Tag Archives: Turkey

What is Turkey up to in Iraq?

What is Turkey up to in Iraq?

Turkey is stepping up its confrontational rhetoric against Iraq. It is time to recognise its threat to regional geopolitics, writes Salah Nasrawi

The heated diplomatic bickering between Iraq and Turkey over the liberation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) terror group prompts two questions. Is the worst of the tug of war between the two neighbouring countries now coming, and what impact will the conflict have on the regional order?

The latest row started when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that once Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was taken back from IS, it should be for Sunni Muslims only, excluding Shia Muslims and other religious minorities from the city.

“I want to make it clear that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Western coalition will not allow sectarian domination [in Mosul]. But there is a key question: Who will then control the city? Of course, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Kurds,” Erdogan told a Saudi-owned television network on 2 October.

Iraq’s Shia-dominated “Popular Mobilisation Force PMF should not be allowed to enter Mosul,” Erdogan said through an interpreter.

Earlier, Erdogan said that the Turkish army would play a role in the looming battle to liberate Mosul from IS and that no party could prevent this from happening. “We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament.

Turkey has an estimated 2,000 troops in Bashiqa some 12km east of Mosul. Ankara maintains that the troops are necessary to protect the Turkish military mission at a camp for training Iraqi fighters who hope to participate in the battle to recapture Mosul.

The Turkish parliament last week extended a government mandate by one year that allows Turkish troops to remain on Iraqi and Syrian soil. Turkey launched a major military operation in northern Syria in August to clear Kurdish insurgents from the frontier region, and the onslaught raised concerns of further escalation in increasingly fraught regional conflicts.

Erdogan’s escalation over Mosul immediately provoked reactions from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament labelled the Turkish troops an ‘occupying force,’ while the government requested an emergency session of the UN Security Council “to discuss the Turkish encroachment onto Iraqi territory and intervention in its internal affairs.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi raised fears that Turkey’s move could lead to regional war, and the leaders of Iran-backed Shia militias threatened to fight the Turkish troops and expel them from Iraq by force.

Ankara has, meanwhile, lambasted the Iraqi reaction and insisted that it will not withdraw its troops from Iraq. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara to protest against the Iraqi parliament’s unacceptable resolution.

Baghdad then summoned the Turkish envoy in Iraq in a tit-for-tat move.

In examining the Turkish argument over the crisis, five claims emerge that underline Ankara’s policy towards post-IS Iraq.

First, Turkish troops have been invited into the country by Iraq and their presence there is upon agreement with the Baghdad government. Some Turkish officials say the troop presence was arranged through president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani.

Iraqi officials categorically deny that the Turkish troops are in the country with Baghdad’s permission or knowledge, however. They also say that Barzani has no legal authority to invite foreign forces into Iraq.

Second, Turkey maintains that troops from 63 foreign countries have been sent into Iraq without Iraq objecting. Baghdad says that only foreign military experts have been invited in by the Iraqi government and they are not combat troops.

Third, Turkey claims Iraq is fragmented and has no right to object to the Turkish military presence. Turkish officials say that the Iraqi authorities are weak and cannot control events on the ground. Iraqi officials insist, however, that their country is a sovereign state and that Iraqi security forces are capable of stabilising Mosul after its liberation.

Fourth, Turkish officials say their troops were sent in to protect Sunni Turkmen in Mosul and to ensure that the demographic structure of the region will not be changed following the city’s recapture from IS.

Fifth, Turkey maintains that the troops are there to fight IS militants alongside the US-led international coalition. Both Baghdad and Washington say the Turkish army is on its own in Iraq and is not part of the alliance.

Sixth, Turkey claims that Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased since the sudden advances by IS in the summer of 2014, with the leaders of the Tehran-backed PMF showing the determination of their Shia fighters to participate in the Mosul offensive. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, reject Mosul’s being turned into a battleground for proxy regional conflicts.

On this score, Turkey’s narrative about Mosul effectively illustrates its desire to assert a direct military and strategic role in Iraq. Turkish officials say their troops will remain in Iraq despite Baghdad’s growing anger ahead of the planned operation to retake Mosul from IS.

As the launch of the operation to liberate Mosul approaches, tensions between the two sides have escalated.

Baghdad insists that there is no role for Turkish forces in the liberation of Mosul. Al-Abadi has warned Turkey that the “presence of its troops in Iraq won’t be a picnic.” The leaders of the PMF have also threatened possible attacks against Turkish troops when the Mosul offensive starts.

For many analysts, the shrill rhetoric and sabre-rattling emanating from Iraq and Turkey in recent days threatens to turn the battle for Mosul into another regional conflict, with attempts by competing powers to gain advantage by changing the facts on the ground.

Turkey is playing a risky game in the Iraqi conflict that could even lead to a wider war. The presence of the Turkish forces in the vicinity of the war zone with IS could spark a direct military confrontation between the Turkish troops and the advancing Iraqi forces.

With the participation of the PMF fighters who regard Turkey as an expansionist power trying to create a de facto presence in northern Iraq, the stakes are high that the standoff will turn into a broader, and more dangerous confrontation.

Turkey has taken to arguing that it has no territorial ambitions in Iraq and that it is only in the country to defend its interests and fight Kurdish insurgents who threaten Turkey’s national unity.

Yet, there is a broad consensus that the assertive Turkish approach in Iraq entails far-reaching geopolitical interests that are more than what they appear to be in Turkey’s claiming to help to defeat IS.

To understand the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy in post-IS Mosul, it is necessary to ask why Turkey is extending its security interests to northern Iraq as the country prepares to retake Mosul from the militants.

Turkey’s long-term strategy is based on attempts to scuttle efforts by the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria to establish an independent Kurdish state on its southern borders.

In order to benefit from what is expected to be a prolonged period of instability in northern Iraq following the liberation of Mosul, Turkey wants the strategic city to be a cornerstone in its plans to create a pocket of territory separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Kurdish-held territories in neighbouring Syria.

Together with dozens of outposts inside Iraqi Kurdistan and the security zone Turkey is building in northern Syria, Turkish strategists hope to erect barriers that will make the Kurdish dream of a state on its southern borders a mere ‘Swiss cheese’ under its control.

The real problem with this approach, however, is that building military settlements with cooperation from local (Sunni) populations might be impossible to achieve without plunging the region into a broader ethno-sectarian conflict.

On Saturday, five major parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region blasted the presence of Turkish troops in Mosul as ‘illegal’ and demanded that Turkey immediately withdraw its troops from Iraq.

They said they were “committed to preserving the sovereignty of the land of Kurdistan”. Some of the groups, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have been working closely with Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas who have exploited the chaos in Mosul to build up bases in the area.

Ankara’s other concern is that the possible power shifts and geopolitical changes that will take place after the liberation of Mosul could give Iran advantages over Turkey. Turkey fears that the presence of PMF forces, which it believes are an umbrella for Tehran-backed Shia militias, will shift the balance and strengthen Iran’s position in the region.

On Tuesday Erdogan escalated his barbs and insult against al-Abadi.

“Know your limits. You are not in my quality. Even you are not in my level,”   Erdogan told al-Abadi in an address in Istanbul.

“The Turkish military will enter Mosul,” he added.

Nevertheless, by insisting that its troops will stay in Iraq despite its government’s rejection and widespread public opposition, Turkey is fundamentally challenging not only the established borders of Iraq but also the established regional order.

The sad reality is that the two countries have lacked diplomatic traffic or reasonable interlocutors to try to defuse the tensions and deter a flare-up. Hopes of a breakthrough are being undermined by Ankara’s insistence that it is not belligerent and by Baghdad’s rhetoric.

As things stand, northern Iraq may be heading towards a more dangerous confrontation after the collapse of IS in Mosul, and the entire region could face a greater threat than at any other point during the Iraqi and Syrian crises.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on October 13, 2016

What does Turkey want in Iraq?

What does Turkey want in Iraq?

Turkey’s latest military gambit in Iraq could be a strategic game-changer, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraq continues to suffer, Turkey’s incursions into its war-torn neighbour have become ever more brazen. On 4 December, a column of Turkish troops and equipment crossed the border in the far south of the country at the Ibrahim Al-Khalil border crossing with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region.

The convoy of several hundred Turkish soldiers and flatbed trucks carrying armoured vehicles made its way at night through territory and checkpoints controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces to Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, some 80 km to the south.

Turkish media later reported that some 150 to 200 Turkish soldiers backed by 20 to 25 tanks had been sent to Bashiqa, traditionally a Christian Chaldean-populated district north-east of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to the Islamic State (IS) terror group in June 2014.

The Turkish Hürriyet newspaper reported that Turkey plans to set up a permanent military base in Bashiqa under a deal signed between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president Massoud Barzani and former Turkish foreign minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu during the latter’s visit to northern Iraq on 4 November.

By establishing a foothold in Bashiqa, seized by the Peshmergas after IS advances last year, Turkey will be able to establish another bridgehead in this strategic part of northern Iraq. Since 1995, the Turkish army has built at least four known military bases inside Iraq in the Dohuk Province, which is under the control of Barzani’s Democratic Kurdistan Party (DKP) administration.

When news of the incursion broke, prompting an angry reaction from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledged the intervention but said the soldiers had been deployed to provide training for unspecified Iraqi troops in response to a request from Iraq.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi denied “a request or authorisation from the Iraqi federal authorities” for the deployment had been made and told Turkey to “immediately” withdraw its forces, including tanks and artillery. The deployment “is considered a serious violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” Al-Abadi said in a statement.

Turkey’s relationship with Iraq has been tense over a host of issues ranging from its routine military incursions into Iraq, water conflicts, illegal oil exports, and disputes over what Iraq perceives as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interference in Iraq’s sectarian disputes.

What the newly assembled Turkish force tells us, however, is something more significant than the building of a new bridgehead inside Iraq, which the Turkish military buildup indicates. The buildup hints at a wider intervention aimed at creating a new reality on the ground in the war-torn country which is now threatened with breakup.

The past several weeks of Turkish activities in Iraq and Syria demonstrate that Ankara has found a new tactic for carrying out its overreaching strategy for achieving its goals and interests in both countries. Turkey’s course of action in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts clearly signals its intention to assert its regional policy aims and objectives.

The new Turkish troop deployment comes amid preparations by the Iraqi security forces, Iran-backed Shia militias, and pro-government Sunni tribes backed by the US-led international coalition to storm the Iraqi town of Ramadi and take it back from IS militants.

If Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar Province, is to be liberated from IS militants, the combined Iraqi forces are then expected to move to take back Mosul, Iraq’s largest city still under IS control.

The Turkish intervention, therefore, would seem to precipitate any move by the Iraqi forces and the Shia militias to take back Mosul for reasons related to Ankara’s views about Iraq’s inter-communal conflicts, its future as a unitary state, and the regional strategic balance, especially with Iran.

The camp in Bashiqa is currently being used by a force called Al-Hashd Al-Watani (National Mobilisation Units), which is made up of about 4,000 to 6,000 mainly Sunni Arab former Iraqi policemen and volunteers from Mosul.

The force, believed to be equipped and trained by Turkey, was formed by former Mosul governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi, who is close to Turkey.

The new Turkish troop dispatch came a few days after Iraq rejected a US proposal to deploy a new force of special operations troops in Iraq to conduct raids against IS there and in neighbouring Syria. The Turkish move has now created a new reality on the ground that will make it impossible for Baghdad to move to retake Mosul unilaterally without confronting the Turkish troops.

The presence of foreign ground forces is a contentious issue in Iraq, whose Shia-led government feels caught between the United States and its powerful neighbours. Last week, Al-Abadi rejected a proposal by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to deploy a special forces contingent to carry out raids against IS.

He also rejected a proposal by two senior US senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for Washington to send a 100,000-strong force from Sunni Arab countries like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to Iraq as part of a multinational ground force to counter IS.

All this is compounded by the fact that the conflict in Iraq is now hurtling into a downward spiral. The Turkish buildup will most likely complicate the fight against IS in both Iraq and Syria and especially the new international alliance that is emerging to take down the terror group.

The United States has distanced itself from Turkey’s putting its troops into Iraq, saying that Turkey’s deployment of hundreds of soldiers in northern Iraq is not part of the activities of the international coalition it leads in Iraq and Syria.

The new crisis triggered by Turkey’s intervention in Iraq is likely to be the latest complication in the war against IS, especially after US President Barack Obama pledged this week to “destroy” IS following its claiming the attack in San Bernardino, California, and the increasing role of NATO in the campaign.

Since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last month, the country’s western NATO allies have scaled down their coordination with Ankara in the war against IS. Germany has reportedly drawn up plans to prevent sharing intelligence with Turkey as it prepares to support international air strikes against IS.

But Ankara seems to have remained defiant, and the Turkish media reported this week that the country may increase its presence in Bashiqa by hundreds more soldiers in order to bring the total number of troops near Mosul to more than 2,000.

A pledge by Davutoglu that Turkey would not send in additional forces was not good enough to placate Baghdad, which has threatened Ankara with UN action and resistance to the buildup.

This may explain how Turkey plans to make the crisis over the troop deployment in the Mosul area a strategic game-changer in Iraq and Syria after tensions with Russia escalated following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last month.

The flare-up has thwarted Turkey’s plans to establish a safe haven in northern Syria, where it had hoped to use the zone to expand its influence in its southern neighbour and block Turkish Kurdish separatists from operating from an emerging autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria.

Ankara’s adventure in Iraq, therefore, seems to be a two-pronged strategy: a slight change in its plans in Iraq to make up for its aspired safety zone in Syria, and a way of exploiting the turmoil in Iraq in order to advance its long-term agenda in its other southern neighbour.

It is no longer a secret that Turkey has stakes in Iraq, and ever since the 2003 US-led invasion Ankara has been a major regional actor in the beleaguered country, apparently trying to counterbalance Shia Iran’s increasing influence there.

In addition to using its beefed-up presence in northern Iraq to undermine the Kurdish Workers Party’s (PKK) objectives, including having free rein in both Syria and Iraq, the Turkish strategy aims at confronting the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq which is likely to receive a further boost if the Shia militias take part in liberating Mosul from IS.

Underlining Turkey’s aspiring role as a regional Sunni powerhouse and a traditional competitor with Shia Iran for influence in Iraq, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu blasted Tehran’s “sectarian policies” in Iraq and Syria on Monday, which he said were a danger to the region.

To understand the reasons behind the Turkish military buildup in Mosul, one should also pay a brief visit to recent Middle Eastern history. According to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, signed by Turkey and the allies in the First World War to define the Turkish border following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mosul was given to the newly established Iraqi state.

Many in Turkey believe that Mosul, at that time an Ottoman velayet, or province, that included all northern Iraq, was unduly cut off from the remaining territories of the Empire, what is today Turkey, and they now aspire to see it connected back to the Turkish homeland.

Many experts worry that Erdoğan, who is showing an increasing obsession with reviving Ottomanism, may now try to take advantage of Iraq’s troubles to advance a territorial agenda that includes the annexation of Mosul if the country breaks up.

“If Turkey has reinforced its troops in Mosul with the secret intention of gaining land, then it has launched into a very dangerous venture,” Turkish columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News on Monday.

Regional impact of the Turkish elections

Regional impact of the Turkish elections

The regional implications of the forthcoming Turkish elections could be enormous, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Turks go to the polls on 1 November to choose a new parliament, the elections will be watched by regional players as never before. The outcome of the vote will impact on Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours in a variety of areas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the snap elections to end the political stalemate that followed the June 2015 parliamentary elections. For the first time since 2002, voters denied Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority and gave the country’s large Kurdish minority its biggest ever voice in national politics.

Even before the current political deadlock, Turkey was sinking deep into political uncertainty. The country is grappling with escalating instability and economic turmoil. Turkish opposition parties have accused Erdogan of forcing snap elections in a bid to return the AKP to the majority in parliament it lost in the June elections.

Analysts say the call for the elections amid mounting turmoil in the country has increased the polarisation between the pro- and anti-AKP camps. Much of the polarisation is blamed on Erdogan himself, who has grown more authoritarian in office. He has built up a cult of personality and antagonised secularists, the Kurds, the military, the judiciary and the media.

Erdogan earlier blocked a coalition government, hoping that a new parliamentary vote would give the AKP a majority and form a government alone. A large majority would also allow him to rewrite the constitution to concentrate powers in the presidency.

For many observers, the 1 November elections are the most important in the country’s recent history, and not just for Turkey. The outcome could change the country drastically for better or for worse, and could also certainly affect the immediate region, which is already fraught with political uncertainty.

During its 13-year tenure, the AKP has used foreign policy to advance its domestic drive for power. It has favoured an ambitious approach that promotes its popularity at home while fundamentally reshaping Turkish foreign policy and making Turkey a key regional player.

One of the main issues that will decide the future of Turkey’s relationship with the region is Ankara’s attitude towards its Kurdish population. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) picked up about 13 per cent of the vote and 80 seats in the last elections, breaking the 10 per cent threshold required for a party to take its seats for the first time and raising hopes for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

But a recent crackdown on the Kurds ended a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that had held since 2013. The government is also trying to strike at the popularity of pro-Kurdish opposition groups in order to secure an absolute majority in the elections.

In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), labelled by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, is making significant gains on the ground. A collapse of the peace process and the resumption of fighting with the PKK will certainly ignite turbulence along Turkey’s southern border with Syria and even with Iraq, which has a Kurdish-controlled territory.

Since the civil war in Syria started following the popular uprising in 2011, the AKP has insisted that President Bashar Al-Assad should have no role in a UN-backed proposal for a transitional government in Syria.

Ankara has also called for a safe zone to be set up in northern Syria to keep the Islamic State (IS) terror group and Kurdish militants away from its borders, and help stem the tide of displaced civilians trying to cross into the country.

There has been no international support for either idea. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has further complicated Erdogan’s plans for the future of the war-torn country. It has also left him facing the stark reality of Turkey’s limits when challenged by an international power.

There are increasing fears that after the elections an AKP-led government will be more involved in the war in Syria and will drag the country further into the country’s quagmire.

Iraq is another regional policy hurdle for Turkey. The Shia government in Baghdad has accused Ankara of siding with Iraq’s Sunnis in the country’s sectarian conflict.

It also accuses Turkey of supporting jihadists, including IS, in parts of Iraq. Iraq has criticised Turkey for its continuous bombings of what it claims to be PKK targets in northern Iraq, calling these an “assault on Iraqi sovereignty.”

Last month, an Iraqi Shia group calling itself “The Death Squads” briefly abducted 18 Turkish construction workers and engineers in Baghdad. The gunmen demanded that Ankara cut the Kurdistan region’s oil pipeline to Turkey and stop Sunni extremists from entering Iraq through Turkish territory.

In both Iraq and Syria, Turkey finds itself in confrontation with Shia Iran. Erdogan has accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun to irritate Ankara.

Turkey also has serious diplomatic problems in its relations with Egypt. Relations between Ankara and Cairo soured after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the Brotherhood, labelled Morsi’s overthrow “a coup” and said that he does not view President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as the president of Egypt.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that bilateral ties with Egypt could “normalise if the country returns to democracy and if the Egyptian people’s will is reflected in politics and social life.”

Erdogan also supports Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist resistance movement, which controls Gaza. Egypt considers the group to be a security threat because it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Opposition leaders in Turkey, meanwhile, have said that Ankara should repair its relations with Cairo if the AKP wants to form a coalition government after the elections.

Turkey’s new approach towards the Syrian refugee problem and the deal it is negotiating with the European Union (EU) poses another challenge to its regional strategy.

The draft agreement on migrants, which is expected to give Ankara incentives including visa liberalisation, financial support and invitations to Turkish leaders to EU summits, will be in return for Turkey policing its borders and stopping refugees from sneaking into Greece and Bulgaria, and from there into other EU countries.

If finalised, the deal will allow the EU to return some hundreds of thousands of refugees to Turkey, where they will be housed in camps financed by the EU. Such a move will expose the selfish foreign policy of Ankara and its disregard for the plight of the refugees, who are mostly Syrians and Iraqis.

In another sign that it wants to use its resources to play a regional role, Turkey started supplying water through an undersea pipeline to Turks in Northern Cyprus on Saturday. The Peace Water Project will transport a total of 75 million cubic metres of water annually to the island.

In his inauguration speech, Erdogan said Turkey is ready to extend water supplies to Cyprus, the clearest indication yet that Turkey intends to use its huge water resources, generated by the South-Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), in the region’s power game.

Turkey is also seeking to secure a role in several regional energy projects that involve Russian, Iranian and Qatari gas pipelines to Europe through the Mediterranean. Such a role would help ensure Turkey’s decisive role in the new world energy order.

No one knows what will happen in the upcoming elections in Turkey. If the AKP regains a majority and forms a government on its own, it will likely resort to its proactive regional policy. If a coalition government is formed, Turkey is expected to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy and probably return to its traditionally neutral and secular role in the region.

But whether the AKP is able to form a government on its own or through a coalition with other parties, Erdogan will still be there for the next three years. There are increasing concerns that he will continue to pursue his adventurism in regional policy in an attempt to maintain his vision of Turkey and keep advancing the AKP’s domestic push for power.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 22, 2015

The not-so-zero problem

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