Politics / Foreign Policy
The ability for the US and other coalition forces involved in Operation Inherent Resolve to truly degrade and destroy ISIS has been limited by the ambivalence of the Turkish government. Turkey is key to victory against ISIS primarily based on its strategic location with a southern border that touches on both Iraq and Syria, the group’s two main areas of operation. Allowing coalition forces to conduct attacks from crucial staging areas like Incirlik air force base could make a significant difference in the fight. Additionally, their porous border is another reason why Turkey is the ISIS revolving door, with new recruits traveling through Turkey to Iraq and Syria and smuggled ISIS oil being sold on Turkish black markets. Addressing both of these issues would be a major step forward towards defeating ISIS, and fortunately, there are diplomatic tools the US can utilize to get the Turkish government on board.
Smuggled oil is ISIS’s main financial lifeline. The group has many channels and neighbors which can serve as conduits for black market oil sales, a process which is made much easier with much of the region in turmoil. It is believed that ISIS is smuggling oil into Lebanon, Syria, and several other neighboring countries, with the black market in Turkey being perhaps the largest recipient.
The oil smuggling operation in Turkey has a long and sordid history. During the notorious “Oil for Food Program” of the 1990s, corrupt officials within the Turkish border guard gendarmerie were heavily responsible for the smuggling of illegal oil that helped Saddam Hussein fill his coffers even though Iraq was supposedly under sanction. Today, the smuggling operation in Turkey has built upon the legacy of Oil for Food and has become, in effect, its own micro-economy. Middle men acting on behalf of ISIS sell the oil to smugglers who then, by bribing Turkish gendarmes, sell it to Turkish businessmen who can offer it to locals for a fraction of the regular price.
The oil smuggling ring has been particularly lucrative for ISIS. At its peak this revenue stream is bringing in upwards of $1M – $3M a day. Since the oil itself changes hands so frequently, and because so many parties have a vested interest in keeping the money flowing, it is unsurprisingly difficult to stop the process. Coalition bombing campaigns have made great efforts to target the supply lines, but when one line is destroyed, the supply shifts to another area of the porous Turkish border which stretches over 500 miles.
As smuggled oil enters one side of Turkey’s revolving door, potential ISIS recruits exit through the other. Not only have the Turkish authorities been turning a blind eye to this issue, but a former ISIS fighter was quoted by Newsweek as saying that ISIS considers the Turks ‘allies’ in their cause. The problem goes beyond simply turning a blind eye: until November of last year, the Turkish government was actively preventing Kurdish fighters and supplies from crossing into Syria to fight ISIS. Though that policy has now changed, it was a minor consolation to international pressure since the Turkish government has yet to allow the US to stage airstrikes from the key Incirlik airbase and has maintained an overall ambiguous policy toward the ISIS threat. Given the historically violent relationship between the Turks and the Kurds, this is not surprising. President Erdogan and his cadre are arguably benefiting from the current situation in Syria, considering two of the actors involved in this conflict are his long time rival Bashar Assad as well as the Kurds, a frequent thorn in Turkey’s side.
It does not appear ISIS will make advances into Turkish territory in the foreseeable future, given their active fronts in central Iraq and Syria, so trying to leverage ISIS as an existential threat to Turkish sovereignty is not likely to be a persuasive argument to an ambivalent Erdogan government. Instead, the US and the coalition partners will need to get creative and, if necessary, more aggressive with the uncertain NATO ally. They will have to employ a classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach. The Turkish economy is in a very precarious state, potentially on the verge of collapse, according to experts. Though the Turkish economy has expanded rapidly in the past decade, private investment is falling while public spending is increasing, leading to an unsustainable economic trajectory. With Erdogan promising to make Turkey a top 10 economy by 2023 (part of his ‘2023 Vision’ for modern Turkey’s centennial), expectations are not necessarily in line with reality. That being said, the US and other Western powers could certainly find reason to aid the lofty goals of President Erdogan should he clamp down on smuggling and open Incirlik for combat operations, thus offering the carrot. Should Erdogan not take it, the US and coalition partners could employ the stick, divesting public funding and aid in Turkey as well as limiting public support for his government. Given that the Turkish population is sharply divided on supporting the government, Erdogan cannot afford to risk an economic downturn. Coalition policymakers would be wise to recognize this reality and leverage it, if necessary.
Full cooperation from the Turkish government will be a major step toward permanently degrading and destroying ISIS. The US and coalition partners cannot afford to allow Turkish ambivalence to continue. One of course hopes that positive reinforcement will help change President Erdogan’s mind, but policymakers must be willing to get tough if necessary.