Man On Wire: Turkey Walks a Tightrope Over Syria


by Andrew Arnett

The Turks are in a precarious situation. They are walking a tightrope, to be sure.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to stay on the side lines of the ISIS/Kurdish battle for Kobane, within plain sight of the world’s media, has become a public relations debacle for the Turkish leader.

It also prompted Kurdish riots across Turkey, resulting in at least 40 deaths.

To make matters worse, on October 14, Erdogan ordered the bombing of Kurds in south-eastern Turkey, endangering an already tenuous peace process between Turks and the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), in place since 2012.

The populist view is simple: send Turkish troops into Kobane, save the Kurds from imminent slaughter by ISIS, and walk away heroes. But nothing, as we have learned, is ever simple in Middle East affairs.

With a long standing Turkish/Assad/Kurdish opposition in place, we may be looking at a classic Mexican standoff. Add the Shiite/Iraq/Iran factor, coupled with western intervention, and we have a potential hell broth brewing.

Even with Turkey’s army amassed on the border, within a grenade toss of Kobane itself, they have felt no obligation to save the Kurds.

To be fair, the situation reeks of quagmire, and it seems ISIS itself is goading one and all to join the fight.

ISIS has realized the propaganda value inherent in violence and mayhem, and is bent on increasing that quotient.

The Turkish government is skeptical that the U.S. policy of airstrikes alone will be effective in neutralizing ISIS. “Ankara has many problems with the U.S.’ anti-ISIS strategy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “The issue for Turkey is that they feel as if the plan is half-hearted and will not ultimately defeat ISIS.”

The Turkish bombing of Kurds was an unfortunate decision, and even more so for its timing. Since then, Erdogan has acquiesced somewhat to U.S. pressure, and in a policy reversal, is allowing peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq to cross through Turkey to fight in Kobane.

This decision comes with certain inherent risks. There is the real danger of provoking Islamic State reprisals from within Turkey’s own borders, by jihadist networks built during the two years Turkey allowed volunteers to cross through its borders to fight Assad in Syria.

“It is easy for the US or France to act against ISIS as they are living thousands of kilometers away from the region,” says Oytun Orhan, a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara. “But ISIS controls some of the border crossings between Turkey and Syria, and more than one-third of the border is controlled by ISIS.”

This decision not withstanding, Erdogan recently claimed the Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) in Kobane will not welcome their Iraqi peshmerga brethren coming to join the fight.

“The PYD does not want the peshmerga to come,” Erdogan said, “They don’t want the peshmerga to come to Kobane and dominate it. The PYD thinks its game will be spoilt if the peshmerga come. Their scheme will be ruined.”

The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a Syrian Kurdish political party established in 2003.

“The PYD is a terror group just the same as the PKK,” said Erdogan.

And indeed, the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers Party, is listed as a terror organization by NATO, the EU, and the U.S.

Turkey and its neighboring countires.

The conspiratorial tone of Erdogan’s comments are rooted in the origins of Turkey itself, and reflects the country’s mind set. This mind set is shaped in no small part by geography, a geography which leaves Turkey “encircled by enemies.”

“In the midst of destruction and reconstruction,” said Hikmet Sami Turk, a former Turkish Minister of defense (1999), “Turkey stood and continues to stand as an anchor of stability in its region. Geographic destiny placed Turkey in the virtual epicenter of a ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of post-Cold War volatility and uncertainty, with the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East encircling us.”

Dietrich Jung, in American Diplomacy, states “Turkey’s elite perceives the country to be in a situation in which its neighbors are permanently threatening the country’s security and stability. Furthermore, many of Turkey’s domestic problems are put down to the interference of neighboring states, and the distinction between internal and external conflicts becomes blurred.”

Interim Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit stated “There is no Kurdish problem in the country, but only PKK terrorism that is supported from outside in order to divide Turkey.”

The Turks accuse the PYD of being the Syrian arm of the PKK, and are thus obsessed with destroying Assad. For this reason, the Turks are in no hurry to fight the IS.

According to Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University, “They see IS as an opportunity for Turkey since it is fighting its enemies on three fronts: against Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated leadership, against Assad, and the PYD, which is an affiliate of the PKK.”

One can surmise that these regional conflicts have yet to reach a boiling point.