Saturday, October 04, 2014

Turkey and the Islamic State

Dominique Soguel provides a description of the various diplomatic calculations at work for the Turkish government in the Non-War War in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State (IS, aka, ISIS, ISIL), Turkey shifts tone on Islamic State. Will it join US-led coalition? Christian Science Monitor 09/29/2014.

The Turkish parliament has authorized military action by Turkish forces against IS, but it it still unclear from the public record what Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is prepared to do militarily. (Nick Tattersall and Selin Bucak, Turkey vows support for besieged Syrian town, but no military pledge Reuters 10/03/2014)

Erdogan's (moderately) Sunni-Islamist regime is opposed to Syria's Alawite-based regime, whose most potent opposition is IS itself. Erdogan had hoped the US would take a more active role earlier in ousting Bashar al-Assad's government. Turkey has at least passively supporting IS to a limited extent by allowing them to cross the Turkish border. And since there is an IS presence in Turkey, which gives them a potential to cause trouble inside Turkey in the event of Turkish operations against IS.

And then there are the Kurds. Turkey has a large Turkish minority and has faced on-and-off attacks from the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK. The "Kurdistan" region includes significant Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, and some in Iran. Robert Fisk writes in The Great War for Civilisation (2005):

In 1998, the Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz launched a warning against the Syrians who were assisting the communist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas operating across the border. He chose a ceremony to mark the French handover of Alexandretta to announce that "those who have their eyes fixed on Turkish territory are suffering from blindness - not even a square centimetre of this country will be taken from it."
Uh oh! Did he say communist PKK? The PKK are defending the Syrian city of Kohane Kobane that's in the news at the moment for being under immediate military threat from IS. So I guess we have communist allies in the Non-War War, as well.

Kurds in Iraq, who are mostly Sunni, have had something of an autonomous political existence within the country for the last couple of decades, especially since the US invasion in 2003. Although official US policy has been and still is to keep Iraq unified, the US has also tolerated and even encouraged continuing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. The no-fly zone that the US maintained in Iraq during the 1990s and up until the 2003 invasion were largely aimed at protecting the Kurdish areas. Where a lot of oil is located.

Turkey is not eager to help the PKK, or the Syrian government, or to do anything that would encourage an attempt to establish a Kurdistan state. Soquel reports:

Another wild card, and significant constraint on Ankara, is the role of the Kurds, a restive population in Turkey. Since the launch of an IS-offensive against the border town of Kobane, which sparked the mass exodus of Syrian Kurds, tensions have run high, spilling into clashes with police on repeated occasions.

In Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State was a direct threat to the ethnic group, but boosted its profile in the West, where it was seen as a relatively effective counterforce against IS. In Syria, Kurds may prove an ally against IS as well. But for Ankara, any scenario that leads to the arming of Kurdish factions who dream of autonomy, particularly the PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, is simply alarming.

Domestic politics are another constraint. Turkey will hold general elections in 2015, and US-led military action in the Middle East is viewed with great skepticism among conservative Islamists who back the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“Polls show a great distaste towards the Islamic State, but, on the other hand, an unwillingness to be involved in the international campaign,” says Mustafa Akyol, an analyst and author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” Conservatives in the Islamist camp see IS as an aberration, but they don’t want in on the so-called Crusaders Christian coalition. [my emphasis]
Crusaders Christian coalition? It does look a lot like that at the moment, I would say, with the US, France, Britain and Australia so prominently involved.

Tattersall and Bucek report:

More than 180,000 Syrian Kurds have now fled to Turkey to escape the insurgents' assault, [Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu said.

Their advance to within clear sight of Turkish military positions on the border has piled pressure on the NATO member to take a more robust stance against the Islamists.

But Ankara remains hesitant, fearing military intervention could deepen the insecurity on its border by strengthening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and bolster Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said on Wednesday that peace talks between his group and the Turkish state will come to an end if Islamic State militants are allowed to carry out a massacre in Kobani. [my emphasis]
Juan Cole also discusses Turkey's concerns over the PKK, but with the twist that Turkey may also want to take some of the credit that the PKK might otherwise get for fighting against IS, which Cole calls ISIL (7 Surprising Reasons Turkey is entering war on ISIL Informed Comment 10/03/2014):

Turkey has had fruitful negotiations with separatist Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) about having the latter cease attacks in Anatolia. The leftist PKK and its Syrian branch, the YPG, is now a major guerrilla force taking on ISIL and was largely responsible for rescuing the Yazidis trapped at Sinjar. The Kurdish town of Kobane is now under siege by ISIL, and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is warning that if Turkey lets Kobane fall, the PKK will cut off its negotiations with Turkey. (Tens of thousands of Kurds have recently fled into Turkey from Syria in fear of ISIL). Turkey doesn’t want to see the PKK and YPG strengthened, as they may be if they can claim sole credit for fighting off ISIL.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), which is a Democratic-leaning and usually Obama-loyalist group, has produced a recent study, The United States, Turkey, and the Kurdish Regions: The Peace Process in Context by Michael Werz and Max Hoffman (July 2014):

as economic standards improved after the end of the Cold War, the effort to establish cultural pluralism and acknowledge Turkey’s sometimes violent history with minority groups has gained impetus. But traditional Turkish fears of national fragmentation have not subsided. The emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan following the first Gulf War, as well as the militant PKK’s use of northern Iraq as a launching pad for attacks against the Turkish state, have contributed to these concerns. Indeed, American support for Iraqi Kurds has reinforced some Turks’ belief that the West wants to dismember Turkey, a fear that was used to justify the Turkish state’s ruthless campaign against the Kurds throughout the 1990s.

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