Though much muck is flying around, few are actually catching the full extent of what is going on in Turkish foreign relations. It is assumed that it is using its status as a regional power to further an aggressive agenda of its own. In fact, it is running scared of a development few people have noticed.
Turkey and Northern Iraq have had successful relations for years, both in business and economics. If you spend half a day at the border you will see long lines of lorries coming and going, carrying (legal) petrol. These investments are part of Turkey’s strategy of getting all it can from the planned reconfiguration of the Middle East, so it can both neutralise domestic threats and start dictating to the NATO and Islamic World allies it doesn’t like having served for so long.
But one group Turkey has not invested in is the Kurds of Qamishli. This group has gone its own way, and none of the sovereign states in the region has developed a coherent idea of what to do about this. It is the activities of this seemingly insignificant group, as much as any other, which are defining how Turkey behaves towards the rest of the world.
Sledgehammers and nuts
Syria is full of Kurds. Many of them do not have any documents, because they refuse to accept them, and whenever Bashar al-Assad began flirting with the Turkish dictator his security services would thank him by initiating a crackdown on Kurds which included imprisonments, raids and even murders when necessary. All of this obviously suits Turkey, as anti-Turkish variety of the Western-designed Kurdish state would either include areas of Turkey or be supported, perhaps with violence, by a significant chunk of the Turkish population.
Now, however, Qamishli and its surrounding region, a part of Syria bordering Turkey, have been granted self-government. This action is theoretically harmful to Syria, as it shows Syria can be broken up and its opponents can profit from this. But in fact it suits the purposes of both sides. The local Kurds want their own state and the Syrian government can’t administer the area, so while bigger forces are involved in the country this situation can be tolerated, if not exploited, by Damascus.
This is of great concern to Ankara. Independent Qamishli is right along the Turkish border. The pattern of arms supplies in the area suggests that Turkey was hoping ISIS would take control of it, but this hasn’t happened. In fact Turkey has merely played into the hands of Qamishli’s Kurds by concentrating on ISIS, allowing genuine Kurdish groups to do as they please, under the radar.
All the covert Turkic Council support for ISIS, Saudi support of rebel fronts connected with al-Qaeda, refusal to support the Peshmerga fighters during the battle of Kobane etc., has simply created a situation in which the Kurds of Qamishli have created a fledging Kurdish state of their own, which will still be dependent on others but owes Ankara no favours and is indulged by the Assad government. It produces the outcome Turkey wants but without the benefits. Ankara wants to prevent this and prevent similar situations developing in other places where it has an interest. It is now clear that this is the fundamental concern behind its foreign policy initiatives.
No place at the table
Turkey makes much of its status as a growing regional power – one which must be consulted, in other words. It is hoping that the powers will sit together and draw a new map of the Middle East, as they did 100 years ago with the Sykes-Picot Treaty, and make Qamishli province part of another larger entity. But that isn’t going to happen without US say-so, and the US is likewise committed to constructing its own, dependent, Kurdish state. It is still insisting that Turkey must do things the way NATO expects it to, including having the enemies it wants Turkey to have.
As reported by Josh Cohen, the Kurds hold two distinct enclaves in North-Western Syria but not the area in between. It would, again, be more expedient for both the Kurdish militants and Syria to join them together by extending Qamlishi, at least for now. This is why Russia is taking a close look at ways to toss a spanner into the works.
Putin could therefore strike a serious blow at Turkey’s geopolitical interests by ordering delivery of more advanced Russian weaponry to the Kurds, some of which would be aimed at Turkey. Syrian Kurds control two enclaves in northern Syria along the Turkish border, and wish to capture the final 60 miles needed to link these two territories together. Although Turkey repeatedly warns it will use force to prevent this scenario, Russian support and encouragement could motivate Syria’s Kurds to take the plunge. This would establish a 400-mile-long anti-Turkish cordon along Turkey’s southern border, which would be nothing short of a disaster in the minds of Turkish leaders.
Turkey is unable to present Russia’s interest as an unacceptable military aggression, given its own involvement in the fighting in Syria. Therefore it is trying to cast it as unacceptably racist, by accusing the Kurds of doing everything under the sun to alter the balance of nationalities against the ethnic Turkmen, implying that Russia supports this.
According to the Turkish government, thousands of Turkmen near Tel Abiad have been forced out in an ethnic cleansing operation. Meanwhile Turkey has allowed an endless stream of ISIS fighters and Chechen and other mercenaries to cross the border and do all possible harm in Qamishli province, also conducting aerial bombing attacks for good measure. This is not the total devotion to the Syrian struggle the US expects, and is therefore making Turkey ever-more desperate to find other ways to strangle this new Kurdish state at birth, and stop similar situations emerging.
Houses of Kurdish cards
It is not only the emergence of a Kurdish state it can’t control which makes Turkey feel its hand is being forced. It is the fear of its current leadership that its bluff will be called, and the basis of its power brought down with it.
Erdogan has won elections by leveraging the ghost of Kurdish terrorism. He himself has been glad to sponsor it, for this very reason. There’s little or no doubt that the massacre in Ankara, blamed on Kurds, was actually conducted by people working for the Turkish secret service. All the signs were there – the sudden release of information which would have been used to stop the event happening had it been true, the indestructible passports at the scene, the sudden concern for victims no one official had cared about before.
In his youth Erdogan was a member of an extreme right group and was jailed for instigating hate towards other faiths. If we accept that his views have moderated with age, we then have to ask why he has extensive dealings with mafia structures in Georgia, especially Adjara, and to Bel Trading and its gun running business. We also need to look at the role the Grey Wolves, supporters of the Turkish regime, play in transporting terrorists and equipment to Turkey via the US State Department, KNM World Services etcetera. These actions are a threat to anybody, and Erdogan is going out of his way to single out certain groups in his speeches, so the targets are clear enough.
As Tony Blair’s Labour Party found, when you build your credibility on lies, no one looks at the good things you do. Erdogan sees the writing on the wall, and wants to stop everyone else doing the same. Erdogan effectively wants a client Kurdish state to emerge to serve purposes dictated by Turkey. However, the state of Qamishli isn’t interested in sending reliable terrorists to commit crimes in Turkey to keep Erdogan in power, and the US won’t let Turkey do anything about it.
Frying pans against guns
ISIS may have been supplied by the West for now, but in the long term it will not be never be allowed to win by Iran and other regional players. It will pave the way for some redrawing of the maps which suits its sponsors. When Poland was progressively partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the eighteenth century Austria was left out of the second partition because the others wanted to denigrate it. Turkey is in the same position now, Qamishli being waved in its face behind the scenes, and apparently unable to respond.
The petrol business in Northern Iraq, the product of Turkish investment in their own section of the future partition, has not stopped a de facto independent Qamishli emerging with the effective protection of both Syria and the US and its allies. This is why Can Dundar, the courageous director of Hurriyet who published images of lorries full of free weapons being sent to ISIS, as a kind sits in jail alongside his deputy director and scores of other journalists. These weapons were bought with money obtained by the Turkish state from petrol smuggling. The photos would have been published by the government itself, had the Turkish policy worked before the Turkish state’s involvement in smuggling and weapons supply was proven by the Russians.
Russia is now the problem, as far as Turkey is concerned. The pattern of alliances in the Syrian conflict, in which enemies are also friends in different military contexts, has created space for a Kurdish State to be born with Moscow’s material help.
Moscow supports Assad in Syria, and not any of the forces which oppose him by sometimes fighting with others, such as ISIS, they also claim to be fighting against. It is not playing the Western game in the redrawing of the Middle East, but if this happens, and there are any spoils to be had, it will claim them for itself. As such it represents the greatest threat to this plan, and what Turkey hopes to gain from it.
All this has driven Turkey to do the one thing it has long said it would not do – make peace with Israel, despite Gaza and everything else. Israel has a good relationship with Moscow, and it is even being reported that Israel may have reached agreement with both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Moscow over the status of the Golan Heights – which would be sensational for the stabilisation of the region.
This may explain why Turkey now thinks it can gain more from this alliance than it is losing in the struggle for Syria. But Israel and Russia aren’t saying anything about their new friend because they don’t need her. It suits the diplomatic positions of both sides to have Turkey on board, but neither pays much attention to world opinion when they want something, so Turkey has merely moved out of the frying pan into the fire.
Now the Turkish government is in a quandary in internal affairs, and every time they are in trouble they pour some fuel on the fire. The Turks, in their utter immaturity and scarce awareness when it comes to politics, consider the Kurds terrorists and Turkey is always in search of an enemy to fight against—and its worst enemy is itself.
Turkish commentators are saying that if Ataturk were alive he would jail all Turkey’s current politicians. Maybe the national guilt which spawned Ataturk, and the absurd devotion he still attracts nearly eighty years after his death, will end up doing that for him. But for now Turkey will keep running scared of being outflanked by its own policy, represented by the sort of “heroic” enclave which defeated Turkey so often in Ottoman times, the stuff which allegedly still gives Erdogan nightmares.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.