Turkey’s stability in the region is at risk

Published August 25th, 2015 - 06:57 GMT

Turkey, long a beacon of stability in the turbulent Middle East, seems at risk of losing that reputation. After 13 years of single-party rule, the country is on the verge of holding general elections for the second time in less than six months, as its squabbling political factions proved unable of forming a government together.

The war against militant Kurds, kept in check by a ceasefire since 2013, has once again burst into destructive life. Meanwhile the Syrian civil war rages on, adding daily to the nearly two million Syrian refugees already in the country. Tensions with Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) on the southern border are increasing — Daesh having issued a Turkish-language video, urging the country to rise up against its “satanic” government.

Yet, there is more comforting news. Tough love from Washington is bringing Ankara closer to America’s familiar if unwelcome embrace. The US had long been pushing hard for Turkey to join the fight against Daesh. Now that Ankara has acceded, it is a foreign policy watershed. There are widespread doubts about Turkey’s cooperation, though. Many commentators remark that since it signed up to the anti-Daesh coalition last month, the vast majority of its own strikes have been against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) rather than the terrorists.

Speculation is rife that, with an election in the offing and a Kurdish-based party one of the main obstacles to the governing AK party securing a majority, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is focusing on a ramped-up conflict with the Kurds. This narrative suggests that Turkey’s increased readiness to take Daesh on is not much more than a cover story, to win western acquiescence.

But, even if true, this neglects the big shift Ankara has made. US officials maintain that if Daesh is to be defeated it is essential to have Turkish cooperation, to control the border with Syria and open air bases to missions against the terrorists.

After months of standing aloof, Erdogan has given Washington what it wants. He did so even though the Obama administration did not grant his own often-cited price for granting its wishes: A no-fly zone covering much of Syria and largely aimed at the Bashar Al Assad regime, Erdogan’s arch-enemy. Vague talk of an “[Daesh]-free zone” in northern Syria seems no more than a figleaf for the Turkish volte face.

The vision of an independent Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East has definitively collapsed. It is not simply that Turkey has come to recognise, after the bombing in the border town of Suruc that killed 32 of its citizens, that Daesh is a direct threat. The AK party, weakened by a slowing economy and the loss of its absolute majority, has also had to re-evaluate the idea that Turkey could operate effectively in the Middle East without western support.

Meanwhile, the US has shown it has other options. One is increased co-operation with Syrian Kurdish fighters who are allied with Turkey’s outlawed PKK. That seems set to continue, despite Turkey’s increased hostilities with Kurdish militants within its own borders. US military officials see the Kurds as the most effective anti-Daesh force on the ground.

Indeed the Syrian Kurds’ recent successes against Daesh — in part due to US air power — have raised the spectre of a new Kurdish enclave along Turkey’s southern border. That is an outcome Erdogan and other Turkish policymakers are desperate to avoid, given Turkish Kurds’ own calls for autonomy.

Turkey will soon have to redress some of the imbalance between its efforts against the PKK and its efforts against Daesh or risk that the US-Kurdish alliance will get even closer and Ankara will once again be sidelined.

Such a transactional relationship is not the “model partnership” US President Barack Obama called for when he visited Turkey on his first foreign trip as president. But it is important cooperation, achieved not by seeking to curry favour with Turkey, but by demonstrating — as only a superpower can — that no ally is indispensable. So maybe it is some sort of a model after all.

By Jeremy Shapiro

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