A woman wearing a hijab [Illustrative].
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The Syrian civil war’s third year marked important challenges for Turkey. Ankara’s regional security environment is dominated by two menacing trends, namely the Islamic State threat along the nation’s sensitive border areas, and dangerous prospects of PKK activity that could fundamentally harm Ankara’s peace process with the Kurds. What is worse, at a time of extreme crisis, Turkey’s analytical capabilities are hampered by confusion in the Turkish strategic community.
On one side of the community, there remains an obsession with depicting Turkey as the ultimate rising hegemon in the Middle East. This school has overestimated the role of soft power in the Middle East; they thought popularity in the Arab street could elevate Turkey to a regional leadership position based on the Ottoman imperial legacy. However, both the present reality and Ottoman strategic history prove that such an ambitious strategy must be supported by hard-power assets and wisely chosen alliances. Put simply, while Iran expands its sectarian political Shi’ite doctrine in the region on the one hand, the shadow commander of the notorious Quds Force, General Kasem Suleimani, is diligently fostering Tehran’s paramilitary activities on the other. Unless Turkey promotes and wisely uses its own hard power, its goal of leadership in the Middle East will remain nothing but naïve nostalgia. Furthermore Turkish hard power has to be in harmony with the NATO concept, and Turkey’s strategic goals should be kept aligned with Washington’s interests in the region.
The second school in the Turkish strategic community does not suffer from mistaken golden-age idealism, but ultra-liberal romanticism. Overlooking the bigger picture in Syria, members of this group sanctify the clashes in Kobane. Yet they remain bewilderedly silent with regard to the underlying reasons behind the PYD in Kobane negotiating to minimize the number of KRG peshmerga to be deployed against IS instead of welcoming any Kurdish help it can get. In fact, the PYD dragged its feet on receiving peshmerga support to prevent Irbil from expanding its influence into the north of Syria.
Therefore, while adherents of the second school of the Turkish strategic community is entranced by Stalingrad romanticism in Kobane, they are unable to see that Turkey is getting trapped between two bad options along its Syrian border.
Lacking a visionary strategic community, Turkey has failed to diagnose its post-Syrian civil war threat landscape accurately.
In fact, the nation faces both a human security problem and a national security problem at the same time. Turkey’s human security problem, which includes the Kurdish question and much more, could be addressed through democratic reforms. But terrorist activity poses a national security threat to Ankara that cannot be dealt with via such methods. What is worse, in the midst of criticisms of inaction by the West, Ankara may be facing early signs of another threat. Although the Turkish government still strives to find a viable solution to the decades-long Kurdish problem, Turkey was shaken by a series of assassinations in recent weeks in a new wave of terrorist activity by the PKK in which military personnel were targeted outside their barracks.
Furthermore, negotiating with the PKK while the Syrian civil war is still being actively fought is no easy task. Firstly, the prospect of a breakdown of the Sykes-Picot status quo raises the expectations for PKK, and its leadership may opt for demanding greater concessions. Secondly, the PKK issue exceeds Turkey’s domestic affairs. The PKK’s terror campaign has been supported by Syria and Iran for decades as a proxy war against Ankara. Traditionally the armed wing of the organization has been dominated by Syrian-origin Kurds.
Finding a firm way forward in the current menacing security environment will not be easy for Turkish decision-makers. First, Ankara should consolidate Turkish-American relations, in the knowledge that Turkey’s NATO membership and strategic partnership with Washington are essential components of its geopolitical identity.
Second, while Turkey holds the moral high ground in Syria – Syrian President Bashar Assad is not only a dictator but also a war criminal – this alone is not enough. Instead of helplessly trying to convince Turkey’s allies of the moral imperative of the immediate demise of the Baathist regime in Syria, Ankara should seek to persuade its allies to cooperate in the formation of a viable alternative to the Assad regime. Finally and most importantly, with the region on the brink of a collapse of the Sykes-Picot status quo, Turkey needs to go beyond its vicious domestic problems and start to build a realist strategic community.The author is a faculty member in the Girne American University. He is also a Research Fellow at the Istanbul-based independent think tank the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).