-iraq-mosul. 
  3. Larrabee, F. Stephen. “Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner.” Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2008.  http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG694.
  4. Mahfaudh, Anis.  “Foreign fighters: Urgent measures needed to stop flow from Tunisia – UN expert group warns.”  United Nations Human Rights website, 10 July 2015.  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16223&LangID=E#sthash.xyvWMyii.dpuf
  5. Nebehay, Stephanie. "Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria, Iraq largely out of reach: Red Cross". Reuters, 13 March 2015.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/13/us-mideast-crisis-syria-icrc-idUSKBN0M921N20150313.
  6. Nisanci, Sule. “Turkey’s role in NATO in the Post-Cold War Security Environment.” Rome: NATO Defense College, Academic Research Branch, Research Paper, No. 16, March 2005.
  7. “The North Atlantic Treaty, Article 5.”  North Atlantic Treaty Organization Website, 21 September 2015.  http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_17120.htm.
  8. Obama, Barrack.  “National Security Strategy: February 2015.”  White House Website, 21 September 2015.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf.
  9. Pelletiere, Stephen C.  “Turkey’s Strategic Position at the Crossroads of World Affairs.”  Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, 1993.
  10. Pierini, Marc. “What to Make of Turkey’s New Counterterrorism Policy.” 4 August 2015. http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=60926.
  11. Posen, Barry R., and Ross, Andrew L.  "Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy."  International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996–1997.  http://www.comw.org/pda/14dec/fulltext/97posen.pdf.
  12. Schmidt, Michael S. and Schmitt, Eric.  “Potential Holiday Threats Assessed With Focus on ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorists.”  The New York Times, 02 July 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/03/us/lone-wolf-terrorists-seen-as-big-threat-authorities-say.html?_r=0.
  13. “Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014.”  The German Marshall Fund of the United States.  http://www.transatlantictrends.org.
  14. “Turkey at War?”  The German Marshall Fund of the United States, July 2015.  http://www.gmfus.org/publications/turkey-war
  15. “Turkey's border security problem.”  Al Monitor Website, 07 October 2015.  http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-border-security-problem.html#
  16. “The World Factbook: Turkey.”  Central Intelligence Agency website, 01SEP15.  https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.
  17. Zanotti, Jim.  “Turkey-U.S. Cooperation Against the Islamic State: A Unique Dynamic?”  Congressional Research Service Insight IN10163, 2014. 
  18. Zanotti, Jim.  “Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations.”  Congressional Research Service Report R41368, 2012.

End Notes

[1] Stephanie Nebehay. "Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria, Iraq largely out of reach: Red Cross". Reuters, 13 March 2015.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/13/us-mideast-crisis-syria-icrc-idUSKBN0M921N20150313.

[2] Luke Harding.  "Isis accused of ethnic cleansing as story of Shia prison massacre emerges.”  The Guardian Website, 25 August 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/25/isis-ethnic-cleansing-shia-prisoners-iraq-mosul. 

[3] Robin Wright.  “The Vortex: A Turkish city on the frontier of Syria’s war.”  The New Yorker, 08 December 2014.  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/08/vortex.

[4] Philip Breedlove.  Statement to the House Armed Services Committee, 25 February 2015.

[5] “Turkey's border security problem.”  Al Monitor Website, 07 October 2015.  http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-border-security-problem.html#

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt.  “Potential Holiday Threats Assessed With Focus on ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorists.”  The New York Times, 02 July 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/03/us/lone-wolf-terrorists-seen-as-big-threat-authorities-say.html?_r=0.

[9] “Turkey's border security problem.”  Al Monitor Website, 07 October 2015.  http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-border-security-problem.html#

[10] “Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014.”  The German Marshall Fund of the United States.  http://www.transatlantictrends.org.  Page 33, 36, 37.

[11] Ibid.  Page 36.

[12] “The North Atlantic Treaty, Article 5.”  North Atlantic Treaty Organization Website, 21 September 2015.  http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_17120.htm.

[13] “Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014.”  The German Marshall Fund of the United States.  http://www.transatlantictrends.org.  Page 29.

[14] Ibid.

[15] F. Stephen Larrabee. “Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner.” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2008).  http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG694.

[16] “The World Factbook: Turkey.”  Central Intelligence Agency Website, 01 September 2015.  https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.

[17] Sule Nisanci. “Turkey’s role in NATO in the Post-Cold War Security Environment.” Rome: NATO Defense College, Academic Research Branch, Research Paper, No. 16, March 2005.

[18] Barrack Obama.  “National Security Strategy: February 2015.”  White House Website, 21 September 2015.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf.

[19] Anis Mahfaudh.  “Foreign fighters: Urgent measures needed to stop flow from Tunisia – UN expert group warns.”  United Nations Human Rights Website, 10 July 2015.  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16223&LangID=E#sthash.xyvWMyii.dpuf.

[20] Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross.  "Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy."  International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996–1997.  http://www.comw.org/pda/14dec/fulltext/97posen.pdf.

[21] “The World Factbook: Turkey.”  Central Intelligence Agency Website, 01 September 2015.  https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.

[22] “Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014.”  The German Marshall Fund of the United States.  http://www.transatlantictrends.org.  Page 8.

[23] “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.”  National Intelligence Council, November 2008.  Page 53.

[24] Edmund Burke.  “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.”  1770.

[25] Philip Breedlove.  Statement to the House Armed Services Committee, 25 February 2015.

[26] Barrack Obama.  “National Security Strategy: February 2015.”  White House Website, 21 September 2015.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf.

[27] “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.”  National Intelligence Council, November 2008.  Page 56.

 

About the Author(s)

LCDR Benjamin Newhart is a naval helicopter pilot, currently studying at the U.S. Naval War College.  The contents of this article reflect his own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.