The Kurdish town of Kobane in western Syria is under siege by the Islamic State. A U.S.-led coalition has hit at the jihadists sieging Kobane—with 13 strikes on Wednesday and Thursday—but bombs alone may not suffice. It is the Turkish military, whose tanks are currently sitting on the Syrian border, that may be in the best position to save stave off a mass slaughter. But the Turks refuse to join the fight, even though the Turkish Parliament voted on Oct. 2 to deploy the Turkish army to fight in Iraq and Syria, and to allow foreign troops on Turkish soil. A week after the vote, Turkey has not participated in any U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State.
Turkey's stock as a Western ally is plummeting. Ankara stubbornly resists joining the coalition unless it broadens its fight to topple Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Turkey's 200 or more F-16 fighter jets sit idle as the Islamic State makes alarming gains across Syria and Iraq. This stands in sharp contrast to other Muslim world allies – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and even Jordan – that have taken part in the aerial campaign against the Islamic State.
Turkey's absence is conspicuous. It's the only NATO ally among these Muslim world partners. To be clear, the fight against the Islamic State is not a NATO mission, but it serves as a reminder of how little Erdogan's regime has done to help preserve order in the Middle East.
In many ways, Turkey has made the fight against the Islamic State more difficult. Apart from permitting some unarmed American drones to fly out of its territory, Ankara has refused to allow the West to operate from Turkish airbases. This has forced strike aircraft to fly their sorties from the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, Shaheed Mwaffaq in Jordan or Al Dhafra in the UAE. As for the Incirlik air base that NATO operates in Eastern Turkey, Ankara has made it clear that for the time being, it is currently off limits for armed operations.
But this should come as no surprise. Incirlik has long been off limits. Ankara refused to allow the United States to utilize the air base for kinetic operations in the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. Instead, the base has been used for logistics, support and training. Turkey owns the facility, but technically, according to Article 5 of the NATO charter, it cannot restrict the NATO activities on the base in an approved operation. Still, it can restrict U.S. personnel and equipment. And it has consistently done so, to the frustration of American military planners.
Admittedly, one could argue that the Turks were right to hold off on joining America's ill-fated war in Iraq. But that would be ignoring Turkey's role in other international conflicts. Take the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan since 2001, where Turkey limited its role to logistics and training and refused to take part in combat. Similarly, Turkey deployed nearly 400 personnel to NATO forces in Kosovo, as well as other personnel to other international operations in the Balkans, but with responsibilities limited to training, observation and support.
To its credit, Ankara did play a significant role in NATO's operations in Libya by sending aircraft, frigates and other assets in 2011. But only on Erdogan's terms: The Turks had an interest in seeing Libya's Muslim Brotherhood – the group upon which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) draws its ideological inspiration – emerge as the power broker in Tripoli.
Sure, there have been other smaller international operations. But the post-9/11 patrols of the Mediterranean Sea and patrols on the Red Sea to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, or even the Turkish frigate now sailing with a NATO maritime group on a six-month stint, hardly change one uncomfortable fact: Turkey is not a reliable Western ally.
But Turkey's lackluster record as an active NATO partner cannot be judged upon its military activity alone. After all, NATO has struggled to play a useful role in preserving world peace. The organization has been beset by chain-of-command problems that have made its operations less than effective for decades, to the point that few expect much from it any longer. The competing rules of engagement of the various militaries within the Afghanistan coalition introduced a new level of dysfunction.
But membership in NATO still holds significance. The alliance was designed to be an elite group of countries that stood for Western values. The NATO charter, set forth in 1949, holds that member states will protect one and all from attack at the hands of ideological foes. The Turkish Republic, founded and governed as an avowedly secular state, agreed to these terms in 1952, three years after NATO's founding.
Of course, NATO was initially engineered to fight communism. But over the years, the threats to the international system have changed. The latest challenge is a jihadist ideology that fuels the Islamic State, but also al Qaeda and other terror groups and their state sponsors.
Yet, it has become clear that Turkey, once a bulwark of secularism in the Muslim world, is now ambivalent at best, and complicit at worst, about fighting these forces. The fact that the AKP is a splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood provides a good indication of its leanings. More troublingly, it is a champion of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and allows several of its senior figures to operate out of Turkey. It has failed consistently to uphold international standards on fighting terrorism finance, including the designation of al Qaeda figures on its own soil. It has been reluctant to even acknowledge that groups like the Nusra Front—which has pledged fealty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—are terrorist organizations. Its dangerously lax border policies have contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. And it has helped Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, evade sanctions at the height of the international community's efforts to hinder its illicit nuclear program.
Tellingly, in September of last year, Ankara announced that it would purchase a missile-defense system from a Chinese company that was under U.S. sanctions for aiding Iran's proliferation efforts. Intense U.S. and NATO pressure scuttled that deal. But other troubling Turkish policies continue unabated without a peep from the West.
The crisis in Kobane once again brings the challenge of Turkey into sharp relief. Despite the best efforts of Washington and other coalition members to bring Turkey along, it now appears clear: Turkey under the AKP is a lost cause. It is simply not a partner for NATO. Nor is it a partner in the fight against the Islamic State.