Some commentators might be tempted to greet the news that the Turkish government has decided to allow Nato–read America and possibly Australia–to use air bases in Turkey to launch airstrikes against ISL forces in Northern Syria as a good thing. Before everybody starts heralding a Turkish return to the fold, a brief look at the real situation on the ground might prove illuminating.
When attempting to make sense of events in the Middle East most commentators like to give a historical over-view. A reasonable place to start but the difficulty lays in deciding when to begin the overview. A Kurdish identity has existed for centuries and in many areas in modern Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. I am going to start my over-view in 1920, with the never-ratified Treaty of Sèvres. Those of you interested in the minutiae of the proposed treaty can follow the link but suffice it say it proposed the setting-up of an independent Kurdistan. The new state was to be created from territory taken from the Ottoman Empire, following its defeat in the First World War. Before this could happen, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk succeeded in founding the modern Turkey and after the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the idea of an independent Kurdish state virtually died.
In more recent times, successive Turkish governments have repressed those Kurds living within Turkey’s borders. This led to the formation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party–known as the PKK— in 1978. Both the PKK and the Turkish army committed what can be safely termed as atrocities during the subsequent armed struggle which lasted from 1984 to 2013. The stated aims of the PKK were to achieve cultural rights, political rights and a measure of self-determination for the Turkish Kurds. The PKK dropped calls for an independent Kurdistan in 2007 but Turkish Governments remained suspicious of Kurdish intentions.
Two pieces of the jigsaw remain. The first is the ongoing hostility between Turkey and Syria–or what remains of Syria–over the Hatay Province. This area in North Eastern Syria was returned to Turkish jurisdiction prior to the Second World War. At the time of the treaty Syria was under French control but after independence, Syria refused to recognise the treaty and had effective control of the province. Turkish Governments did not view the matter as important enough to go to war over, until the current break-up of Syria began. The second piece of the jigsaw is the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq. Initially viewed with great suspicion by Turkey, various agreements were reached which–combined with the cessation of the PKK’s armed struggle–allowed Turkey to live with the situation. So much for the over-view.
There seems to be little doubt that Turkey has been actually supporting ISIS. If you haven’t followed the link, I will just say that this is according to Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. To understand why, Turkey’s paranoia about an independent Kurdistan must be appreciated. There is no real government in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. There are various factions which collaborate both politically and militarily but it would be a mistake to think of there being a ‘Kurdish Government’. Turkey is well aware that any agreement between it and various organisations in the autonomous area concerning non-interference in internal Turkish-Kurdish affairs may not last. They were reasonably content with the situation–internal peace of sorts with their own Kurdish population and a working agreement with the autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq–until the break-up of Syria began and the Syrian Kurds carved-out their own autonomous area with the aid of Peshmerga fighters from Iraq.
As I have previously written, in November 2013, Turkey initially responded to this new reality on the ground by threatening the Syrian Kurds with military action if they established their own autonomous area. Turkey then backed-off when it became apparent the YPG–Peoples’ Protection Units–an umbrella organisation set up against all predicted odds by the Syrian Kurds to counter moves to seize control of the Kurdish area of Syria al Qaeda and its various affiliates (one of which morphed into ISIS), had become a very effective fighting force. Suddenly the de facto creation of a truly Independent Kurdish state, encompassing areas in Syria and Iraq, became a distinct possibility. Turkish reasoning must have been that their own Kurdish population would want to carve-out an area of their own. As the Kurds comprise about 30% of the population in Turkey, any overt action against a putative Kurdish state was out of the question. Accordingly, they chose to give some aid to ISIS, purely as a counter to any possible pan-Kurdish aspirations. Although they may have been surprised by the military success of ISIS, they probably reasoned that by giving them covert aid they would be in a strong position to reach a negotiated settlement with any Islāmic state that might emerge from the chaos.
To understand why they might think this, you have to understand what makes Turkish President–former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan— tick. He is an unashamed Islamist. He welcomed the election of former Egyptian President Morsi–of the Muslim Brotherhood–and was devastated, publicly weeping, when Morsi was removed from office. The subsequent Gulf-wide proscription of the Muslim Brotherhood must have tugged at his heartstrings. In truth, it signalled the end at his attempts at realpolitik in the area. Possibly he had envisaged a pan-Islamist movement in the Middle East, with Turkey at its heart. That must have then appeared to be a forlorn hope. With the emergence of ISIS and covert support for it from non-governmental sources in the Gulf area, he must have felt that he could resurrect the idea. Not only that, should ISIS actually overthrow the Iraqi government and possibly other Gulf States, Turkey would be well placed to take advantage of the new reality on the ground, both politically and economically.
This scheme, or rather any possibility of the scheme succeeding, lasted for only as long as it took the West to wake up to the danger that ISIS posed to the World. Military action was now being taken by the West against ISIS and it would make sense that if Turkey–a Nato member–also felt threatened by ISIS they would allow Western/Nato forces to conduct air operations from Turkish bases. Turkey initially refused. Diplomatic pressure was applied. If Turkey had any remaining ambitions to become an EU member, they had better step up to the plate. The same point was probably made about military support from Nato in the event of the conflict spilling-over into Turkey. Reluctantly, Turkey acquiesced to the request. They have thus far refused to get involved in defending the Kurds in Kobani and in doing so have enraged their own Kurdish population. This is something that they desperately needed to avoid doing because it is becoming obvious that Kurdish military help in defeating ISIS outside of Kurdish areas, is going to be dependent on Western support for– at the very least– a contiguous area of Kurdish autonomy. When such an area is established, due to their reluctance to come to the aid of the hard-pressed Kurdish fighters just over the border, Turkey will face internal unrest from its own Kurdish population and quite possibly demands for their own autonomous area.
There has possibly been a new development in the fighting in Kobani. Some evidence is emerging that ISIS forces may have used chemical weapons. Should this be proven, or at least strongly circumstantial evidence be found to suggest that it is the case, then there will be a deployment of Western troops into the area. Having failed to take action against Syria over their use of chemical weapons, President Obama could no nothing else if he wishes America to remain as a credible moral force in the World. He has already become–reluctantly–a ‘war president’ despite being elected on the promise of American disengagement from regional conflicts. This reluctance, although understandable, has made the situation much worse than it might have been and Obama probably was out of step with American public opinion. Not an unusual situation for him to find himself in.
There may still be time to re-establish the status quo in the Gulf area. ISIS can be defeated and Iraq can regain control of most of the country, although they will need robust military help to do so. For robust help read boots on the ground and I do not believe that they will be Arab boots–with the possible exception of Jordan. If push does come to shove then Jordan will be able to rely on Israel for military aid against ISIS. Military cooperation was never mentioned in the original treaty between Jordan and Israel–it could not have been for various reasons. If, as is more or less the case now, Iraq collapses and Syria fragments, Jordan might have to accept help from any country offering it. In truth, Israel did indirectly support Jordanian forces against Syria during the Jordanian civil war–the link I have given makes no mention of the fact but the Israeli air force put on a show of strength–but did not actually attack– the Syrian armoured division. It was this rather than any Jordanian air strikes that persuaded Hafez al-Assad to withdraw Syrian forces.
Whatever emerges from this current imbroglio, Erdoğan–if not Turkey–will be a clear loser.