After four years of indirect intervention in the Syrian crisis, during which Turkey allowed Islamist fighters and funds to pour into Syria across its porous border, Ankara has now entered the war against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Following persistent pressure from Washington, and galvanised by the July 20 suicide bombing in Suruc (which appears to be the work of Daesh, although it has not officially claimed it) Turkey seeks to establish, in cooperation with the United States, a Daesh-free 48km deep buffer zone along 112 kms of the Syrian-Turkish border west of Kobani. Turkey has also finally agreed to allow the US to use three airbases inside Turkey for strikes on Daesh targets.
At odds with his reputation for pragmatism, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to join forces with the US against Daesh seems only to present Turkey with new problems and security threats, breaking truces (spoken and unspoken) with two powerful enemies — Daesh and the Kurdish separatists — who have hitherto been battling each other.
When the Syrian uprising began, Erdogan envisaged the rapid defeat of the Bashar Al Assad regime and the installation of an Islamist government akin to his own Justice and Development Party. This was a reasonable expectation at the time, given the success of Islamist parties in the first elections in both Tunisia and Egypt and fitted with Erdogan’s wider, Ottoman-style, dreams of empire.
History had other ideas, though — Mohammad Mursi lost power in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood was widely exposed as a terrorist entity.
Meanwhile, the failure of the secular, armed rebels and ‘moderate’ Islamist brigades to prevail over Al Assad created the security vacuum in Syria that is currently being filled up by Daesh and other extremist groups. To date, the most effective military action against Daesh has been carried out by the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militia supported by US air power — this combination recaptured Kobani from the militants earlier this year, for example. Paradoxically, the YPG is closely allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and US.
Meanwhile, Erdogan fears the revival of the Kurdish struggle for an autonomous region inside Turkey that had resulted in a 31-year civil war with the PKK and the current, fragile, ceasefire. The YPG has been strategic in its Syrian military adventures, only acting in areas with a Kurdish majority. Following the success of their operations against Daesh, the Kurds now control a contiguous zone along the border incorporating both Jazeera and Kobani provinces, which could be used as a springboard for PKK attacks inside Turkey.
In a perverse way, Daesh was useful to Erdogan’s agenda, containing both the Kurds and the Al Assad regime. In an August 2014 interview, Ahmet Davutoglu — Erdogan’s then foreign minister and current Prime Minister — spoke neutrally of Daesh, which he declined to classify as a terrorist organisation, describing it instead as a group of militants driven by anger. This ambiguity persists — as recently as Monday, in an interview with CNN, Davutoglu blamed the group’s genesis on Al Assad’s violence against his own people, opining that Daesh is the “product of crisis rather than its cause”.
However, the implied truce between Ankara and Daesh has now been broken, exposing Turkey to great danger from Daesh, which has threatened — and shown itself capable of — attacks on tourist targets. Some commentators suggest that the massacre of tourists in Sousse, Tunisia, was a warning to Turkey, whose tourism industry is worth $30 billion (Dh110.34 billion) annually.
Last week, in breach of its two-year truce with Ankara, PKK fighters killed two Turkish policemen as they slept on their beds, and Sunday brought news that a car bomb had killed two soldiers in Diyarbakir province. Rather hypocritically, given its own exploitation of Kurdish fighters in battles with Daesh, the US affirms Erdogan’s ‘right’ to strike PKK targets in retaliation of these attacks; to further complicate matters, the PKK is closely linked to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish authority, which is itself heavily engaged in countering Daesh with support from US air power.
Despite having committed to the shared aim of creating a buffer zone, neither Ankara nor Washington are willing to put troops on the ground to police it. Like many American interventions in the Middle East, this project comes with no instruction manual; it appears to be logistically flawed, having neither a clear objective nor an exit strategy. As Erdogan embarks on these new, demanding and costly military adventures, he faces turmoil at home. His party failed to achieve a majority in last month’s general elections and has yet to form a working coalition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chair of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has rejected Erdogan’s ‘interference’ in Syria at the ‘instigation of the West’ and there have been widespread protests.
Five years ago, the balance of power in the Middle East saw Turkey prosper, with a growth rate of 9.2 per cent in 2010. Last year, as conflict raged across the region, and instability spread, the economy had shrunk to just 2.6 per cent. The Turkish government that pledged to maintain a policy of ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ now finds itself in conflict with nearly all of them and faces the threat of domestic rupture too. A quarter of Turkey’s 78 million population is from ethnic minorities, 18 million are Kurds. With the region disintegrating along ethnic and sectarian fault-lines, Turkey may find itself as vulnerable to fragmentation and eventual partition as Iraq and Syria.
As Erdogan struggles to implement each new, fundamentally incompatible decision, he is like a man juggling watermelons. We watch, with a mixture of fascination and trepidation, wondering which will be the first to smash to the ground.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: http://www.raialyoum.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@abdelbariatwan.