The not-so-zero problem
Turkey’s new bellicose posture may not work as well as it hopes, writes Salah Nasrawi
From the perspective of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government, the decision to send fighter jets against the Islamic State (IS) terror group’s positions in Syria and the Kurdish PKK’s bases in Iraq probably goes something like this: to survive politically by improving the Party’s waning popularity after its weak performance in the elections and to ensure Turkey is a vital Middle East player by taking back the regional initiative.
This week, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suddenly decided that IS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had turned into a threat big enough to be confronted by airstrikes, cross-border bombardments and a massive police crackdown.
But what the AKP government has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its newly aggressive approach by going after two ideologically and politically divergent enemies which it had earlier been trying to pacify without raising doubts about its sudden policy shift.
Turkey’s new way of war came on 24 July when Ankara sent its warplanes to hit IS positions in Syria for the first time since the terror group made advances in both Iraq and Syria. Turkish jet fighters also struck at camps of the PKK in northern Iraq.
Soon after the first attacks on IS, news emerged that Ankara had allowed the United States to fly bombing missions against IS militants from air bases in southern Turkey, a move that effectively makes Ankara a partner in the US-led coalition in the war against the jihadists.
The air campaign and the agreement with Washington to allow US planes to use the Incirlik airbase came after an escalation of violence in southern Turkey.
On 20 July a suicide bomber with suspected links to IS set off an explosion in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100.
A day later, Turkey lost a soldier after its troops came under fire from several IS militants armed with rocket launchers and machine guns. The Turkish security forces fired back at the extremists, killing one and destroying a pickup truck.
As the Turkish military operations against IS and the PKK escalated this week, Ankara has detained thousands of their supporters in a nationwide sweep. The authorities also imposed a ban on demonstrations in Istanbul and expanded a campaign against media critical of the campaign, including a brief shutdown of Twitter.
By abandoning its long history of ambivalence about IS, or even its alleged implicit support – Turkey has long been seen as an IS revolving door – and by ratcheting up the war against the PKK and splintering its fragile peace with the Kurds, Turkey has entered a new phase of uncertainty.
In trying to decode Ankara’s surprising change of strategy two scenarios could emerge that could explain why the AKP government is becoming bellicose in dealing with challenges at home and abroad.
On the domestic front, the move to mix up the war against IS with the fight against the PKK has been carefully designed as the country now faces a 50 per cent chance of being plunged into a snap election if efforts to form a coalition government flounder.
By creating a climate of jingoistic militarism, the AKP is trying to give the impression that Turkey is involved in a national war in order to win back a single party majority in a new poll. Rumours and conspiracy theories have surfaced to the effect that the AKP government has deliberately provoked the wave of violence in order to create a national crisis and make political gains.
One well-known Turkish whistle-blower, known on Twitter as Fuat Avni, tweeted that Erdogan himself was behind the deadly suicide attack in Suruç. Avni, famous for making claims about the government that often turn out to be true, alleged that Erdogan’s intention was to “sow chaos” in society in order to pave the way for the AKP’s return to power as a single party in an early election.
The daily Milliyet columnist Kadri Gursel has also been sacked for alluding to Erdogan’s role in the 20 July Suruç bombing in a social media post. Gursel shared a post on his Twitter account in which he hinted at Erdogan’s involvement and criticised foreign leaders for sending him condolences and sympathy after the Suruç bombing.
As for the other scenario under which Turkey could enter into direct conflict in Syria and Iraq, this reflects Ankara’s determination to play an imperial role in the region and to seek to expand its influence in neighbouring countries and especially to the south.
One of the main goals of Turkey’s intervention is to create a long-expected security zone inside Syria which it claims will drive IS and other militants from a strip of land along its southern borders.
The Turkish and American media have reported that US-led coalition jets will provide security over the 90-km long and 40 to 50 km deep strip, which may be broadened in the future.
The enclave would be used as a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians, who are expected to be largely Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkmens, according to leaked reports.
However, such a zone will also be seen as a move to stop Syrian Kurds who have exploited the turmoil in Syria to seize territory from setting up their authority in captured areas and creating an autonomous entity along Turkey’s southern border.
In the long run, a Turkish-controlled zone would block a united independent Kurdish state in the region that would expand the Kurdish-populated areas in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
But most importantly, the protected strip would effectively create a Sunni enclave under Turkey’s hegemony that could create a Sunni entity away from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s control.
While taking on the Kurds will increase tensions between Ankara and its powerful Kurdish minority and Kurds across the region, a Sunni-dominated enclave in northern Syria would signal Turkey’s intentions to split Syria on sectarian lines.
Worse, such an entity would work to enhance Ankara’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Whatever the reason for its new initiative, Turkey’s step change in its involvement in the region’s conflicts is calling into question its regional strategy.
For years, the theme of Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP government that came to power in 2002 was “zero problems with neighbours.” The strategy, worked out by the academic-turned-diplomat Davutoglu, had hopes of pacifying decades of regional turmoil and ending tensions with Turkey’s neighbours.
Despite being outlined by Davutoglu as “strategic depth” thinking aiming to reform Turkey’s foreign policy following the AKP party’s electoral victory that year, the approach has failed to accomplish its objectives and in many cases has proved to be counterproductive.
Due largely to Erdogan’s foreign-policy missteps, Turkey has plunged deeply into the region’s conflicts, and Erdogan’s defiance and attempts to enforce his version of Islamic nationalism have also cost Turkey many friends and alienated allies.
From Iraq, Syria and Libya to Egypt, incoherent policies and sometimes Erdogan’s own aggressive behaviour have served Ankara badly and in many cases have raised troubling questions about the country’s foreign policy, especially in serving to breed extremism.
By resorting to NATO for help against IS and the PKK and by giving access to US jets to use Turkish airbases in striking Syria, Ankara is going back to its traditional alliance with the West at the expense of its Muslim brethren.
In Davutoglu’s words, this is a new “regional game under new conditions.” But by making such a dramatic turnaround, Turkey will expose its weaknesses and vulnerability and make it again prone to Western pressure.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 30, 2015