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Turkey Escalates ISIS Response; U.S. Sailors Release Signifies Softer Relations With Iran

Jan 15, 2016

Earlier this week Turkey attacked Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria after a suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed 10 tourists. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the tank and artillery attack killed nearly 200 militants.

Istanbul is a tourist center, and the attack took place at the very heart of a $30 billion dollar industry, says Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.

“This puts Turkey clearly at war with ISIS,” Landis said. “And in the coalition of powers - 60 countries - trying to fight ISIS.”

Landis says even though Turkey’s escalating involvement is good news for the United States, it could be debilitating for the country that straddles the West and the Middle East and has seen a wave of refugees crossing its borders and passing through the country on the way to Europe.

“It underlines, once again, how dangerous it is to play footsie with Islamic terrorists,” Landis said. “[The United States] did it in Afghanistan. We got al-Qaeda. Turkey's tried to do it in Syria, and it's come back to bite them.”

There’s another dimension as well – the Kurdish population in Syria. Landis says for decades the dominant Kurdish political group has been fighting with the Turkish central government for decades, with tens of thousands Kurds and Turks killed in what he calls a “low-grade war.”

“Turkey is very worried that the Kurds could secede, taking 15-20 percent of the Turkish population of 80 million,” Landis said. “So they've been using ISIS against the Kurds of Syria. So it has been a triangle, and it underlines how difficult this region is for the United States to navigate in.”

ISIS also claimed responsibility for an attack in Jakarta this week that could signal a shift of attention away from the Middle East and western Europe toward Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.

The U.S. also engaged in diplomatic talks this week with Iran after 10 U.S. sailors were taken prisoner off the coast of the Islamic Republic. President Obama received widespread criticism from Republicans for not mentioning the sailors in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but less than 12 hours later the military members were released. Landis says it’s being viewed as a positive step for the U.S. relationship with Iran.

“Secretary Kerry is spinning it that way, saying 'Look, if this had happened a year ago, we would never have gotten their release in 24 hours.’,” Landis said. “And that there's a constant dialogue. Things are going better.”

But even as Iran continues to abide by provisions of last year’s nuclear agreement, Landis says the country won’t be easily pacified.

“Iran is flexing its muscles, and wants to be the major power in the Persian Gulf,” Landis said. “And that's going to cause friction between the United States and Iran in the years to come.”

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