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Turkey vulnerable amid crisis in Iraq

As the crisis in Iraq continues, Turkey ponders what it means for the country’s stability
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo feed seagulls while crossing the Bosphorus to Istanbul on January 25, 2014 (AFP)

ANTAKYA, Turkey – At a bustling hole-in-the-wall family-run kebab shop, people are gathered out front, drinking cay (tea) and smoking cigarettes.

Inside it is crowded and blistering hot as Ali stands over an open fire, turning skewers of meat, occasionally wiping the sweat off his forehead.

His brother, Mahmud, is flat out running back and forth between the shop and his bakery down the road, delivering bread for the kebabs to feed the hungry locals.

Once he throws the flat bread down on the table next to the open fire, another relative begins coating them with red, spicy sauce.

In the corner, Ali’s daughter picks endless bunches of parsley and throws the stems halfway across the shop into the bin.

Once the meat is cooked, Ali pulls it off the skewers and onto the flat bread, along with onions, tomatoes and peppers.

“Turkey has been very good to Syria but I don’t know what will happen with Iraq. We have reached our full capacity. What more can we do? We are in a very vulnerable position,” Mahmud said, as Ali nodded his head in agreement.

“We have very terrorizing borders that could infiltrate our country. We didn’t do anything to stop fighters coming across the border. But right now, honestly, we are just focused on making a living to support our families.”

Strained relations

The swift advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) across Iraq and Syria illustrates just how vulnerable Turkey is.

For Turkey, the ISIL offensive and the taking of 80 hostages, indicates a growing insurgency that could potentially disrupt its stability and impact domestic politics ahead of the presidential election in August.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has faced criticism for failing to evacuate staff from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul sooner.

Forty-nine consulate staff were taken hostage by ISIL last week, in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers that were captured by the group a day earlier.

Erdogan said he was doing all he could to ensure the safe release of those captured.

No further news has been made available regarding the situation after an Ankara court ruled that “all kinds of print, visual and Internet media are banned from writing and commenting on the situation”, until the Turkish citizens were rescued.

Aaron Stein, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said that it was too early to tell whether the hostage situation would impact domestic politics.

“Erdogan is the 'Teflon' Prime Minister. Nothing sticks to him. With that said, he is clearly avoiding the issue at his public events,” he told Middle East Eye.

Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington DC, added, “In the current polarised political climate, government supporters will continue to back PM Erdogan and view the kidnappings as an external conspiracy.”

Civiroglu also criticised Turkey’s “failed policy” in Syria: “There are serious allegations against Turkey domestically and internationally that Ankara didn’t do enough to prevent crossings of jihadists from different parts of the world that are joining ISIL and other similar extremist groups,” he said.

Osman Bahadir Dincer, Syria expert at the Turkish non-partisan think tank USAK, described Turkey’s Syria policy as a “mess”.

“Turkey has overestimated its capabilities and underestimated the size of the problem in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence and understanding of the issue has been sorely lacking,” he said.

But not all are critical of the government.

“Yes, it is viewed that Turkey has enabled foreign fighters to enter Syria, but I think perhaps the government is just really unaware of the extent of the situation - it doesn't want to be fully aware of the problem. They don't believe in radical Islam,” a resident in Antakya, who did not want to use her full name, said over her breakfast of yogurt and fruit.

“I think maybe the government wants to go back to the Ottoman years - they were good years.”

Meanwhile, a Turkish cleaner in the border town reiterated that many locals weren’t really following the situation. 

“To be honest, I don’t really like the situation because the government has been giving money out to Syrians and not us,” Malek, a Turkish cleaner, said.

“In the community we are split on our opinions.”

Kurdish ties

Turkey’s ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq have reached extraordinary levels.

“With the crisis in Iraq, even closer Turkish-Kurdish cooperation was necessary,” Stein said.

“To be sure, the relationship between Barzani and Ankara is quite close already, but the necessity of working together to prevent ISIL’s encroachment farther north has grown more acute in recent days,” he said.

“With that said, if Turkey is playing the long game, they can’t be all that thrilled about the prospect of closer PYD-KRG ties,” he added, “and Turkey needs to protect itself from possible ISIL attacks as well as an influx of refugees.”

"Newly built oil pipelines [and] huge Turkish investments in the region will all be under threat in such scenario," Civiroglu said.

Refugee flow

Turkey is now home to an estimated 800, 000 Syrian refugees.

The country was forced to close its border to those fleeing Syria without passports because, with refugee camps full to the brim, it no longer had the capacity to take anymore.

However, Turkey was praised for its response to the refugee crisis and the conditions of its 21 refugee camps, which have been hailed as the best in the region.

However, some locals are concerned that the mass exodus of people from Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit and other areas that have been taken over by militants into Iraqi Kurdistan could result in another influx of refugees into Turkey.

“There’s many Syrian refugees even in Istanbul now,” Malek, a middle-aged woman from Istanbul, said while boarding a flight to Hatay, a province in southern Turkey.

“We never used to see them before, we would only read about the refugee crisis but now it’s on our doorstep. I can’t imagine Turkey can take anymore.”

Meanwhile, back in Antakya, some other locals that MEE spoke to weren’t concerned about the possibility of more refugees pouring through its border.

“We’ve been good to the Syrians and they’ve been good to us,” one man said as his sipped a coffee.

“They’re our brothers. I don’t know what Iraq will mean for us here.”

“It is hard to predict but we may have another influx,” Professor Mensur Akgün from Istanbul Kültür University added.

But Dincer said that he didn’t believe Turkey was capable of adequately managing its borders, particularly with Syria.

“There is an urgent need for systematic monitoring of the border, and I don’t think so far, that Turkey is capable of managing this problem,” he said.

“At the very beginning, Turkey underestimated the humanitarian problem. Turkey was not prepared and I think the same can be applied to border security.”

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