Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now called the Middle East for about 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. However, in the wake of the Ottoman’s dramatic loss of land in the First World War, leaving it with what is today Turkey, the Empire was abolished, leaving a republic in its wake. The republic’s founder, Ataturk, made the country entirely secular, and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. So dramatically did Turkey want to shake off its religious, Middle Eastern background, that its leaders adopted (and encouraged Turks to adopt) Western-style dress. It no longer used Arabic script in its writing, but adopted Latin script to transliterate Turkish. It looked to Europe, not the Middle East for partnerships, joining NATO and wanting to join the EU. The latter quest was never going to be successful, because of Turkey’s shaky democratic traditions (three coups between 1960 and 1980), its human rights record (for instance, it ranks 154 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index) and, though it isn’t spoken of in polite circles, the fact that Turkey is Muslim and Europe is not.
In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.
In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East’s two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.
Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.
Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.
Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.
But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.
The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.
Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.
The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.
To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.
But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.
Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.