The situation in Iraq is changing by the hour. As I write this, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is on the march, and Turkish diplomats are still being held hostage by the militant organization’s fighters.
It is time to look at the Iraq issue from Turkey’s perspective. If your country’s embassy or consulate were captured and the people inside taken hostage, under international law it would be a declaration of war. In Turkey’s case, NATO should step in.
But our consulate in Iraq was recently attacked, and while NATO held an extraordinary meeting on the issue, they did not agree to intervene. We are not facing an attack from another country, but a radical organization waging guerilla war—or so the line of argument goes. Ankara said we would look to a diplomatic solution, forcing everyone to wonder if there could ever be a diplomatic solution with a radical organization such as ISIS.
There can be, for reasons I hope to explain. If we go back to the weeks before ISIS captured Mosul, there were several major international decisions taken that affected Turkey and its fight against extremist groups. First, US President Barack Obama set up a 5 billion dollar fund to fight extremists, mainly to be used by countries hosting refugees from Syria and trying to beat back terrorists on their borders, including Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Second, Turkey declared the Al-Nusra Front, the official wing of Al-Qaeda operating in Syria, a terrorist organization. Third, the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., issued a report on security collaboration between Turkey and the US, in particular regarding the Syrian issue. Finally, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made an official visit to Ankara.
Turkey’s “open door” policy towards Syrian refugees highlighted the lack of security along the 500-mile border. According to Turkish writer Murat Yetkin, after the Turkey–US intelligence summit in February, information about alleged militants crossing the Turkish border into Syria began to be provided to Turkish intelligence by Western agencies. In addition, efforts to prevent militants from crossing the border were implemented.
But even if you are ideologically opposed to radical groups, if you are trying to get aid to the wretched people of Syria and ensure the security of your own borders, you will eventually have to have contact with radical groups. They control many of the border crossings and much of the territory on the Syrian side of the Turkish–Syrian border.
So when ISIS seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul, the Turkish government did not try to hide the fact it had contact with militants. Those contacts are why a “political” or “diplomatic” solution is still possible.
Turkey’s border had been something of an “open door” to militants, who had been crossing back and forth. Equally, identifying who is and is not a militant is not always an easy task. But with increasing NATO cooperation, the Turkish border has largely been closed to militants—a situation about which ISIS is no doubt displeased.
But that was not the only issue. Anyone watching ISIS’s movements in Syria has probably noticed that they generally try to establish control over oil-rich regions: Raqqa, an oil-rich city in northern Syria, is under their control, as is Deir Ezzor, a Syrian town that acts as a gateway to the even more oil-rich Iraq. In Iraq itself, Fallujah and Ramadi also have important oil wells. But the biggest prize so far has been Mosul—and, with fighting ongoing, it may soon be the Baiji refinery.
It cannot be a coincidence that ISIS’s advance came as Iraqi Kurdistan began to sell oil via Turkey. After all, energy is widely acknowledged as the main cause of wars today, even when radical organizations are involved.
The Iranian president’s visit to Turkey must also be taken into consideration. ISIS, clearly, does not look favorably on good relations with Shi’ite Iran, and Iran opening its oil refineries to the world via Turkey is a significant factor in the energy dimension of this latest crisis. For ISIS, a stronger Iran opening to the West and selling oil via Turkey as sanctions are increasingly relaxed means only the strengthening of the Shi’tes and the Tehran–Baghdad alliance. ISIS will not be happy to see Sunni Turkey playing a role in that situation.
Lurking behind ISIS’s decision to target the Turkish consulate is a warning to Turkey. But a counter-attack would be a mistake. There are some who support the Sunni resistance, radical though it may be, because of the sectarian conflict ushered in by the invasion of Iraq by the administration of then-US President George W. Bush, and perpetuated by Maliki’s flawed rule. It is true that the minorities—the Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmens—in these lands have been oppressed, but it is no solution to aid ISIS in the fragmentation of that territory.