Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sometimes a Turkey is a Turkey

Time for a little role-playing. You are long-standing ultra-conservative elected leader of a country deeply divided between religious and secular values. Your entire nation was founded on a rather severe division between faith and government, but, like so much of the world, you are at the vanguard of bringing your faith and its values into government. As secularists rail, as corruption charges resonate against you, a powerful extremist version of your interpretation of your faith is a growing power on your border and in your neighborhood.
And wonder of wonders, this growing force is engaging, with military attacks, a strong minority body of separatists that have plagued your administration and your country as well as a malevolent dictator in a border state who has, in your opinion, a deeply distorted and sacrilegious interpretation of your faith. This growing force is the enemy of your enemies, although it is viewed as a pariah to most of the rest of the world.
Throw in another variable: you run a nation at the crossroads of Middle Eastern and European values, literally having territory in both Europe (3%) and Asia (97%), are a participating member of NATO and have flirted with membership in the European Union. It is an economic powerhouse in a region plagued with economic failure. Your country has been the gateway to increasing numbers of fighters rushing to fight in this “enemy of your enemies” force, and you have watched as your enemies have been assaulted with tons of success. Then, this massively growing malevolent force mounts attacks against your own loyalists, your own constituency, in your own country. What do you do?
So if you are Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you are facing a Syrian dictatorship from a minority Alawite/Shiite Bashar Assad Regime that is running roughshod over your fellow Sunnis, the 80% majority in Syria. Assad and his Alawites are Islamic apostates to Sunnis, mystics to Sunni literalists. Erdogan and his predecessors have also been battling Kurdish separatists for some time, with a tenuous ceasefire hanging in the balance, basically an “unstable two-year cease-fire between the Turkish government and the Kurdish militants, also known by the initials of their Kurdish name, P.K.K. After a three-decade conflict that claimed at least 40,000 lives, the two sides reached a fragile peace in 2013, though there have been a few minor clashes since then.” New York Times, July 25th.
The big bad force growing in land mass by the minute is, of course, the Islamic State, which only recently has taken to deploying suicide bombs within Turkey itself. The United States and its NATO allies have been working on Turkey to join the fray against ISIS for quite a while, but Erdogan was more than content to watch as ISIS attack his Kurdish and Syrian Alawite enemies. With the ISIS bombing, Erdogan responded to local pressure to respond. So did he join the fight against ISIS? Sort of, but not exactly. Even as he opened an airfield in Turkey to U.S. and its coalition bombers fighting against ISIS, and even though he has moved Turkish forces against ISIS, there’s definitely a catch.
Those brave anti-ISIS Kurdish forces – the P.K.K. and particularly an affiliated and highly effective Kurdish militia (the People’s Protective Unit – known as the Y.P.G. in Turkey) – have also become targets of the Turkish assault. Ending the two-year ceasefire noted above, Turkish forces have not only blasted away at ISIS targets, but they have also attacked Kurdish forces as well: “Turkish fighter jets, which on [July 24th] attacked Islamic State targets in Syria, have launched a wave of airstrikes in northern Iraq, targeting camps of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party for the first time in four years, the prime minister’s office said [July 25th]…
“Fighter jets also struck Islamic State targets in Syria for a second day, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said in the statement on Saturday. The jets entered Syrian airspace to do so, the statement said, unlike during the previous strikes, which the government said were carried out from the Turkish side of the border… ‘No one should doubt our determination,’ Mr. Davutoglu said, speaking to reporters in Ankara, the capital, on [July 25th]. ‘We will not allow Turkey to be turned into a lawless country.’
“Turkey has been pressing the United States to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and that goal seems to have gained traction with the Turks’ air campaign… ‘Once ISIS has been cleared from the areas in northern Syria, ‘safe zones’ will be formed naturally,’ offering havens for displaced people, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on [July 25th].
“In a separate but parallel operation, Turkish authorities have carried out a series of counterterrorism raids over the past two days [July 24th and 25th], arresting 590 people suspected of being members of the Islamic State or the P.K.K., Mr. Davutoglu said.” NY Times. The Turkish assaults on P.K.K. continued into the 26th as Ankara requested an emergency NATO meeting to discuss its security issues.
In short, Turkish involvement in the attacks against ISIS has given Erdogan an excuse to reengage his Kurdish foes, now facing two enemies on two fronts. It’s a mess, and ISIS may not enjoy the new Turkish front, but they have to be cackling a bit at the assaults against their Kurdish enemies. A giant neutral zone between their Syria and Iraqi might not phase ISIS for the short term, as they consolidate their holdings in Syria (where they hold more than half the land mass) and Iraq (they are 25 miles from Baghdad). And ISIS has most certainly been growing, day-by-day, as allied airstrikes have had exceptionally limited impact on their expansionism.
If and when that neutral zone is established between Turkey and Syria/ISIS, you can pretty much expect Turkish cooperation to fade, its attacks on Kurdish targets to generate another fragile ceasefire, but it is otherwise unlikely that it will be Turkish boots on the ground that will take down ISIS; they are much more likely to respond to Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq than their fellow Sunnis within ISIS. With this internecine military response, an unstable situation has reached a new level of “so much worse.” Where this goes, and how deeply embroiled we will become in this mess has yet to be determined, but our series of missteps in Iraq were among the most important causes of this malevolent Middle Eastern reality.
I’m Peter Dekom, and even if this is simply a case of understanding what our own risks are in the region, American voters really need to know what they are likely to be paying for, one way or another, over the next few decades… or longer.

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