Some ally, Turkey!

The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slowly but surely crushes its traditional Kurdish enemies.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey President Recep Tayyip erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What can explain, let alone justify, Turkey sitting on its hands while conflict rages just over its border, and the forces of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) seem about to overwhelm the Kurdish fighters defending the much-reduced enclave of Kobani?  After all, Turkey is a member of NATO and nominally part of the international coalition dedicated to destroying IS.
As the US continues to pressure Turkey’s newly-elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to do more, he is demanding two ridiculous preconditions before considering direct action.  He is insisting that the US somehow impose both a buffer zone and a no-fly zone along its border with Syria.
Why are these demands so patently spurious?  Because the Turkish army, one of the largest and best equipped in NATO, is perfectly capable of imposing its own buffer zone along its border without outside assistance.  And since neither IS nor the Kurds are using aircraft, a no-fly zone is obviously superfluous to requirements.
Turkey’s stance today brings to mind one of the more shameful episodes of the Second World War – the story of the collapse of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.
Poland had been under Nazi occupation since 1939.  The uprising by the Polish resistance was timed to coincide with the Soviet Union's Red Army approaching the eastern suburbs of the city and the consequent retreat of German forces.  However, on the orders of Josef Stalin the Soviet advance stopped short on the east bank of the Vistula. Providing no assistance at all to the Polish fighters, the Red Army watched as they were slowly but surely annihilated.
Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin to help Britain's Polish allies, but to no avail. It was obvious that Stalin had halted his forces in order to allow the Polish resistance to be crushed.  The Polish resistance represented Polish independence, and was a major obstacle to his intention of bringing Poland directly within the Soviet sphere of influence.  He had no desire to see an independent Poland triumph over the Nazis before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume control of the country.
In the event the Nazis utterly crushed the uprising, and then took the most brutal revenge.  Warsaw was virtually razed to the ground while, in addition to the death of some 16,000 members of the Polish resistance, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians were slaughtered, mostly in mass executions. Arthur Koestler called the episode "one of the major infamies of this war.”
Today, Turkish tanks stand immobile and inactive only yards away as the Kurds who are defending Kobani are being destroyed by the forces of IS.  The historical analogy is alarmingly close.  Erdogan clearly regards the Kurdish independence movement, long a pressing political problem for him, as a greater threat than IS – not a position likely to win much sympathy with Western powers.
Since 2002 Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic reaction to the tide of secularism that swept the country after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman caliphate 90 years ago. AKP leader.  Erdogan, with his own roots in the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, has now achieved a political dominance unparalleled since Ataturk but, as Oxford historian Mark Almond has recently pointed out, he is the antithesis of 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. But Erdogan has embraced a sort of “neo-Ottomanism” as his foreign policy. For years he has assiduously allied himself with extremist Muslim positions, including an visceral and intemperate opposition to Israel.  Although AKP leaders have publicly remained loyal to Turkey’s application to join the EU, the lure of religious solidarity with extremist Sunni Arab movements from Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brothers of Egypt has had a stronger emotional pull – a pull which extends in some influential quarters to sympathy for IS.
It is quite understandable that the idea of the US establishing a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border is proving deeply divisive in Washington. Turkey has presented the plan as a humanitarian gesture designed to protect refugees, but If Obama took the lead in establishing such a zone, it could lead to a direct confrontation between the US and the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.  The area would probably turn into an anti-Assad power base, and setting it up would go far beyond President Obama’s original mission of degrading IS.  Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former American envoy to the Syrian opposition, has said: “It would mainly be a place where an alternate government structure would take root and for the training of rebels.” 
If Turkey wants it, Turkey is perfectly capable of going ahead and establishing it.  However Erdogan prefers to use it as a bargaining chip with the US, a quid pro quo for  Turkey’s direct involvement in the anti-IS conflict. Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, admitted as much in a news conference on October 10, going go far as to say that Erdogan’s primary goal was to defeat the Assad government before thinking of tackling IS. “Tyranny and massacres will remain in the region as long as the Assad regime continues,” he said, discounting the ethnic cleansing and horrific mass-murder being perpetrated by IS across northern Syria and Iraq.
Turkey cannot emerge from this episode smelling of roses.  Kurds enraged at Turkey’s unwillingness to help their embattled brethren in Kobani, are already erupting in violent protests, forcing Ankara to deploy the military, impose curfews and close schools. There have been protests and riots in every Turkish city where there are a significant number of Kurds. Twenty-two people have been killed in the past week in the fiercest street clashes that Turkey has seen for years, as Kurds battle it out with the police. If Kobani does indeed fall to IS there will be a real surge of violence across Turkey. The 15 million Turkish Kurds will blame the Turkish government for denying its defenders reinforcements, weapons and ammunition.
The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slowly but surely crushes its traditional Kurdish enemies, and using the humanitarian disaster thus created to pressure the US into helping remove Assad and his government.  Now firmly ensconced within NATO, Turkey is able to act in this sort of way with comparative impunity – but it was in April 1987 that Turkey first knocked on the EU’s door and asked to be let in.  Twenty-seven years later Turkey is still lingering on the threshold.  Its behavior during this international crisis should mean that the EU’s door remains firmly barred.
The writer’s new book: The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014 has just been published.  He writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (