As jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) push closer to Turkey – with some reports putting them in Atmeh, a town just across the border – analysts say supply and trade routes could be at risk.
“The presence of ISIS along the border has already affected the trade routes,” says Soli Ozel, a political scientist and professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. He added that should ISIS expand its presence further to the Turkey-Iraq border, it could take a heavy toll on the $12 billion in annual exports from Turkey into Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
We asked Ozel and Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, to weigh in on the potential consequences for Turkey and its economy.
Syria Deeply: What has been the reaction from the Turkish government to the latest developments?
Gokhan Bacik: Interestingly there has not been a Turkish reaction. Normally I would expect it to become very alert, because [ISIS and al-Nusra] are a direct threat to Turkey. There is a big threat emerging in Iraq and Syria from these radical groups, and I strongly believe they will become a long-term threat to Turkey. Ironically, the government does not seem very interested in this crisis.
Syria Deeply: Why not?
Bacik: Maybe it’s nervous that it will have a negative impact on tourism. Maybe because it is just like the beginning of the Syrian crisis, where there was an escalation, but where Ankara at first believed the crisis would only last six or seven months. Maybe in the same way, they don’t think that these extremist groups will be a big, long-lasting threat in the region.
Soli Ozel: The Turkish government doesn’t like to talk harshly about ISIS given there’s 49 Turkish hostages still being held in Iraq. They try to finesse the situation. So we don’t see or hear all that much about it.
Syria Deeply: Will the ISIS expansion affect supply and trade lines?
Bacik: There is no doubt. First of all, you cannot control the Syrian border. I am sure there will be a kind of interaction. And a good number of Turks are now in the field [fighting with extremists from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups].
We’ve observed vigilance on the part of the Turkish army. Three days ago soldiers were killed by the PYD. The Turkish army is in the [southern border] region, and they are trying to do something [to secure and maintain the border], but there is a huge gap between the army and the government about how to approach the situations unfolding between Turkey and the Kurds, the PYD, ISIS and Syria.
And in this case you cannot expect the army to act unilaterally. They need the government’s decree [to make any major moves] or even a parliamentary motion. Based on what’s been said [by government] officials, I am observing a gap. The Turkish government seems not to take these problems [from ISIS and other extremists] as a serious threat, while the army seems to be seriously alert to what is happening.
Syria Deeply: What would be the action that would finally cause the Turkish government to act? Is there a “red line?”
Bacik: There is no red line. I don’t think even an attack by ISIS on Turkish soil or the taking of hostages [would do it]. Because a lot of things have already happened. A Turkish jet has been shut down. There was a major attack on Reyhanli. Turkey does not have the technological capacity to [begin a major offensive against Syrian extremists], but I am not expecting a serious reaction because it’s currently obsessed with its own domestic problems.
Ozel: One would have expected that the Turkmen fleeing in despair would be a red line, but we’re not even letting them in. This suggests that if there is a red line, it’s way out there. Because ISIS does hold Iraqi hostages, the Turkish government really doesn’t have much room for movement.