Erdogan turns a crisis into an opportunity
In August 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. Even though Turkey’s parliament authorised the country’s military to join the fight against ISIS in October, little changed in Ankara’s permissive policy towards jihadists using Turkey as a point of passage to join radical groups such as al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
The groups were viewed by Turkey as a useful tool against the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has battled since 1984 to secure autonomy for Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east.
But four days after a July 20th suicide bombing killed 32 people in Suruç near the Syrian border, Turkish military planes struck ISIS strongholds inside Syria as well as PKK positions in Iraq. Turkey also agreed to allow US-led coalition planes to use a Turkish air base for strikes against ISIS in Syria.
The Suruç bombing seems to have triggered a major policy change in Turkey towards ISIS. The bombing, which was followed by the assassination of several Turkish police officers by the PKK and its sympathizers, allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to turn a crisis into an opportunity, though one not without risky repercussions for Turkey’s internal stability.
Erdogan did not simply accede to US pressure to fight ISIS; he advanced his own strategic interests. The United States was allowed the use of the key air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey, and Turkish officials said a 90-kilometre safe zone would be set up between the Syrian towns of Marea and Jarabulus to the east.
The Turks are hoping to settle Syrian refugees in the area, which could fall under the control of the Free Syrian Army, Beirut-based Turkish analyst Timur Goksel told The Arab Weekly. If confirmed, this would be a victory for Erdogan, who has made this demand several times since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011 and more particularly after Syrian Kurds seized the border town of Tal Abyad in Syria in June.
“Turkey worries over the increasing legitimacy the YPG/PKK is getting in the eyes of the West as a counter-ISIS force on the ground,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs expert with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank. Turkey has fought a long war against the PKK’s separatist ambitions. For Goksel, Erdogan’s deal with the United States has allowed him to put the YPG and the PKK in the same terror basket.
The Suruç bombing, followed by PKK strikes inside Turkey, allowed Erdogan to kill two birds with one stone. In a crackdown on ISIS, more than 1,000 people have been detained, but rights groups say most of them were Turkish Kurds and leftists who were not suspected of being part of the jihadist organisation.
Erdogan may thus seek to use rising security threats to increase Turkey’s political standing regionally and internationally and overcome accusations of authoritarian excesses and violations of human rights and press freedom. His party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has come under heavy criticism for its tolerant policy towards extremist groups fighting to topple the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
That contributed to the AKP suffering a massive setback in June elections when it was denied a parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. Erdogan had sought a strong majority that would have allowed him to transform Turkey’s political system from parliamentary to presidential, giving him wide executive powers.
The elections also secured the Kurdish minority’s largest party — the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — 80 seats in the 550-member parliament, a major gain for the Kurds.
Local developments thus raised the potential for a shift in Turkish foreign policy, whether towards Erdogan’s nemesis Assad or Syrian Kurds, more particularly if a coalition government was to be formed, a possibility not favoured by Erdogan, said van Wilgenburg, who predicted the president would opt for early elections in case an agreement was not concluded between Turkish political factions.
The expanded Turkish participation in the anti-ISIS coalition will likely rally most Turks around the presidency.
Goksel observed that “if early elections are called, this could improve the AKP’s electoral position”.
However, Erdogan’s new-found policy might be a double-edged sword in a country divided along ethnic lines and where there are about 15 million Kurds. Protests following the Suruç bombing underlined the perception among many Kurds that the attack was the result of Turkey’s lenient policy towards ISIS. “Local Iraqi Kurds are very angry about the air strikes as they see targeting the PKK as unfair,” said van Wilgenburg.
On the ISIS front, it will certainly increase the possibility of further attacks by the terror group against Turkish interests. While attacks on ISIS are a much welcomed policy, the possible resumption of hostilities in the Kurdish-majority provinces of south-eastern Turkey after a fragile peace process is a different matter entirely.