Turkey and the war in Syria

Syrian_kurds.jpgBob Glaberson takes a look at the war in Syria and questions the role of Turkey in the region. 

Living in a dangerous neighborhood can effect one’s health, politically speaking. This is certainly the case with Turkey where it is affecting its politics adversely. President Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies are being given a new lease of life which is having a harmful effect on the battle against Isis and complicating the war in Syria.

The peace process between Turkey and the Kurds had continued for two years but ended in July. Turkey is trying to eradicate the PKK, the Kurdish political party which has been fighting Turkey since 1984. The fighting has the potential to develop into civil war. Turkish democracy had been deteriorating for some time but slipped a couple of more cogs after the general election in November when journalists and members of the opposition were arrested. Why this turn of events?

During Erdogan’s first ten years in power there were advances in religious freedom, a reduction in the power of the military and improvements in relations between Turkey and its large Kurdish minority. Turkey became an economic powerhouse under his leadership. Turkey has also taken in 1.7 million Syrian refugees. On the debit side Erdogan’s attacks on the press and political opponents increased over time. Turkey is trying to defeat Assad in Syria but it’s uncertain where it stands with regard to Isis.

A golden opportunity existed to curb Erdogan’s abuses of power as the 2015 general election approached. The HDP, a newly formed Kurdish party, began to attract support from liberals, leftists and disaffected social conservatives. This paved the way for a coalition government to replace the one party rule of Erdogan’s AKP.

But Isis spotted an opportunity, as tensions grew between Turkey and the Kurds as a result of gains made by the latter against Isis in northern Syria. These gains created concern in Turkey that they might lead to conflict between Turkey and its large Kurdish minority population. The Kurds had become the most effective fighting force against Isis while the Turks stood by and did little to contain the Isis threat. Many observers felt that Turkey was helping Isis to defeat the Kurds.

At this critical point Isis spotted a golden opportunity to create chaos and change the course of Turkish politics, reward Turkey for not joining the fray against it and punish the Kurds for doing the opposite. It was a suicide attack in Suruc, a Kurdish town in Turkey close to the border with Syria, in which 32 died. This was undoubtedly a premeditated attempt to stir up hostility between Turkey and the Kurds which had begun a peace process after a truce in 2013.

Events escalated from there. The Kurdish PKK killed two Turkish policemen in the town of Ceylanpinar in retaliation against Turkey for its passivity vis Isis. A Turkish army attack on the Kurds followed which put paid to the peace process between the two which had lasted for two years. Turkey and the PKK thus played directly into the hands of Isis and abetted their divide and rule tactics. In July an Isis terrorist attack in Ankara claimed the lives of over 100 people.

In the 1 November election, voters returned to Erdogan’s AKP which regained a majority with 49.5% of the vote. Fearing terror and instability voters decided to back the strongman and his party against a weak opposition coalition. After the election Erdogan continued his crackdown on journalists and political foes. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/03/turkey-arrests-35-people-with-links-to-erdogan-critic

Erdogan’s political fortunes revived after Isis intervened against the Kurds. Does he really want to take Isis on or has he found that they can be useful? Exhibit A: Isis oil continues to flow from Isis’ oil fields to Turkey, as the US now admits. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/sarin-gas-materials-sent-to-isis-from-turkey-claims-mp-eren-erdem-34286662.html As a result of the war in Syria Turkey’s political course was altered and the war has in turn become more dangerous and complicated due to Turkey’s reactions to events. Isis has become a player in regional politics. Erdogan was the beneficiary of their actions. But he can’t appear to be too close to Isis either if he wants to keep his alliance with the west intact.

Furthermore, it is in his interests to play both ends against the Middle. He needs to keep the west sweet in order to be able to maintain the politics of gradualism: he puts pressure on Isis by tightening his borders, for example. This kind of action allows him to pursue the war against the Kurds with greater impunity. But the most effective fighting force against Isis now has to bear the brunt of Turkish attacks. Tensions and conflicts between states and other entities involved in the war are part of the problem as is cooperation between various states /entities and Isis. Combating Isis sometimes takes second place to political expediency.

Bob Glaberson is a member of the Brighton Pavilion Labour Party and currently involved in the campaign to elect Purna Sen as the next member of parliament. He is a husband and father, living in Brighton for thirty years since moving to the UK from New York. He has been involved politically all his life on both sides of the Atlantic. He worked as a NHS counsellor and WEA / Sussex University adult education teacher for many years. He is a political writer with wide interests but his main focus being the Middle East.

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