Turkey and ISIS

The problem with this perception is that nothing Turkey does is quite as straightforward as foreign diplomats and uninitiated analysts in the West often suppose.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey’s recent air strikes grab the headlines worldwide and are used by the Obama administration to suggest that its Middle East policy is not as bungled as meets the eye. The US, it is asserted, has won itself another ally in the war against Islamic State and a formidable ally at that.
The problem with this perception is that nothing Turkey does is quite as straightforward as foreign diplomats and uninitiated analysts in the West often suppose.
Turkish bombers did fly some sorties against Islamic State encampments after a recent Islamic State suicide bombing in the southeastern Turkish city of Suruc killed 32 people.
Both the attack and response seemed to fly in the face of what was previously taken at face value. Conventional wisdom considered Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan – a Sunni with Muslim Brotherhood attachments – as antagonistic to Shi’ite Iran, its lackey Bashar Assad of Damascus and Iran’s and Assad’s Hezbollah foot soldiers.
That should have theoretically placed Erdogan to some degree on the Islamic State side and he indeed facilitates the terrorist group’s oil trade and keeps his borders open to its traffic. So why would Islamic State attack Turks and why would Turks attack Islamic State? This only fails to make sense to those who against all odds persist in making sense of the Middle East.
And just to prove how futile the effort is to pin down Erdogan’s allegiance, he also sent his air force to wallop Islamic State’s staunchest adversaries – the Kurds. That was the first time Erdogan had done so since 2013, when he and the Kurds reached a semblance of accommodation following the three-decade struggle for autonomy by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Syria’s semi-autonomous Kurds (the largest ethnic minority in that decomposing country) and their kin in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave are among the most successful so far in stymieing Islamic State advances.
So what is Erdogan doing? There is a belated, tentative agreement to allow US access to Turkish air bases such as Incirlik, but whose side is Erdogan really on? He hits Islamic State. He hits Islamic State’s leading enemies. In fact, the only thing which can be said with a modicum of confidence is that Erdogan is playing both ends against the middle. Given his record, that’s quite in character.
The Kurds are straining under the growing realization that Erdogan certainly is not aiding their cause in Syria and Erdogan is irked by their insubordination. He’s also in punitive mode against Islamic State for daring to create the impression of Turkish vulnerability. So in effect, Erdogan is fighting for Erdogan and against anyone who puts him in a bad light.
Thus Erdogan struts like the tough guy who suffers no disrespect from Islamic State but doesn’t want to appear to strengthen the Kurds either. This is useful should he call early elections.
Furthermore, new obstacles hinder Erdogan’s aim to depose Assad while concomitantly preventing the Kurds from making history-altering gains from the shift in Iran’s favor. Erdogan feels miffed because the deal on Iran’s nukes has left him behind and reinstated Tehran as the major regional force. It might have likewise improved Assad’s survival prospects.
Erdogan must adjust and move to cut his losses in the escalating chaos all around.
The likely reality is that Turkey is not simply and altruistically siding with Obama against Islamic State. Erdogan has not suddenly seen the light from Washington and has not been converted to Obama’s concept of good. Neither has Erdogan decided overnight to cast his lot with the Iranian axis.
Nothing in this region is as it seems or as it’s presented.
Presumed proxies – via whom Obama means to fight Islamic State – have their own agendas. Their attitude to Obama’s notion that the villain of the piece is only Islamic State and not Iran remains expediently fluid.
Most probably, Erdogan has extracted a price from Obama for Turkey’s ostensible cooperation. It may be that the Erdogan-Obama chumminess will chillingly come at the Kurds’ expense. In other words, Obama may evince disloyalty toward yet another embattled ally. Chances are that the Kurds are being sold down the river.
The possibility that the Kurds will be sacrificed does not augur well for Israel.