Turkey is a NATO member and its location at the confluence of Europe, the Middle-East, the Caucasus and the Balkans is a definitive strategic advantage.
This location and its history have provided Turkey with ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural connections with a large number of nations, some of which may not even share a geographical border with it. However, the same factors can also become a restraint to the actions that the nation can initiate to ensure its security. Modern Turkey is cognisant of its identity and conscious of its current pursuit of an evolutionary ideology while being wary of its slightly troubled relationship with NATO. The overarching strategic concept of NATO is still understood in the Turkish higher level decision-making, but in the past four years the divergence of interests regarding the approach to regional security between the two has become visibly apparent.
The same period has seen the intensification of the Civil War in Syria and the forceful emergence of the Islamic State (IS) on Turkey’s borders. In dealing with these two challenges, there is a clear discrepancy between the primary objective of the US and that of Turkey—the US wants to defeat the IS before attempting to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, whereas Turkey considers his removal the fundamental objective to be achieved. Turkey has so far not been able to alter US focus in any appreciable manner. In a show of pique, Turkey had reacted by boosting cooperation with the natural rivals of NATO and the West.
While the Western nations were imposing sanctions and resorting to military bellicosity against Russia over the events in Ukraine, Turkey expanded its economic and political cooperation with Moscow—increasing the Turkey-Russian trade to $ 100 billion a year. It also signed an agreement to build a $ 20 billion nuclear power plant with Russian collaboration. The icing on the cake in these initiatives was the signing of a $ 4 billion deal with China to procure long-range missile systems.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had led the nation into a new paradigm where the possibility of a strategic break in relations with the West was no longer anathema to national security. Instead, the new Turkey would create its own traditions of co-existence with both the West and the East, generating national power by once again becoming the bridge between the two. The traditional strength derived from close relations with NATO became overshadowed by the altered perception of national identity, closely aligned to a more Islamic version of the State. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is ideologically aligned with the banned Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and blames the Western nations for the current chaos in the Middle-East. The AKP came to power 13 years back in what was decidedly a secular nation but ever since has single-mindedly pursued an agenda of gradual Islamisation.
The AKP’s Islamic Agenda
It is true that a minimal amount of Islamisation had started in the 1950s with the establishment of a parallel Imam Hatip Secondary School system aimed at producing theologians. Erdogan is himself an early product of this system. In 1980, the Islamic character of Turkey was endorsed in the constitution. Since its inception, the AKP has viewed Turkish secularism as a historical travesty and on coming to power accelerated the Islamisation process. This initiative is manifest in the changes that have been made to the education system, in keeping with Erdogan’s repeated mention of the need to ‘raise a pious generation’.
The AKP government has changed the curricula from Kindergarten onwards, doubling the number of Imam Hatip schools from 453 to 952 in one decade with the enrolment going from 90,000 to 474,000 between 2004 and 2014. In 2014, the Higher education Council made non-Islamic studies in Universities such as courses in the sociology of religion, and philosophy optional while Islamic sciences like Koranic exigencies remain compulsory. The State’s goal is to gradually demolish Western-inspired teachings and return Turkish education to an Ottoman-inspired ‘greatness’. There is a palpable sense of the AKP embracing symbolic gestures to further the Islamisation of the nation.
The issue is that the Islamisation process is slanted towards a Sunni interpretation of the religion, whereas Turkey is home to a large number of minority sects. For example, there are over 10 million Alevis, who follows the traditions of Shia’ism imbibed with Sufi influence and has affinity towards the Alawaite sect of Syria. The Syrian refugees, majority of whom are Sunnis, have moved into the Alevaite heartland and in combination with the IS controlling large segments of the border, has created increasing tensions there. The AKP needs to establish a visible balance between religion and the existing plurality of the State to stabilise the situation.
And then came the national elections on 7 June, the results of which upset the AKP’s applecart.
The Elections and its Immediate Aftermath
The AKP and its autocratic leader President Erdogan were confident that they would once again win more than the 367 seats needed to have absolute majority in parliament. It was perceived that thereafter the constitution would be amended to make Erdogan the Executive President of the country with absolute power, akin to a dictator. However, the people of Turkey spoke through the ballot box—for the first time since coming to power in 2002, the AKP won only 258 seats, and less than 50 per cent of the votes, reaching a figure of only 41 per cent.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 80 seats and 13 per cent of the votes, more than the mandatory 10 per cent required under electoral laws to cross the threshold and be represented in parliament. The vote was a clear mandate for pluralism and an indicator that the people wanted to move away from Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and Islamised rule. This election has produced the most inclusive Parliament in Turkish history and is a clear call for maintaining diversity.
There are a number of reasons for the decline of the AKP’s electoral mandate. The immediate reason was the Islamist-influenced populism that Erdogan and other leaders of the AKP had been practising for a number of years. Their high-handed approach to popular demands has made over half the country to side with other parties in an election that had a voter turnout of 86 percent. Over a period of time the AKP had criminalised dissent through passing anti-blasphemy laws and sweeping anti-terrorism bills. The Turkish people were aghast at the Government’s widespread suppression of dissent, the lack of respect for the rule of law, and the political opportunism displayed in whitewashing economic corruption. In their hubris, the AKP had forgotten the lessons of history; the Turkish people had always baulked at top-down social engineering, and the rejection of the grandiose dreams of the AKP in the June election should not be considered a surprise.
Other factors that contributed to the AKP failure are also equally important. First, the AKP was quick to support the Arab Spring-related civil strife in neighbouring countries and almost became the de facto leader of the uprisings. This attitude created rifts between Turkey and some of the more powerful Arab monarchies. Second, the Turkish Government reversed its friendship with President Bashar al-Assad and started to support the rebels wanting to oust him from power. To achieve this purpose, it kept its borders with Iraq and Syria open as a conduit for deluded international recruits to join the IS. Further, Turkey did not permit its indigenous Kurdish population to assist the besieged Kurdish town of Kobane located at its border with Syria. Since the beginning of the international coalition’s military operation against the IS, Turkey has considered Syria to be the bigger threat to its security and has considered the Islamist groups fighting there as some sort of allies.
The Kurdish Issue
The AKP had explored all possible avenues to make sure that the HDP did not cross the mandatory 10 per cent of votes in the elections, even having the HDP attacked in 60 of the 81 provinces by proxy, as was reported. The HDP is opposed to Erdogan personally and promotes a democratic future for Turkey. Therefore, the AKP knows that the HDP will not permit the creation of a presidential system of government, which seems to be Erdogan’s ultimate personal aim. The HDP is also indirectly affiliated to the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has led an insurgency in Turkey for three decades. Before the Battle of Kobane, there was a faction of Kurdish religious people who were pro-AKP. But after the Turkish Government refused to assist the Kurdish defenders of Kobane they shifted allegiance; the fact is that Erdogan wanted Kobane to fall to the IS in order to diminish the Turkish Kurds’ influence in the country.
Turkey has been watching with growing unease the close cooperation between the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that is affiliated to the PKK. The AKP has been debating the options available to curtail the Kurds’ ambition to have an independent State. By end-June, the YPG had become the most important ally of the US in the fight against the IS. YPG had direct communication links to call in US air strikes as required and US assets were also providing ISR to them.
With increasing Western collaboration the Kurds routed the IS from Tal Abyad, a strategic town on the border with Turkey. The Kurdish battlefield successes further strained their relationship with the Turkish leadership. Further, the tenuous peace between the Kurds and the Turkish Government that had held for nearly two years ended with the Kurdish electoral success. Turkey’s biggest fear now is that the creation of a Kurdish homeland, even with limited autonomy, will subsume parts of its own territories in Anatolia. Therefore the AKP views Kurdish autonomy anywhere in the Middle-East as a greater threat to its security than even the IS.
In Turkey there is now a clear and visible demarcation of Turkish and Kurdish nationalism. The Kurdish gains in Syria has added further impetus to Erdogan’s government to try and stem the rise of Kurdish identity and their demand for independence. Turkey’s long-standing demand to establish a ‘buffer zone’ in northern Syria is a direct response to the perceived threat from the Kurds. For long the US had not been in favour of creating such a zone, but they had not catered for the opportunistic manipulations of the AKP. Till mid-July the US had steadfastly maintained that only the tangible defeat of the IS by the Syrian Kurds, with the assistance of coalition air strikes, would let it attempt a regime change in Syria. In these circumstances Turkey had mentioned the concept of creating a ‘buffer zone’ unilaterally, but this was more rhetoric than an actual plan of action. An attempt to achieve a buffer-zone would have involved heavy fighting with both the IS and the Kurds, something that the Turkish military did not want.
Military intervention in the Syrian Civil War did not have majority public support in Turkey. Then came the suicide bombing in the Turkish border town of Suruc on 20 July that killed 30 Turkish citizens and injured over 100, creating a political opportunity for the AKP to get what it had always been clamouring for—dismantling the gains the Kurds had so far made towards their independence.
The adverse election result was a catalyst for the government to initiate action against the PKK members and persons linked to IS through internal crackdowns that also saw the interdiction of IS supply lines. This put in motion the cycle of IS sponsored suicide bombing, Turkey’s retaliation through strikes against IS and PKK camps, and the PKK’s increased insurgent violence in Turkey. It is possible that the PKK sponsored violence in Turkey could result in a reduction in the votes that the HDP had garnered earlier, when a re-election is ordered, providing a window of opportunity for the AKP to gain majority and continue its agenda of constitutional amendment.
Turkey in the Line of Fire
The Middle-East is in the throes of a serious, multi-cornered and violent power struggle. Turkey, while debating the use of military force to ensure its interests are not trampled on by the violence just across its borders had exercised restraint so far—the cost of failure of military intervention was far too high in the current confused circumstances. It was also cognisant of the political chaos engulfing the region and the difficulty in dealing militarily with amorphous insurgent organisations. Turkey therefore had adopted a policy of avoiding direct involvement in the on-going Middle-East imbroglio while also retaining the maximum number of options open. This meant not cooperating with the international coalition battling the IS. Turkey had elected to follow a diffused strategy that did not need any committed decisions to be made to deal with the growing challenge in the neighbourhood. It is very similar to the broad US strategy in the region, but the Turks seemed to have forgotten their geographical proximity to the threat.
An election reversal and a terrorist attack at a critical moment in the AKP’s political manoeuvring changed the entire complexion of Turkey’s Middle-East policy. The attack on Suruc by the IS brought the US and Turkish intentions regarding the way forward somewhat closer than it has ever been before. In very quick order Turkey arrived at a quid pro quo understanding with the US: Turkey would permit the coalition air forces to operate from its Incirlik air base in return for the creation and maintenance of a buffer zone 100 kilometres long and 40 kilometres deep, west of the River Euphrates. The agreement would enable a step-change in the US air campaign while Turkey would at last realise the buffer zone—a de facto IS-free ‘safe-zone’—that it had clamoured and demanded be set up from the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. On 23 July Turkey launched its first air strikes of the campaign against the IS and also attacked PKK militant camps in Iraq, after having sat on the sidelines for almost a year.
It has been reported that the Turkish Air Force send in 75 F-16s and F-4Es in three waves between 24-26 July dropping 300 smart bombs in 185 sorties that attacked approximately 400 PKK targets. Turkey has indeed shifted from a hands-off approach to one based on emphatic use of military power. Ankara has made yet another complete U-turn and become fully committed to the US-led air campaign. From a US-perspective a new strategy seems to be emerging. If the northern IS-free zone can also be duplicated in the south of Syria, then it may be possible to contain the IS between the two corridors and after whittling them down through air strikes, eliminate them with ground operations conducted by a combination of the Free Syrian Army, the PYD militia and even Assad’s own forces, with the Western coalition providing air strikes.
The Challenges and Dichotomies
The AKP in Turkey—which still lacks a mandate to form the government—was quick to equate the IS and the PKK, a move that the US either chose to ignore or was blindsided by the swiftness and ferocity of the Turkish air attacks on the PKK. At least for now the Kurdish fighters, rather than the IS, seem to be the primary target of Turkish air strikes. By bombing the Kurds Turkey hopes to gain the strategic upper hand against the PKK and also prevent the PYD forces from encroaching into Turkish territory. Simultaneously Turkey has arrested more than 600 IS militants and conducted operations against PKK’s urban infrastructure within the country. The main reason for this level of frenetic activity is that Erdogan hopes to leverage the nationalistic feeling that comes with going to war to cobble a malleable coalition to further his own and the AKP’s future political agenda. Viewed in a cynical manner it seems that since the June elections derailed Erdogan’s bid to become the uncontested supreme leader of Turkey, he has taken the country to war in the hope that wartime frenzy would make people give the AKP a majority in a snap election that can be called in November. There just may be some truth in this assessment.
At the moment the ground realities are this: the US military is turning a blind eye to the Turks targeting of the same Kurdish militia whose close coordination with US air power was critical to pushing back the IS from Kobane and curtailing their ability to manoeuvre, while the Turkish forces sat on the sidelines, willing the IS to win. The US seems to be enamoured by the concessions that Erdogan has placed in front of them, while the hard fought battles and victories that the Kurds brought them in the past year seems to have gone out of their collective memory.
There is a trap being set here, because from all the events that have taken place so far it seems that Erdogan has only one mission—to ensure that the AKP has an effective majority in parliament so that he can then change the constitution and become the executive President of the country. If democratic principles are trodden over in this process, so be it, after all the ends justify the means.
From the time that Turkey has started air strikes, the only visible trend is that their fundamental objective is to rein in the Kurds. The US-led coalition has assisted the Kurdish YPG militia to fight the IS and they have been by far the most effective combatants on the ground. The fear of an independent Kurdish state being created along Syria’s northern border with Turkey fills the AKP leadership with absolute dread and it is clear that they will do anything to ensure that such a situation is not realised. Therefore, Turkey is in the process of establishing a ‘buffer zone’ in north-west Syria which will also be a buffer against Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Whether or not the US approves this thrust seems at least for the present to be of no consequence.
What the world has to accept, however hard it may be, is that Turkey has over the past decade been gradually turned into a police state. It was easy for the government to arrest and detain ‘suspects’ who are either sympathisers of the IS and also PKK members or supporters. The AKP government has cleverly used the one suicide attack in Suruc to effectively rebalance the electoral gains the Kurdish HDP had made. Erdogan is finding alternative methods to claim his coveted goal of becoming the ruling President.
There is a fundamental dichotomy in the aims of the ‘new’ partners—US and Turkey. The US wants the IS defeated conclusively before a regime change is orchestrated in Syria, for fear of the IS filling the void rapidly if Assad is removed before that. Turkey is single-mindedly pursuing the ouster of Assad and the defeat of the Kurdish militia as the highest priority. Further, the two countries do not agree on a common definition of the ‘buffer or safe zone’ that is being created in Northern Syria. In an indirect manner the US-Iran nuclear deal also swayed Turkey’s calculations. It was felt that the Iranian deal would lessen Turkey’s influence with the US and therefore the offer of the use of the airbases in Turkey was meant as a direct inducement to bring US back into a position favouring Turkey.
Turkey is not overly concerned about the caliphate dreams and designs of the IS, they know that other (read Western) powers will contain it. Turkey’s fundamental objective is driven by their hatred for Kurdish ambitions and now they find themselves in the happy position of the US supporting them, if not overtly then at least turning a Nelson’s eye to the direct action being initiated against the Kurds. If ever there was a people caught between Scylla and Charybdis, it is the Kurds. Other minorities in the region must watch, learn and understand how quickly a global power can turn its back on them, even before their usefulness to the grand scheme of things is fully exhausted. The current turn of events make a mockery of friendships and alliances, of loyalty and fidelity, of steadfastness to the achievement of an objective through morally correct action. One sees the triumph of opportunism and the demonstrated ability of a great power to once again turn away from its smaller and vulnerable allies. Cynical self-centredness is perhaps too soft a term to describe the current attitude of the two new-found allies.
*Dr Sanu Kainikara – Canberra-based military and political analyst – Visiting Fellow UNSW – Distinguished fellow IFRS. First published in the Blog www.sanukay.com on 10 August 2015