The Turkish parliament has approved a motion to allow military force in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some three-quarters of MPs voted in favour, signalling a major change in Turkey’s stance on intervention, as the conflict moves closer to the Turkish-Syrian border.
While Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz stressed that Ankara has yet to decide how to use its mandate, Turkish forces could now be deployed in both countries, alongside around 40 other members of a Nato-led coalition. Foreign troops will also be allowed to use Turkish territory - including the Incirlik airbase - for operations in the region.
“The threat against Turkey has gained a new dimension. It’s our obligation to take measures against this threat and to protect our citizens in the frame of international law,” Yilmaz told MPs before the vote. However, Yilmaz also said that the vote did not entail immediate action, as Ankara still has to consider what measures it plans to take.
In a speech to the parliament on October 1, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey should make an effective struggle against ISIL a priority but also warned that dropping bombs on ISIL militants would not provide a long-term solution to the problem.
The Turkish government had previously seemed reluctant to get involved in the conflicts in Iraq or Syria - both because of fears of retaliation by militants and from concerns over how supporting Kurdish populations outside Turkey could have knock-on effects for Ankara’s relationship with its own Kurdish population.
However, there has been a significant change of mood within the country in recent days, partly triggered by the release of 46 Turkish hostages by ISIL. The advance of the conflict towards the long and porous Turkish-Syrian border, and a new flood of refugees across the border, has put further pressure on Ankara to act.
Militants are reported to have surrounded the mainly Kurdish town of Kobane, which is just 100km from the Turkish border. After an order to evacuate the town, thousands of its inhabitants have fled to the Turkish border.
Another factor for Turkey has been the threat to the ancient tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman empire, from ISIL militants. The tomb is located within Syria, but kept under Turkish guard.
Despite these factors, there is still strong opposition to military intervention from within Turkey. Opposition MPs from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) both voted against the motion on October 2, while opponents demonstrated outside the parliament.
The deputy parliamentary group leader of the CHP told MPs that the move was effectively a “battle cry” and risked dragging Turkey into a war against Syria, Hurriyet Daily News reported. Meanwhile, HDP MP Ertugrul Kurkcu accused the government of standing by while ISIS massacred civilians and claimed the vote was an attempt to “show off”.
Despite the escalating conflicts in two neighbouring countries, the main concerns among international investors and rating agencies this year have centred around Turkey’s domestic politics - the local elections in March and presidential elections, in which Erdogan become the first directly elected president, in August.
Meanwhile, the conflict in the wider region has not yet had a substantial impact on the country’s economy. A September opinion piece from East Capital writes that, “the geopolitical crisis in neighbouring Syria and Iraq could spill over to Turkey through different channels even though the economy and the market have been surprisingly resilient to the conflicts so far”.
However, there has inevitably been some impact economically, not least because in the last few years Iraq has become Turkey’s second largest export market after Germany. Iraq has also been an important overland transit route to third markets, one that has been at least partly blocked because of the threat of drivers being killed or taken hostage.
A further escalation in fighting in Syria could also add to the flood of refugees across the border into Turkey. At present, estimations of the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey are up to 1.5 million.
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