By Graham E. Fuller
Turkish policies towards the Middle East have been in wild oscillation over the past weeks, even months. Ankara has now finally and begrudgingly initiated military action against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in cooperation with the United States. But it has also initiated air attacks against its former Kurdish negotiating partners. Just what is going on? There may not be any coherent strategy, but the following seem to me to represent the key issues driving policy.
–At the top of the list is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his quest for political survival. After the rebuff to the ruling AK Party (or AKP) in the June elections that caused it to lose its majority in parliament, Erdoğan is now desperately trying to recover, find a reliable partner for a coalition government and, in its absence, to force new elections next month in the hopes of recouping his majority.
Given the growing impression of growing loss of coherency at the top levels of the Turkish government, it is something of a gamble that the AKP could achieve a better electoral outcome next month. Indeed the AKP may well emerge yet weaker.
That said, the AKP’s best chance for a coalition partner is the nationalist MHP which opposes negotiations with the PKK (the armed Kurdish nationalist movement) or any cooperation with the PKK’s ally in Syria, the YDP.
A decade ago the AKP initiated encouraging and historic negotiations with the PKK; observers had every good reason to hope for a major breakthrough on this ethnic issue that has plagued Turkey almost since its birth (as a modern state in the 1920s). But domestic politics have intervened and Erdoğan has now irresponsibly turned his back on these negotiations, even beginning military operations against the PKK again, probably putting an end for some time to any hope of reconciliation.
Such aggressive steps delight the nationalists in the MHP, now a key potential coalition partner. In sum, short-term and short-sighted AKP electoral politics are destroying aspirations for vital national reconciliation.
Erdoğan has another good reason as well to sabotage his own early pioneering efforts at Kurdish reconciliation: with the improving political environment of a few years ago, for the first time a Kurdish party, the Peoples’s Democratic Party, is now reaching for national status as a true liberal party beyond simple Kurdish nationalism. It was that party that took away crucial votes from the AKP in the last elections and Erdoğan has blood in his eye.
The Syrian Mess
–The second key factor is Ankara’s disastrous Syrian imbroglio. Erdoğan’s decision, indeed current obsession, with overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria starting in 2011 — represented an abrupt reverse of a decade of warm and brotherly relations with Syria.
No AKP foreign policy failure can equal the Syrian disaster: it has intensified the butchery in Syria’s savage internal conflict, damaged vital relations with Iraq and Iran, helped unleash a flood of millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey, created domestic unrest, damaged the economy, and pushed Erdoğan into a distasteful embrace with Saudi Arabia against Assad.
In doing so, Erdoğan has been forced to turn an ever blinder eye to the extremism of Islamist forces operating against Assad in Syria, including ISIS itself. While having little real sympathy for ISIS, Erdoğan has nonetheless tolerated it. In the end he preferred strengthening ISIS against Damascus than deepening Turkish ties with the Kurds — Turkey’s natural regional partners for the future.
This Turkish policy has greatly embittered most Kurds against Turkey, especially in Syria. Erdogan’s Kurdish ties are now everywhere at risk: in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Only the event of a serious terrorist ISIS attack a few weeks ago on Turkish soil (targeting mostly Kurds), forced Erdoğan to reconsider this relationship.
As a result Erdoğan has reluctantly bowed to U.S. pressure to take a tougher position against ISIS. There is actually little love in Turkey at all for ISIS except among a very small minority of radical fundamentalists. Here too now, Erdoğan still seems to lack a conceptual compass on these strategic issues.
Dealing with Iran
–A third driver is the nuclear deal with Iran. This momentous agreement will be changing the face of Middle Eastern geopolitics. It has raised the stakes for Ankara, making it clear that it can now ill afford to ignore Iran. Yet this should not be a serious problem for Turkey: the first decade of AKP rule saw good working relations with Tehran, and Turkey has basically avoided ideologically championing Middle Eastern Sunnis in any sectarian struggle.
This is where Erdoğan’s unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia against Syria had begun to push him in a dangerous sectarian direction that contradicts nearly all of Turkey’s national interests, including ties with Iran. Ankara’s recent air operations against ISIS shows some signs now of pulling back from this egregious strategic error, even as Riyadh itself has come to fear feeding ISIS any further.
In short, primarily for domestic political reasons, but also due to foreign pressures from the U.S., Iran and Iraq, Ankara is now wavering in its strategic directions. It would be wise if it joins Iran, Russia, China, Oman, and probably now the U.S., in seeking a political solution in Damascus that will lead to Assad’s eventual resignation but not a toppling of the present regime.
But the implications of Obama’s agreement with Ankara to establish a buffer zone in Syria along the Turkish border is disturbing; it now may drag the U.S. deeper into local ground wars and coordination with bad Turkish policies. The fact is, an Assad regime for the moment is a far better option than continuing civil war and the continuing growth of extremist jihadi forces of ISIS and al-Qa’ida who are ideally positioned to eventually eliminate moderate Islamic opposition forces against Assad.
A potential Turkish coalition government that combines the AKP (with its plurality) and a left-of-center Republican Peoples Party and the new liberal Kurdish Party would seem to offer the healthiest mixture to oversee Turkish foreign policy in these exceptionally troubled and complex times. Erdoğan’s vaulting ambitions and increasing loss of judgment and statesmanship will best be neutralized in such a coalition.
Despite the emotionalism around the Kurdish issue, a new generation of a Turkish electorate is unlikely to opt for a politician who seeks greater confrontation in the region, especially as a tool for his own ambitions.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com