With the recent ISIS gains of both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, this article looks at the ongoing battle that continues to engulf the Middle East through the growing humanitarian problem and Turkey’s balancing act between its national goals and the devolving crisis.
The total amount of displaced people in the last 4 years of war in the Middle East is unprecedented. To add to the growing refugee problem, the extent of humanitarian crimes carried out by ISIS fighters is, arguably, even more troubling. One such ethnic minority that has witnessed such atrocities is Iraq’s Yazidi community who have been labeled “devil worshipers” by ISIS. Their horrific plight was broadcast on international media last summer when tens of thousands of people from this community were forced to flee their homes to find themselves trapped on the mountaintop of Sinjar in northwest Iraq, in an attempt to escape the ISIS approach. Once encircled by the Islamist fighters, they were given the choice to either convert to Islam or perish through lack of supplies and water following a hasty departure from their homes.
Human Rights Watch has since documented the extent of the violence, and specifically the sexual atrocities carried out by ISIS fighters on the displaced Yazidi women and children who were unable to escape. The report details the sexual slavery that girls as young as 12 years old have had to endure, as they were sold off as wives and sex slaves to the terrorists. Those who were able to flee ISIS captivity have been taken to refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some of the victims, who fear the shame and judgment, have been committing suicide, with numbers reportedly reaching 60 a month. ISIS has justified the action of their fighters by claiming “Islam permits sex with non-Muslim “slaves.” The Chaldean Christians of Mosul are another minority that have also been targeted by the terrorist group.
With the on-going situation in Syria, an estimated 3.2 million Syrians are known to have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The actual figure is believed to be higher as not all immigrants live within the camps that have been set up to accommodate the huge influx of displaced citizens. Turkey has had an open door policy to Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict and has even been praised by the international community for its quick response to the problem as well as for setting up high quality camps.
Ankara’s relationship with both Western allies, Assad and ISIS are complex and shaped by both past and ongoing events. In the last couple of years, Turkey has attempted to gain influence in the region, as well as promoting its “zero problems with neighbours policy” to help forge economic ties. At the outbreak of the civil war, following the sweeping events of the Arab Spring, Bashar Al-Assad resisted Ankara’s call to make regime changes to its governance structures to help placate the demonstrators. Soon after, when relations broke down and Turkey was unable to help rally Western support to topple the ruling regime, Ankara decided to put its chances in what was then the subsidiary of the Islamic state in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra. By turning a blind eye to the foreign jihadists travelling through Turkey and entering the Syrian conflict through it’s borders, Ankara was blamed by the west for helping to support the terrorist groups. As documented in a UN report published last month, the number of foreign recruits joining the fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria is now believed to have reached more than 25,000 since the Arab Spring took place, most of which have reached Syria through Turkey’s “jihadist highway” with the help of smugglers.
Tensions between Turkey and the US were further heightened when the Obama administration decided to step in to help save Kobani from falling into ISIS hands last year. At the time, Ankara was unwilling to give the US access to its closest airbase in Incirlik, thus compelling US planes to take a longer route from the Gulf, 1200 miles away. Ankara could not justify helping the Kurdish fighters under attack by ISIS as they are connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which for Turkey is another terrorist organization. This debate also revived Turkey’s unresolved Kurdish problem that dates back to the 1990’s. Despite Ankara’s refusal to agree with the US plan, the US carried out the intervention anyway, coordinating a weapons drop to help the Kurds defend their city. Following Kurdish rioting within its borders, Turkey changed policy and allowed Iraqi Kurds safe passage to help relieve the fighters defending Kobani.
The disagreement between the US and Turkey lies in the positioning of Ankara’s foreign policy as prioritizing Assad’s removal from Syria as the solution to the problem, rather than targeting specifically ISIS. With the Obama administration in disagreement over this, relations between the two governments are proving difficult. Turkey is thus in a difficult position, but following increasing EU and US pressure, more efforts have been made by Ankara to control movements of foreign fighters along its 500 mile border it shares with Syria. In addition to this, western and Turkish intelligence services are beginning to share more information to help stop the flow of recruits. Although a step in the right direction has been made, it seems there is still a long way to go and the various positions of all those involved in the conflict are still shrouded in conflicting foreign policy aims and unclear strategy goals.
About the author
Marie Mulville is currently studying for a Master’s in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at City University in London. Marie’s interests include the Middle East, European Politics and Security.
Cover Image ‘Massive influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey‘ by European Commission DG ECHO
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