Foreign Affairs: Turkey’s elusive promised land and the war on Islamic State

As the war on Islamic State reaches Turkey’s border, its victims include Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s vision of a Turkish-led Sunni world.

KURDISH PROTESTERS set fire to a barricade set up to block the street as they fight with riot police in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDISH PROTESTERS set fire to a barricade set up to block the street as they fight with riot police in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS)
By sheer coincidence, the Syrian town of Kobani – where Kurdish and Islamic State fighters have been squaring off in recent weeks – happens to be tucked just west of Haran, the Turkish spot from which Abraham disembarked on his journey to the Promised Land.
The current confrontation’s many protagonists may have different ideas about their own promised land, but they all know its location and all carry a road map leading there.
The Kurds want a state that will weld slivers of Turkey, Syria and Iraq; President Bashar Assad wants a Syria that will sprawl from the Anti-Lebanon to the Tigris; Iran wants to suspend a Shi’ite bridge between the thresholds of Afghanistan and Egypt; Saudi Arabia wants quiet outside its palaces’ gilded windows; and Islamic State’s jihadists want to drown the Middle East in blood and then, as their leader put it, march on Rome.
One actor, however, seems increasingly disoriented and indecipherable: Turkey.
Hardly a mile from kobani, Turkish officers were seen in recent weeks surveying pillars of smoke and listening to machine-gun staccatos from atop their American- made tanks this side of the border. Their failure to come to the rescue of the predominantly Kurdish town has brought to mind the Red Army’s two-week wait before storming Warsaw, a choice Poles say was designed to let the Nazis kill more Poles; as well as the Allies’ delay in launching D-Day, which Stalin saw as an Anglo-American ploy to let the Germans kill yet more Soviets before Germany’s defeat.
The stakes in Kobani are different, as even on the eve of the Syrian civil war, the dusty town was inhabited by just 50,000; unlike Warsaw, it is a godforsaken frontier town. Even so, this is where the war on Islamic State reached Turkey’s doorstep, and where the Turkish response kept the whole world guessing just where Ankara stands, and what its war aims might be.
The analogies to wartime Germany and Russia have come to mind because of Turkey’s apparent abandonment of Syria’s Kurds to Islamic State’s devices. Like the Red Army at Warsaw’s gates, the mighty Turkish army, the world’s eighth-largest, can roll ahead and effortlessly scatter Islamic State’s black-clad fighters under a hailstorm of artillery, armor and fighter jet bombs.
Convinced that Turkey was deliberately abandoning their brethren, Kurdish rioters took to the streets in early October in cities throughout Turkey, where police confronted them forcefully, leaving at least 30 dead and dozens wounded.
The Kurdish aspect of the situation is particularly confusing because a mere 20 months ago, Turkey launched a peace process with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), its nemesis of 40 years, which in turn formally announced a ceasefire and also ordered its fighters to retreat beyond Turkish borders.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government saw in this deal a major accomplishment, leaving the impression that such a spirit of appeasement came more easily to a religious leadership that cared for nationalism less than its secular predecessors. Now, all this has unraveled. The Kurds canceled the cease-fire, and many among Turkey’s 20-percent Kurdish minority are ready to renew their struggle for independence.
Yet the Turks not only provoked the same Kurds they had previously courted and placated, they also thumbed their nose at US President Barack Obama – by refusing to allow US bombers to take off from Turkish airfields at Syria’s backdoor, compelling them to instead fly almost 2,000 km. from Arab bases in the Gulf.
Subsequent reports that Ankara was retreating from its refusal to allow Kurdish units to cross into the battlefields, and ongoing complaints that Turkey was enabling foreigners’ entry into Syria along the so-called “jihadist highway,” intensified confusion over Turkey’s stance.
Pundits and diplomats the world over scratched their heads: Is Turkey with the Kurds or against them? Is it with America or against it, with the jihadists or against them?
TURKEY’S ATTITUDE toward the Arab world’s four-year period of turmoil has been driven by three sometimes contradictory sentiments: military caution, historic pretension and regional frustration.
Thrusting the Turkish military into battle is not as simple as it sounds, for three reasons: First, the Turkish army has not fought a war since invading Cyprus 40 years ago. Second, following the entire general staff’s forced resignation three years ago in the wake of Erdogan’s assault on it, the army’s new leadership is not as confident and battle hungry as their predecessors might have been. And lastly, a fighting, and potentially victorious and glorified, army would constitute a political threat to Erdogan and his Islamist administration.
Since modern Turkey’s foundation 90 years ago, its generals’ involvement in politics had been blunt and at times violent, particularly when it came to imposing secularism – until the last decade, when Erdogan boxed the military and brought its politicking to an end. Turkish generals now won’t touch politics with a 10-foot pole, but they remain suspected closet secularists. War would empower them – and empowered generals would be, from Erdogan’s viewpoint, unpredictable.
This caution also explains Erdogan’s demand that the US impose a no-fly zone on Syria, and support him in creating a buffer zone in northern Syria. Such measures would mean military impact, without military heroism.
Beside its lack of appetite for military invasion, Turkey has ideological reasons to avoid the war on Islamic State.
Erdogan, and even more so Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, are driven by a sense of historic mission that does not sit well with joining a Western-led assault on Muslims.
Turkish scholars now call the pair’s platform “pan-Islamism,” as opposed to the previously used “neo-Ottomanism.” One such scholar, Marmara University’s Behlul Ozkan, has studied some 300 articles Davutoglu penned as an academic before the Islamists’ rise to power, most of which have never been translated. His findings indicate that Davutoglu believes Turkey has a historic mission to revive and lead a Sunni triangle that would stretch from North Africa through the Balkans to Central Asia. In a sense, Islamic State’s vision of a caliphate has stolen Davutoglu’s thunder.
Emotionally, Davutoglu’s quest for a “New Turkey” is understandable.
Its 27-year-old bid to join the European Union has been an embarrassment and cause for frustration, as part of pre-Erdogan Turkey’s push to become part of the West. Politically, however, Turkish pan-Islamism is a non-starter.
It was one thing to join Brazil in an anti-US bid to preserve Iran’s nuclear program, as Ankara did in spring 2010. Such broadsides, while unthinkable in pre-Erdogan Turkey, are not about who the New Turkey wants to lead, but about who it does not want to follow. While that move alarmed many in Washington, it cost the country little in the Middle East, where later that spring Turkey dispatched the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, to much regional applause.
At that point, to the majority of Arabs, Turkey appeared to be merely seeking to assert itself as an emerging power between East and West. That is also how Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy appeared at the time, when it seemed to be seeking rapprochements with its many antagonistic neighbors, from Greece and Cyprus to Syria and Armenia.
The Arab upheaval, which began half a year after the Mavi Marmara, exposed Turkey’s designs and unsettled its pan-Islamist plan’s would-be partners. Erdogan’s embrace of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood made other Arab regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, recall its Ottoman past and resolve to prevent what they saw as its possible return.
Now, with the Brotherhood fallen, Erdogan is in an open conflict with the largest Arab country, Egypt, where politicians this month demanded a boycott of Turkish goods. This is besides his open conflicts with Syria and Israel, and the proxy war in which he is embroiled with Iran in Syria.
Add to this his failed bids to appease the Armenians, Cypriots and now also the Kurds, and you get a frustrated statesman who, like a serially dumped lover living in delusion, wonders, “Why doesn’t anyone love me?” Turkey’s diplomatic conduct during the Erdogan era, which began as a plan to make everyone happy, has achieved the exact opposite, making everyone suspicious – not only from Cairo to Tehran, but also from Washington to Moscow.
For Russia, Turkey is a historic rival with whom it fought 12 wars in recent centuries. That alone is cause for Moscow to continuously treat Ankara with suspicion, but its current pan-Islamist designs make things even worse – because a Turkish-led, tri-continental Sunni juggernaut would potentially unsettle Russia’s own 20 million, mostly Sunni.
This is besides a seemingly expansionist Turkey alarming former Ottoman vassals like Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, not to mention Greece.
It was against this backdrop that Turkey failed in its recent bid to join the UN Security Council, losing the vote to Spain. Ankara’s 12-year search for a new status as an intercontinental power, it turned out, produced universal suspicion – and it is against this backdrop that Turkey now stands at Kobani, unsure what to do.
Openly joining Islamic State is unthinkable, but joining its enemies would imply a return to the old order, one whereby distant powers drive across the Middle East using Turkey as their fifth wheel.
Turkey’s understanding of the Middle East should never be underestimated, and it may yet manage to salvage from the current war’s jaws, puppet regimes in Syria and Iraq alongside a limited and obedient Kurdistan.
Until then, however, Ankara will have to contend with hostile Arab regimes, distrustful world powers and a Kurdish resurgence it has so clumsily provoked.
Davutoglu’s promised land will remain what it has been from the onset: a dream.