The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.
Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.
As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.
After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.
The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.
From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?
Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.
In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.
Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.
The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.
Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.
Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.
The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.
How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.
With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.
Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.
Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.
The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.