Terra Incognita: Turkey doubles down in Syria and Iraq

Turkey’s actions in the past few days have re-positioned the country to take a more muscular role in the Syria conflict.

Turkish army tanks manoeuver as Turkish Kurds watch over the Syrian town of Kobani (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish army tanks manoeuver as Turkish Kurds watch over the Syrian town of Kobani
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sometimes political cartoons capture reality better than analysts or commentators can. In reaction to the decision by Turkey to begin bombing Islamic State in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq, cartoonists went to work across the region. One shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dropping bombs, with one bomb labeled “IS” and seven labeled “Kurds” to represents that most of the bombing is hitting Kurds. Another shows two members of IS talking. One says “Erdogan bombs the Kurds.” The other replies “finally, we have our own air force.” A third cartoon has a Turkish pilot waving in greeting to IS fighters as he bombs Kurds.
Turkey’s actions in the past few days have re-positioned the country to take a more muscular role in the Syria conflict. They ostensibly came in reaction to the July 20 bombing of a socialist youth meeting in Suruc in which 32 were killed and more than 100 wounded by a terrorist alleged to be working with IS.
Those killed at Suruc were Kurdish and had wanted to volunteer to help fellow Kurds across the border in Syria in the town of Kobani that had been under siege by IS last year.
Turkey’s leading AKP party, known for its bombastic statements, was unusually mild in its reaction to the deaths of so many of its citizens. But the government moved quickly to arrest more than 100 people with connections to IS. At the same time the government began to crack down on the activities of the PKK, the Kurdish group which for years was known for its guerrilla and terrorist attacks on Turks, a reversal of a two-year-old policy of quiet. In 2012 Erdogan had announced negotiations with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In May of 2013 a sort of truce went into affect in which the PKK withdrew its fighters from Turkey to camps in Iraq. That all changed last week as the PKK took responsibility for killing two Turkish policemen in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar. A policeman was also shot in Diyarbakir.
The PKK claimed it was retaliating for Suruc and attacking police who had “collaborated with IS.”
What is really happening? Turkey has used the bombing in Suruc as an excuse, not just to attack IS but to provoke a war with the PKK, and in so doing to reduce the ascendant strength of Kurds in Syria and Iraq. If Turkey just wanted to fight IS, the Kurds would be natural allies as they have borne the brunt if IS attacks. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani has condemned the Turkish attacks, which violated Iraq’s borders. Turkish police used the excuse of arresting IS in Turkey to detain hundreds of Kurds. Turkey was warned for more than a year to crack down on IS in its borders.
The country was a conduit for tens of thousands of IS volunteers who used Turkey as a corridor to get to Syria.
In October 2014 US Vice-President Joe Biden received an angry backlash from Erdogan after implying the Turks had not done enough to seal the border. “We never admitted any mistakes...if Biden told these words then he will be history to me...
we won’t accept slander,” he said. In June of 2015 Erdogan bashed “the West” for empowering Kurdish “terrorist” groups. “The West which has shot Arabs and Turkmens, is unfortunately placing the PYD [the political wing of Syria’s Kurdish YPG] and the PKK in lieu of them.” The allegation was that the Kurds were ethnically cleansing Arabs in Syria as they fought IS. On June 27 Erdogan went further, warning that Turkey would “never allow” a Kurdish state to form in Syria. The next day the media was abuzz with secret Turkish plans to invade Syria. Richard Spencer at The Telegraph claims that Turkey had “plans to send troops into Syria... the aim is to establish a buffer zone for refugees against IS... the main target... will be to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state.”
Turkey’s leader, despite his pugnacious statements, has pursued a pragmatic policy of increasing Turkish strength in the region since the AKP came to power 15 years ago. The foreign policy of Turkey was supposed to be “zero problems with neighbors.” But as it shifted from foreign minister Yasar Yakis’ European- oriented policy to Ahmet Davutoglu’s “neo-Ottomanism” Turkey began to take sides in the Middle East. It became the greatest opponent of the rise of Abdul Fattah Sisi in Egypt and the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood there. It opened itself to Hamas, and sought to work closely with Qatar to encourage the overthrow of Bashar Assad after the Syrian civil war began in 2011. As recently as May all seemed to be going well for the Turkish alliance with the Sunni monarchies. “The regime army, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, appears to be exhausted...
Assad’s position is weakening sharply,” reported David Ignatius in The Washington Post.
Turkey’s decision to intervene in Syria and Iraq is not new. In October 2012 Turkey had bombed Syria in retaliation for an errant Syrian shell hitting a house. In February 22 Turkish units crossed into Syria to remove the remains of an Ottoman tomb. Turkey has struck at the PKK in Iraq before. But the Iran deal has made Turkey more wary of the problems in Syria.
Everyone assumes the Iran deal will released billions in trade to Iran. Rumors abound that the EU will de-list the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist entity. Altogether the picture emerges of an Assad regime that will be newly flush with cash, and of an emboldened Hezbollah.
On Saturday Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah took to television to boast that his group would continue its operations unabated and the “great satan” of America would not deter it. Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, bragged the Iran deal would not alter Tehran’s support for Assad. This is the green light Assad needed. He has been upping his bombing of Allepo and his forces and Hezbollah have been pounding the city of Zabadani. The Iran deal is a blank check for Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
Turkey sees the Iranian writing on the wall and wants to cash in by demanding Western concessions as well. On July 24 Turkey announced a military and security cooperation pact with the US that would allow the US and UK to use Incirlik air base for strikes against IS. The allies had wanted the base for years and Turkey had been less than obliging. Turkey will give away the base in order to establish “safe zones” in northern Turkey. Those zones will alleviate pressure of Arab refugees and allow Turkey to keep the Kurdish YPG from overrunning more of the Turkish- Syrian border area.
The Turkish government will use the newfound furor over IS to provoke a wider war with the PKK that will allow it to crack down on Kurds, which it is already doing by muzzling Kurdish websites, according to reports in Hurriyet. Kurdish news websites went dark for users based in Turkey on Saturday.
As Turkish jets bombed seven sites in Iraq the PKK attacked a Turkish military convoy in the town of Lice on Sunday. Brett McGurk, the US Deputy Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, said he looks forward to “intensifying our cooperation with Turkey... we have strongly condemned the PKK’s terrorist attacks in Turkey and we fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” He seemed to provide a stamp of approval to Turkey’s violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and bombing raids over the border.
Erdogan fears the rise of the mostly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) party, which garnered enough votes in early June to cross the 10 percent threshold in Turkish parliamentary elections. In the wake of the Suruc bombing the party’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been subjected to harassment online, with calls for his hanging and murder being common. Turkey understands its Syria policy is in tatters. The Gulf Arab states are concerned about the Iran deal and don’t have time to focus on ousting Assad. So all that Turkey has left is to turn on IS to shore up its Western support and then use the anti- IS alliance as a way to attack the Kurds. Assad is the big winner in all of this. But Turkey risks settings its border with Syria and Iraq aflame.
Follow the author on twitter @Sfrantzman.