Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
Saturday night to Sunday the Turkish military carried out an operation into Syria to evacuate its remaining personnel at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah. Before they left, they removed the remains and destroyed the building. These events came on the heels of rumors that the Turkish guards stationed there had been trapped by the Islamic State, rumors the Turkish foreign ministry denied Friday. The Kurdish PYD forces which control a defacto autonomous region in northern Syria aided this operation by allowing the Turkish military to pass through their territory on the way to the tomb and after the operation was over set up a new Turkish enclave in their territory to house the recovered remains.
Much was written about the history and importance of the Turkish enclave in Syria back in the Fall when the area was first overrun by ISIS- you can read more here and here. Certainly the tomb had/has symbolic significance for Turkey, especially fervent nationalists, and the decision to evacuate it may have political repercussions domestically. However, the transfer of the enclave to another location inside of Syria seems to be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of how to protect Turkey’s pride while also relieving a dangerous flashpoint. What is most interesting and most consequential for the future policies are the specifics of how and when this operation was executed.
For long time Turkey watchers, one of the most striking elements of this story is the fact that not only did the Turkish military cross through PYD territory, and specifically the recently besieged town of Kobane, and that they are also allowing Turkey to reconstitute their enclave on their territory. The Turks and the Kurds have a fraught history, to put it lightly. During the siege of Kobane, Turkey was heavily criticized for not intervening on the side of the Kurds and the frustrations of Turkish Kurds boiled over into deadly riots. This act of cooperation between the PYD and the Turkish military initially hinted at the possibility that Turkey is seriously changing its attitude toward what now seems like the inevitable reality of living with an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border. More cynically, the current Turkish government could use its cooperation with the PYD to try to win back the political support of Turkish Kurds, who in the past supported the AKP in significant numbers.*
However, the political posturing that has come in the wake of this operation complicates the picture significantly. President Erdogan’s spokesman vehemently denied today that there was any cooperation with the PYD and called them a terrorist group. The PYD has stuck to its frankly far more believable claim that they coordinated with the Turkish military and the operation could not have been a success without such cooperation. The PKK for its part has suggested that Turkey must have notified and coordinated with the Islamic State as well in order to have evacuated its troops so smoothly. IS denies the PKK’s claims.
After official government communications showed and spoke of PM Davutoglu personally directing the Suleyman Shah operation on Saturday, today the President’s office claims that it was in fact Erdogan who personally oversaw it. It was also announced today that Erdogan will be chairing the next Cabinet meeting, something that it is within the powers of the presidency, but was only done in extraordinary situations in the past. This flexing of political muscle on the part of Erdogan could perhaps indicate a rift between himself, the Prime Ministry and/or the military. The potential to convert this successful operation and its aftermath into political gains with Turkey’s Kurds seems high, and Erdogan’s instance on burning bridges strikes me as shortsighted.
Meanwhile, whether it was preplanned or not, Turkey’s parliament took advantage of the distraction provided by the Suleyman Shah operation to Wag the Dog. The AKP members of parliament pushed through 10 parts of the controversial and illiberal security bill in an all-night session Saturday. As could be expected, the Turkish military incursion into Syria is top billing in the news today, rather than the legal encroachment on democratic freedoms.
*The upcoming June elections are a linchpin in the ruling AKP’s plans to amend the constitution to make President Erdogan the du jour instead of just the de facto head of state. The Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, has decided to run candidates in the upcoming election not as independents, as it has done previously, but as officially affiliated with the party. According to the election rules, if the Kurdish party fails to gain 10% or more of the total votes in the election, it will not be able to seat any of its members. The seats that it theoretically did win will go to the runner up in any given election, most likely the AKP candidate. Therefore, the future ambitions of Erdogan and the AKP are tied closely to how Turkish Kurds vote.
The Islamic State is advancing on the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria. Turkish Kurds and Kurdish refugees still huddled around the boarder are rioting. The take away of most international media observers can be paraphrased as “the Kurds are unhappy because Turkey is purposely letting Kobane fall.” As with most Turkish politics, the truth is much more complex.
Turkey is genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Kobane. Both the Syrian Kurdish leadership and the Assad government have flatly said that they would consider a Turkish military incursion into Syria a hostile act (although the position of the Kurdish regional government may be changing). About half of Turkish citizens are opposed to intervening against IS. Erdogan and Davutoglu are absolutely right when they insist that a half-hearted air campaign will never succeed in fully defeating IS and that a multi-lateral strategy is need. None of these issues of course excuses Erdogan’s equating the PKK (which the Turkish government has been in peace talks with for the year and half) with IS (which kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens and has called Erdogan in infidel). Nor does it justify tear gassing Syrian Kurds trying to cross back into the Kobane region to help defend the city. However, it does explain why Turkey has knowingly given the US and the Syrian Kurds an impossible to fulfill set of demands that would need to be met before it would agree military cooperation against IS. This is also why Turkey will continue to urge the US to use airstrikes on IS and lash out against the US for not doing enough to stop IS, while simultaneously blocking the usage of the US airbase in Turkey for such a purpose.
Kurds are indeed frustrated with both the US and Turkey for what they believe is the former’s unwillingness to provide sufficient air support for Kobane and the later’s all but open support of IS. Both of these accusations are oversimplifications, but the tense situation right now means perception matters more than the truth. The political dynamics between Turkey, its Kurdish citizens, its Kurdish Syrian refugees and the Syrian Kurdish regional government complicates issues further. The Syrian Kurdish government does not want its previous autonomy disrupted by a partnership with or military intervention by Turkey. As Harold Doornbos, a reporter currently on the Turkish-Syrian border tweeted yesterday “There are some misconceptions, especially among Western audiences, regarding Turkey ‘doing nothing’ and ‘just watching how Kobane dies’ [sic]… Kurds [are] angry at Turkey NOT b[ecause] Turkish army does not intervene in Kobane, but b[ecause] Turkey blocks weapons, fighters from reaching Kobane.” Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are upset at what they perceive, accurately, as Turkey’s double standard when it comes to Syrian fighters. After letting Islamists cross the border essentially unimpeded for years, Turkey is now denying this same privilege to Kurds. Granted the greater border security has much to do with the rise of IS, but Turkey’s decision to prevent unarmed young Kurds, both Syrian and Turkish, from traveling to Kobane since this battle started has led many Kurds to perceive Turkey’s new border security as more anti-Kurdish than anti-IS.
Kurds began protesting in cities around Turkey and around the world Monday and on Tuesday night in Turkey these protests morphed into riots. Kobane is the spark, but frustration has been building for some time among Turkey’s Kurds. The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks have been stalled longer than they have been productive. The AKP government gave Turkey’s Kurds hope that they would finally enjoy equal cultural rights with Turks, only to have these hopes met halfway at best and indefinitely delayed at worst. Turkey was forewarned multiple times by Kurdish leaders that an IS victory in Kobane would lead to renewed Kurdish violence. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the situation should have been able to see these riots coming. The Turkish government should have also been able to predict that Kurdish protests, peaceful or not, would be met be counter-protesters from Turkey’s ultra-nationalist and extreme fundamentalist groups, all of which are known for their involvement in past violence. Whether out of malicious intent or simple stupidity (and again, Kurds will perceive it as malicious) the Turkish government seems not to have taken any steps to prevent or assuage the violence. Many police were off duty due to the holiday over the weekend and were only recalled once the violence peaked. Once again, citizens have reportedly been killed and seriously injured by police actions. Perhaps more disturbingly, the police failed to prevent multiple deadly clashes between Kurdish citizen and political groups and one or more extremest political groups. Reports indicate at least 14 dead (update: 18) most the victims of the inter-group clashes.
Some Turkey watchers have raised concerns that we may be seeing a return to the bad old days in Turkey- armed clashes between rival political groups, renewed PKK insurgency and government emergency rule. It is too early to make any solid predictions, but the events of the last few days have put the gains that Turkey has made during the AKP decade under serious threat, even more so than its recent slip toward authoritarianism. A return to unpredictable violence does not just threaten Turkey’s democratic institutions, but its economic and growth and social stability, the foundation on which the AKP has built its power. It is the best interest of all groups involved, the Kurds, the AKP and the Turkish nation at large for the Turkish government to find a way to deescalate this explosive situation. The first step is to address it’s pro-IS reputation. The Turkish government must stop simply saying that it does not support IS and find ways to demonstrate this stance, such as providing non-military aid and allowing Kurds to cross into Kobane to help defend the city. The government must also clarify its position on the PKK. As long as the PKK is engaging in military actions against the Turkish government, it makes no sense for the government to maintain that it is equivalent to IS. If the PKK and its members have no chance of being rehabilitated, what motivation do they have to hold the ceasefire? Of course, an Erdogan apology for this statement is out of the question, but Davutoglu or other government officials need to find a way to modify or qualify this comparison. Only if Turkey’s Kurds stop perceiving the Turkish government as the enemy, and vice versa, will there be any hope for a return to peace and stability.
The Islamic State, or IS, is a non-state actor which has quickly managed to invade and occupy large swaths of territory straddling the border of two established nation states. It declared its allegiance not to a political or military leader but to self-declared Caliph, a religious leader. IS is unflinchingly brutal in method of war and is a grave threat to the security of all the states in the region. However it is not, as some have claimed, proof that the concept of the nation-state has failed in the Middle East. The organization’s name change from ISIS to the Islamic State was not an arbitrary rebranding. The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.
The current manifestation of the group can be roughly compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan . Unfortunately, IS has also learned from many of the mistakes of the Taliban made while attempting to govern Afghanistan. IS has imposed brutal rule based on its own interpretation of Islamic texts while simultaneously installing a bureaucracy, institutions and law-and-order in an area that has enjoyed few of these luxuries since the Syrian civil war began. IS has also broken from the Taliban model in centralizing its religious leadership. The spiritual leader of the group has declared himself the Caliph of all Muslims, the successor to the prophet Mohammad. Despite its declared universal religious and political ambitions (some members of the group have asserted that the group has ambitions to expand its reach as far as Istanbul) the realities of holding and controlling territory has begun, as Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings puts it, to change both the governors and the governed. In short, IS is following the Weberian model and transitioning from a charismatic, revolutionary organization into a routinized, centralized and bureaucratized state.
Establishing itself as a national instead of transnational, revolutionary organization makes IS less of a threat to Western states, but not necessarily to bordering states like Turkey. Therefore, while containment might be a reasonable strategy for the US, it is in Turkey’s best interest for IS to be “degraded and destroyed.” The establishment of the IS proto-nation, as opposed to a decentralized terrorist organization, makes it more vulnerable to traditional tactics for weakening a pariah government. IS’s ability to govern the territory it has seized must be interrupted by restricting the group’s access to capital, new recruits, resources and infrastructure. Turkey has already taken steps in this direction, cracking down on oil smuggling, a major sources of revenue for the group, and the movement of foreign would-be jihadists. Despite the fact that it is reluctant to do so, Turkey needs to allow the international community to help it further monitor the movement of people and goods across its borders. The efficacy of cutting off of supplies to governments via sanctions and trade restrictions for purposes of weakening governments is highly debatable. In this case however, as the IS government let alone state has barely been established and its popularity is strongly tied to its ability to provide services and stability, their likelihood of making an impact is much greater.
Even if Turkey does not get involved militarily (the domestic political price of doing so is likely prohibitively high) for its own long term benefit it needs to do everything it can to support countries who are willing to carry out military operations. Turkey also needs to get over its unreasonable fears of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and do more to support the multiple Kurdish groups that are bearing the brunt of IS’s assaults. Though directly supplying weapons is again politically out of the question, Turkey needs to be open to providing desperately needed non-military supplies as well as allowing Kurds to enter or re-enter Syria and Iraq in order to fight IS. Supporting the Kurds is critical for both halting the expansion of IS as well as maintaining the PKK ceasefire within Turkey. Many Kurds and members of the PKK in particular believe Turkey is favoring and supporting IS to the detriment of the Kurds. Whether or not this is true (and most experts agree that Turkey is not supporting IS) PKK leadership is threatening to break the current ceasefire and take up arms against Turkey once again. This would be disastrous for both Turks and Kurds and the Turkish government needs to do everything it can to (re)make peace with Kurds both in and outside its borders.
IS’s location straddling the former border of two states will most likely work against its ability to hold and govern its proto-state. The Taliban were largely left to themselves, and therefore was able to control Afghanistan for a decade despite its unpopularity, until the September 11 attacks because their brutal state was confined inside the established borders of one nation-state. As weak as it is, Iraq’s central government still exists and is still committed to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi nation-state. IS would have to conquer all of Iraq or convince the Iraqi government into agreeing to a truce, both of which still look unlikely at this point. On the Syrian side, Assad would probably be fine with IS taking over rebel held territory as long as his government was allow to hold onto its much-shrunken kingdom. However, it is unlikely that the multiple rebel groups will all agree make a similar concession and will continue to fight to hold on to the territory they control as well as to regain the territory held by IS.
There are no easy solutions for dealing with IS, it will take a combination of military strategies as well as continued international cooperation and coordination over a lengthy period of time. See the links below for additional useful discussions of the problem of IS from a Mid-East analyst perspective, some of which I drew on for my discussion above.
Brookings: What is ISIS’ strategy?
David Motadel: The Ancestors of ISIS
Carnegie Europe: What on Earth is Turkey up to?
Michael Koplow: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition
Marc Champion: Turkey’s Complicated Position on Islamic State
Henri J. Barkey: How the Islamic State took Turkey Hostage
Also see these excellent background stories:
Piotr Zalewski: Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town
Piotr Zalewski: How Islamic State Wages War
David D. Kirkpatrick: ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed
New York Times: Turkey Inching Toward Alliance With U.S. in Syria Conflict
Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week. Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack. Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post. In addition, investigative reports, in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state. Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.
Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis. In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul. Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep. Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising. In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep. In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border. The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.
After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border. Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000. Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood. Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs. They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds. Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS. Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.
The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders. It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis. I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria. The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands. In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups. This proposal is doubly beneficial. It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.
This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term. The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground. In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together. Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated. Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now. The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.
However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined. The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will. I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist. I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement. Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be. Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.
The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers. Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart. As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere. Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia. However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.
As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides. The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty. Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent). Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki. Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise. Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose. Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come. It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state. As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion. Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth. The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside. Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare. If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan. Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence. Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.
This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however. As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics. Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS. The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story. ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think. ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn. Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return. Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens. This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.
Update: Since writing this post last night, Erdogan has finally addressed the Mosul crisis publicly. The context and content of his speech only reinforce my main points below. It took him two days to speak publicly about the kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff but his speech lacked the depth and details you would expect at this point in the crisis. He briefly reassured the public that every effort is being made to free the hostages, a statement that should have been made immediately after the kidnapping, then went on to slam the CHP for criticizing the response of AKP officials to the crisis. He accused them of being allies of Assad and claimed that their criticism of the government would “provoke” ISIS. Erdogan now only has one mode: blame and distract. He and his government’s policies have failed and he is doing everything he can to avoid addressing the justified criticisms of the opposition. Erdogan, his government, and Turkey are in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment, a situation of their own making. Distraction may work for now, but if (God forbid) the hostages are harmed or killed it will be very difficult to shift the blame for such a blow to Turkey’s honor to a weak and divided opposition (which is what he is setting up to do). Mosul, like Soma, is another sign of the slow decline of the power of Erdogan and the AKP both at home and abroad.
Erdogan is known for his fiery and frequent speeches. Since last year’s protests, his conspiracy-laced pontifications have become nearly a daily occurrence. However, the crisis in northern Iraq has literally left Erdogan dumbstruck. Since ISIS stormed into Mosul, taking several dozen Turkish truck drivers hostage Tuesday and 49 Turks affiliated with the consulate hostage Wednesday, we have heard nary a peep from the Prime Minister. Instead, Erdogan reached out to the United States government Thursday. I am sure it is an understatement to say that he must have felt slighted to be connected with Vice President Biden and not President Obama.
The weaknesses of the AKP government in general and Erdogan in particular are being bared in quick succession. Just as Soma revealed the shallow and inhumane nature of the AKP’s neo-liberal domestic policies, the crisis in Iraq is the consequence of Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy. Though Turkey never directly supported ISIS and its activities, the Turkish government’s all but open boarder policy for anti-Assad militants allowed many foreign fighters to enter Syria and swell ISIS’s ranks. ISIS was always open with its hostility toward Turkey, declaring Erdogan an apostate, despite Turkey acting as as rear base for their fighters. The fact that ISIS’s recent hostility toward Turks and Turkey seems to have taken the Turkish government off guard demonstrates a frightening level of naivete on the part of officials.
The Iraq crisis is another event in the series of Turkish foreign policy breakdowns that began with the Arab spring. The beginning of the Arab spring marked the height of Turkey’s influence in the region and their neo-Ottoman ambitions. As Syria and then Egypt descended into political chaos, Turkish power became all but illusory. Some pro-government news outlets continue to publish fantastical, Turko-centric visions for a “new” middle east. However all but the most delusional in the Turkish government must see that the loss of stability in northern Iraq, a region that was key to Turkish trade with the region, puts Turkey in its weakest international position since the rise of the AKP. The AKP will not be resurrecting the Ottoman Empire. They will be lucky, and smart, to maintain their one solid relationship with a Middle Eastern neighbor, namely Iraqi Kurdistan (but that’s another blog post).
Erdogan’s stunned silence in response to this crisis speaks volumes. Over the past year, he has been doing everything possible to stir up domestic crises, involving the Gulen movement, Gezi protesters, foreign journalists and many others, which he can then go about “solving” through ministerial purges, police crackdowns and repressive laws. Erdogan didn’t even shy away from tackling the Soma disaster head on, though his approach left something to be desired to say the least. Now, when Turkey faces a real threat with citizen’s lives on the line, he cannot even find the time to reassure the public that the government is working to resolve the crisis. Though some AKP ministers have tried, Erdogan’s usual tactics are not sufficient to address this serious of a situation. Mosul is a real test of the political meddle of Erdogan and the AKP and thus far they have been found wanting.
Check out my first piece for Your Middle East:
No matter who gets involved or which side ultimately prevails, Turkey will still be among the losers of the Syrian war.