Turkish Foreign Policy
The main focus of Turkey’s foreign relations has been Syria and Iran, but also Iraq. Iran and its satraps (Assad’s Syria and a Shiite-led Iraq) form the main rival for Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been unwilling in the latter part of his rule to become an obsequious suitor in pursuit of full entry into Europe. Erdoğan no longer believes that this is doable, at least not on terms acceptable to him. Hence, in part, the turn eastward.
There are also Cyprus and Greece, Egypt and, of course, Israel. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, became one of many of Erdoğan’s regional archenemies after Sisi toppled the democratically-elected regime of Mohammed Morsi, the then Islamist president of Egypt. Egypt is now Turkey’s hegemonic rival to the south-west. Whereas it may seem that the two countries should be close allies, since Egypt has an authoritarian government that Erdoğan can only envy, and both now have IS in their entrance hall, the reality seems to be that the two countries for now seem incapable of combining forces to deal with common enemies such as IS.
Erdoğan is also not willing to surrender his effective control of the northern half of Cyprus if that is a condition for getting into the EU. It seems clear that, quite aside from the EU’s concerns with Turkey’s human rights record and the fear of adding 80 million Muslims to the European population base, Cyprus is a key wedge issue on which Europe will not and cannot surrender on Turkey’s terms. It is one thing to accept a de facto division of the island. It is quite another to reward Turkey with de jure recognition of the division at the same time as Turkey gains EU membership. Meanwhile, Turkey is consolidating its links with the Turkish half of Cyprus. On 17 October, Erdoğan inaugurated the very controversial $450 million pipeline link with Turkish-governed northern Cyprus.
However, Cyprus is no longer the wedge issue between the EU and Turkey. The key factor is the almost two million refugees in Turkey. Turkey opened its doors to the flight of Syrians (and Afghans and Iraqis) to the EU to send a clear message that the EU needs Turkey’s cooperation to manage the crisis. Merkel’s efforts to call Erdoğan’s bluff by agreeing to admit 800,000 still has to be played out, but it is clear that Turkey holds a sword of Damocles over Europe since it could easily send a million more refugees towards Europe.
At the same time, Erdoğan has been pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, ostensibly to facilitate refugee return as well as supposedly create a zone free of “terrorists” (read Kurds, not just IS). One suspects that any no-fly zone would cage Russia in and provide greater freedom for Turkish forces to tackle Kurdish militants on the ground in Syria. The Kurds could not be protected by the Americans, not only from IS, but now from Turkey. Such a step would also give both IS as well as Turkey, a much freer scope for action on the ground, especially since, as part of this proposal, Turkey has offered to rebuild the infrastructure as well as housing for the returnees.
There is another problem in the Mediterranean other than Cyprus and refugees. Turkey’s relations with both Russia and the United States depend almost entirely on Erdoğan’s battle in Syria, first with the Kurds there, who Erdoğan feared were en route to forming a strong military and economic base to help undermine his control of south-eastern Turkey. Then there is Assad, who was built up by Erdoğan as Turkey’s main enemy, primarily because of Turkey’s rivalry with Iran. IS with its strong base now in Iraq and its newer controls over swaths of Syria, had, until only very recently, been ranked very much and far lower down as a third priority in Syria. In fact, Turkey has been accused of supplying arms and munitions to IS in the past. For example, in 2013 Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker, opposition members in the Turkish parliament, openly accused the Turkish government of supplying IS with the chemicals used in the attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Hundreds were killed in the chemical attack, which was initially blamed on Assad. Though there is evidence that Turkey provided continuing support to IS, more recently, this situation has been changing, but not enough to give up Erdoğan’s preoccupation with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds lest they encourage Turkish Kurds, by their example and material and military support, to pursue autonomy and, possibly, independence.
Just a little over a year ago, 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey in just 24 hours, a flight and influx that made the movement of refugees to Europe look like a slow motion operation. This is not because Kurds are in love with Erdoğan. It is because IS decided to run its own ship, abandon any reliance on Turkey’s support and attack the weakest areas in Syria, the villages and towns along the northern border with Turkey. Given the IS surprise victory in Mosul over the Iraqi army on 10 June 2014, and its acquisition of an enormous amount of American military equipment — AFV’s, American M1 and T-72M tanks, 4,000 IS militants in September 2014 turned from the IS victory in Mosul and seized dozens of villages that were predominantly Kurdish. Their prime target was the strategically-placed border town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobanî. Control of Kobanî was necessary for IS to consolidate its control over the north of Syria. Kobanî is located half way between Aleppo in the west, Syria’s second largest city, and Amude, Qamishli and Deirik in the north-east.
In spite of the danger IS posed to Turkey itself, especially in the long run, there is a great deal of evidence that Turkey’s security forces were supplying IS with arms and munitions even as the U.S. was ramping up its war against IS after deciding, reluctantly and tardily, to provide bombing cover for its allies in Syria. Those allies, as we shall see, included the Kurds. And the Kurds posed a central fear for Erdoğan lest the new strengthened semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq link up with a corresponding one in Syria to provide a border base for Turkey’s own separatist and militant PKK. At the same time, Turkey opened its border to the tens of thousands of Kurds in flight from Syria and surrendered over a hundred villages to the IS militants who randomly slaughter Kurdish civilians at will.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s call for a concerted and coordinated international intervention to protect Kobanî from IS initially went largely unheeded, in good part because the PKK has been labelled a terrorist organization and the so-called Rojava Revolution to unite Kurds in an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East has been viewed as a threat to “stability” in that region. The defence of Kobanî in the fight against IS by Kurdish forces emerged as a turning point in the war against IS and the shift away from Turkey’s unabashed support for IS in opposition to the Kurdish militants within Turkey. Ironically, the eventual victory of the Kurds in the fight against IS from Kobanî meant that the Kurds were perceived as posing an even greater danger to Erdoğan.
With the losses in the June 2015 election and the strength of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan could not desist in once again resuming the war against the PKK. The irony is that this was taking place at the same time as the Kurds in the region were joining nationalist democratic struggles, struggles which recognized Kurdish autonomy, in an effort to protect the gains Kurds had already made in both Iraq and Syria. As they worded it in their September conference in Washington, they opposed “nationalism that separates peoples, identities, beliefs and cultures – rejecting racism and religious extremism.” At the Washington conference, they adopted a policy of establishing organizational and military, political and diplomatic alliances that recognized Kurdish autonomy within larger free and democratic states, such as their goal for Syria. What began as a resistance against al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorists morphed into a search for allies in the struggle against the even more virulent and extremist IS or al Daesh. In less than one year of warfare directly engaging IS, the Kurds suffered 3,000 casualties, almost 30% of them dead.
However, the Kurds had established themselves as the clearest and most disciplined fighting force in the Middle East, including even IS. They had been crucial to the victory over and reversal of the IS position in Mosul, gaining, at the same time, more territory and consolidating the Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq. But their most formidable victory that established the Peshmerga force as a significant military actor in the region was the Kurdish defence of Kobanî and the eventual retreat of IS at the beginning of 2015 from many of their gains in northern Syria.
IS felt certain of victory in Kobanî. They had modern tanks and artillery. They had 4,000 experienced fighters. They had swept most Kurds out of northern Syria in an exercise in very rapid ethnic cleansing. They, however, were not counting on the far poorer equipped Peshmerga Kurdish forces to make such a valiant stand in Kobanî. They had expected the Kurds to flee en masse from IS’s reputation of exacting revenge on any civilians that remained behind.
In what seemed like impossible odds, the Kurds held off IS for months until the U.S. finally offered air support that allowed the Kurds to push back the IS forces. Ironically, the Kurdish successes in both Iraq and Syria only left Erdoğan feeling more threatened. Further, Erdoğan had held off as long as he could in providing permission for the U.S. air force to take off from Turkish airfields, permission which he finally granted in late summer of 2015.
Tim Arango in The New Yorker (29 September 2014) had been very prescient about the fighting skills of the Kurds. In a 27 October 2015 article, he depicted the Turkish military attacks against Kurdish forces, not only in Turkey, but in Tal-Alyad, Syria, just after the Kurdish forces routed IS from that border town. Erdoğan was not satisfied with his cold and calculated move to once again take up the war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. He was moving the war to the base of Kurdish strength in Syria, taking on the People’s Protection Units or YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria. He had ostensibly warned the Kurdish Syrian military forces that they should not cross the Euphrates, that the river was Turkey’s red line.
In return for granting the U.S. access to air bases in Turkey, Erdoğan had already launched 400 sorties against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Just as Kurdish forces were pushing towards the IS capital in Raqqa, Erdoğan now turned his military against the Kurds in Syria, though ostensibly he was supposed to be targeting IS. That would come next, Turkish political leaders assured the Americans. IS could not be weakened if it only left the Kurds strengthened. The Obama regime seemed to avert their eyes as Turkey attacked its strongest ally in the Middle East next to Turkey itself, Egypt and, of course, Israel. However, the Kurds were the best fighting force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. Would the U.S. allow one ally, that was a member of NATO, pulverize its other most steadfast ally in the region, now even more reliable than Israel?
Following Erdoğan’s enormous election victory on 1 November 2015, the situation became even worse as Turkey set out to weaken the Kurdish military totally within Turkey and in both Syria and Iraq with a barely disguised bid to create a buffer zone in the southeast border areas of Syria and Iraq to prevent reinforcements of the PKK entering Turkey and to disrupt the PKK supply lines. As rumours abounded on Remembrance Day 2015 that Erdoğan planned to hold a plebiscite on the presidency, the U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, repeated that the Kurds would be resupplied through Baghdad and not directly to either the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and clearly not directly to Syrian Kurdish forces. Nevertheless, the U.S. insisted that it continued to support the Kurdish attacks against IS. Turkey’s Prime Minister openly announced it had no opposition to supplying arms to the Peshmerga forces in Iraq via Baghdad, but was adamantly opposed to strengthening the Syrian Kurds at all.
As the war widens within both Turkey’s south east and in Syria itself, as the ostensible allies fight a two-front war – where there is no real front – against both IS and Assad, the issue is whether the Kurds will become the sacrificial lambs once again to the realist compromises of the great powers. It seems that the Kurds, as usual, have no reliable strong ally anywhere in the world.
But perhaps they have. In this balagan, a political mess that seems so characteristic of the Middle East, Israel appears initially only relevant as a distraction. When Erdoğan thinks he needs the Palestinians to rally his Muslim base in his own country and in the Middle East more generally, he will continue to use them to create spectacles, but ones without any true substance. Israel and Turkey are not “natural” enemies. Nor are they likely to become such given how Turkey is surrounded by real enemies. That is because Turkey’s policy entails an engagement, not only with the Islamic State (IS) that has recently made itself Erdoğan’s enemy, at the same time as all of the “allies” try to overthrow Assad. The only thing that seems clear is that the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria remain Erdoğan’s main preoccupation that colours and effects his relationships with Russia, the United States, countries like Saudi Arabia, and, as we shall see, Israel.
Next Blog: Turkey, the Kurds and Israel