Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Dangers of Turkey's Neo-Ottoman Strategy: The Kurdish Question and the 'Islamic State'

“They want to cut off Kobani’s connection with the rest of the world....Turkey is not allowing in fighters or weapons, but they send aid at Mursitpinar. The Islamic State wants to destroy this gate so that we will be completely trapped here.”- 'Dicle'-commander for the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia
“The PYD is for us, equal to the PKK. It is a terror organisation. “It would be wrong for the United States with whom we are friends and allies in Nato to talk openly and to expect us to say ‘yes’ to such a support to a terrorist organisation.”-President Erdogan of Turkey
“Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be, and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq.”-General Lloyd Austin, the commanding officer of US Central Command
Turkey has made plain that it would not be prepared to allow US arms arms transfers to Kurdish fighters who are fighting  Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the Kurdish held town of Kobani in northern Syria. This, as US planes have steeped up air strikes against ISIS fighters, underscores US-Turkish divisions over strategy.

While the creation of an Islamic State has led to the idea the West is at war with it, there remain two separate conflicts against it in Iraq and Syria over which the West and Turkey are increasingly divided as Turkey is not onside in the determination to destroy ISIS in Syria.

The war against IS is primarily one to protect Iraq from collapsing and not only about destroying IS as a terror threat. This is why US air strikes are regarded as part of a Third Iraq War which follows in continuity with the previous  US war and occupation in Iraq that started in 2003 and ended in 2011.

IS was not considered a major threat to US interests until it destroyed the Sykes-Picot borders between Iraq and Syria. This border, drawn up in 1916 is detested by ISIS as a symbol of an evil western imperialist plot to divide Sunni Arabs from living in one state.

As Malise Ruthven points out the Sykes-Picot border 'stands near the beginning of what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq'.

Though depicted as a more brutal successor to Al Qaida, Islamic State gained traction because enough Sunni Arabs have rallied to it as means to carve out a viable oil state in opposition to the Shi'ites in both Syria and Iraq, supported by Iran, and the Kurdish militias which are also intent on a Kurdish state.

Sunni Arabs remain outraged that while Kurdish designs have received a certain degree of sympathy from the west, what is deemed appropriate for them is not seen as possible for Sunni Arabs. The restoration of the caliphate has a cultural resonance for those who feel they have been dealt a humiliation

Part of the problem is that Sunni Arabs remain stuck within two western created states where they are cut off from having any real stake in the oil wealth in either. The US tacitly allowed Shi'ite militias to ethnically cleanse Sunni Arabs as means to defeat the insurgencies against them.

The US colluded in having the Shia in positions of power the better to extricate itself from the Iraqi quagmire in 2011 and have the oil of the southern regions protected. But the price of that strategy was that as the Syrian civil war became more protracted, more Sunni Arabs felt more victimised.

Despite the propaganda value of having Western Sunni jihadists supporting IS, it is mostly an extreme Sunni Arab Islamist movement tinged with Arab ethnic supremacy over those standing in the way of control over oil; the Kurds are Sunnis but are seen as tools of the US and Israel

Syria is only important for the US in so far as it is a base for ISIS in Iraq. Thee ISIS threatens Baghdad and, potentially, the present and future of Iraqi oil supplies to the global economy. The US only intervened militarily in August when it was clear ISIS could menace Baghdad and the oil rich Kurdish regions.

Turkey, with NATO's second largest army after the US, would not be prepared to back the US in having a military role in Syria that would destroy IS while leaving Assad in power in Damascus and so potentially enhancing the power of the Kurdish YGP militias.

Turkey has no interest in destroying IS if the cost of that would be that Assad's Alawi dominated state survives and where it could revive its geopolitical support for the PKK in northern Syria and southern Turkey. Turkish air strikes on PKK positions in the border regions demonstrated its open hostility to it.

One reason is that the PKK stands in open opposition to what Norman Stone and Mark Almond call Ankara's neo-Ottoman policy of backing Sunni Islamist fighters against Damascus and so opening up the way for Syrian space to be controlled by those favourable to a Qatar to Turkey gas pipeline.

Mark Almond emphasises that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ' has its roots in an Islamic reaction to the tide of secularism that swept the country after Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate 90 years ago'. So AKP leader Recep Tayip Erdogan wants to reorient Turkey 'eastwards' once more,

In Almond's view, Erdogan wants to recast Turkey away from the secular nation state created by Ataturk and after becoming President in August 2014 he 'has achieved a political dominance unparallelled since Ataturk’s death in 1938 while being 'the antithesis of modern Turkey’s father-figure'.
'Ataturk wanted to distance the new Turkey from the Ottoman Empire’s involvement with Arabs and Muslims. Europe is the future, forget the past was his motto. Yet neo-Ottomanism is the grand name of Erdogan’s foreign policy today. Although AKP leaders have publicly remained loyal to Turkey’s application to join the EU, the lure of religious solidarity with Sunni Arab movements from Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brothers of both Egypt and Syria has had a stronger emotional pull'.
This policy has backfired completely because the policy of arming and training Sunni jihadists has led, in a form of 'combat Darwinism' to the survival of the most brutal militants in in ISIS. It regards not only the west and the Kurds as enemies but also Turkey for having abolished the caliphate in 1924.

As ISIS has ethnically cleansed Kurdish land in Syria and sent 200,000 Kurds across the border, Turkey's botched policy has had the unintended effect of increasing demands for a Greater Kurdistan from the Eastern Mediterranean through to the Iranian border.

The movement for that is feared in Ankara not only because Turkey would cease to have the borders created in 1923 with a huge part of the south east detached, it would also have a potentially richer oil state  and regional power rival. For Turkey imports most of its energy from Russia.

The entire purpose of Erdogan's Syria and Iraq policy was to keep the Kurds disunited while drawing closer Barzani's Iraqi Kurdistan into an energy partnership, That would have seen Turkey directly exporting Kurdish oil and gas without it having to be transported through the Iranian controlled Straits of Hormuz.

Turkey wanted to include Kurdish northern Iraq into its new state back in 1919 but were opposed by Britain which wanted oil revenues and a strategic mountainous frontier to their protectorate. The danger in 2014 is that the plight of the Syrian Kurds of Rojeva could lead to greater demands for one Kurdish state.

With Turkey failing to protect the Syrian Kurds and even attacking the PKK, which provides most of the fighting power of the YGP in Syria, it could be faced with a full scale Kurdish uprising which would make it difficult for those in oil rich Kurdish Iraq to disown without angering their own support base.

There is also the fact that rivalry over the gas of the Eastern Mediterranean and pipeline routes has since 2010 set Turkey increasingly against Israel. Tel Aviv is alone in blatantly supporting independence for Iraqi Kurdistan as a means to thwart both Turkey and Iran's regional strategy in Iraq and Syria.

Given that it is the Kurdish peshmerga which is going to provide the bulk of the ground force to repel ISIS, it is hardly surprising that Turkish strategy is going to be increasingly at odds with that of the US which does not want to be dragged back into Iraq or forced into Syria to get rid of Assad.

Yet in 'degrading ISIL', the beneficiary is Assad. If Turkey invaded Syria to save Kobani it would risk war and conflict with ISIS which could then provide an opportunity for it to get the apocalyptic war with the west it craves. If Turkey does nothing it would face a full scale Kurdish insurgency.

If Turkey went into Syria, to drive back ISIS, which it would be threatened by if Kobani fell anyway, and it would incur the hostility of those who regard Syria's inviolable sovereignty under the rule of Assad as an essential regional interests: Russia backs Assad because it wants access to offshore gas.

Western foreign policy is hopelessly contradictory because the Near East is riven by geopolitical rivalries that cut across the old convenient Cold War alliances. The west would prefer assistance to the Kurds not least because Turkish inaction makes a mockery of the idea of 'humanitarian intervention'.

Turkey regards Kurdish irredentist movements as a mortal threat to their plans to recreate Turkey as an east-west energy hub. The Sunni enemies of Assad do not want a Kurdish state craved out in Syria which would potentially include the oil rich Rumalian fields and leave the Sunni Arabs with little of value.

Pushing Turkey into taking a lead role in defeating IS would be a preferred option in the West but for Turkey it could set off unpredictable and dangerous consequences for the region if Turkey tried to use smashing ISIS as a pretext for then taking out Assad in Damascus.

Without diplomacy to try to bring together all the contending regional and global players with interests in Syria, especially Iran and Russia, Turkish involvement in Syria could create greater tensions and the prospect of even more protracted wars across the region even reaching into a NATO member state.

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