Small Wars Journal

Turkey’s Triangular Quagmire: A Chronological Analysis

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 12:26am

Turkey’s Triangular Quagmire: A Chronological Analysis


Allyson Christy


The following assessment emphasises diplomatic posturing and dubious foreign policies that have overlapped with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s incremental authoritarianism. The analysis begins with a review of earlier contexts.


Turkey, Kurds, Islamists


Early in 2015 the United States-led coalition explicit to attacking Daesh elements in Syria continued, and yet Turkey only eventually contributed efforts for assisting targeting objectives. Counterinsurgency initiatives had not met with clear-cut and consistent support from Ankara. Having denied the United States use of the airbase at Incirlik for launching airstrikes against Daesh, also underscored troubling irresolution. Incirlik, representing 60-plus years of diplomatic and military association, inclusive to auspicious links and agreements with NATO that were especially marked to the Cold War (Bildik 2017), now indicated significant undermining with geopolitical consequences.


Some in the global community had already begun questioning Turkey’s behaviour and commitment as both NATO ally and reliable partner for moving forward with juxtapositional battles against terrorism. Reviews of similar dynamics would have compared misgivings relative to Turkey’s denial of regional use in 2003, which at the time had included strategic positions for the U.S. to “attack Saddam Hussein’s forces from two separate fronts” (Inbar 2015). Further analysis marked to geopolitical consequence was quickly implicating suppressive rule with worsening restrictions upon Turkish press, mounting arrests for criticising the government or elements of Islam, and irrefutable dictatorial and Islamist predilections attributed to Ankara. Rising human rights violations and constrictive bureaucratic systems had begun to suggest serious “distancing from the West and indications of adopting domestic and foreign policies fuelled by Ottoman and Islamist impulses” (Inbar 2015). Correlating the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 and explicitly highlighted to Erdoğan’s elevated status to prime minister, later as president and with surprising longevity of power, may denote as yet, unpredicted socio-political settings.


Populist overtones having synchronised with elements of neoliberalism had largely connected earlier popularity and success of the AKP with preceding instabilities, both in Turkey’s political and economic domains¾explicit to problematic 1990s influencing the party’s elevation (Özdemir 2015). Consistent with mitigating partisan policies and stabilising unfavourable economic settings, according to academic scholar Yonca Özdemir, had partly contributed to Turkey’s short-term domestic reconciliation (2015, 26). Nonetheless, long-term implications as they are linked to rising authoritarianism may yet dissimilarly destabilise the economy. An essential consideration of “organized interests” and relevancy to maintaining democratic and economic prospects, and when weakened, highlights aggravating and widening social vulnerabilities. Consequently, the likelihood of these liabilities may further distress “inequality.... and poverty” (Özdemir 2015, 26).


Still, positive attributes that were earlier credited to Erdoğan included initiating negotiations with Kurdish resistance, which encouraged reduction of ethnic hostilities and underlying insurgence (Cockburn 2014). Ostensive ceasefire and collaboration principally with the Kurdistan Worker’s party (PKK) had also emerged as palpable negotiations in 2012 between imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkish officials. These dynamics parlayed into an epochal cessation of militancy, and also generated internal optimism for strengthening infrastructure that seemed likely aimed at solidifying economic and also state security—especially given the endemic regional upheaval. For it is poverty and also the lack of lucrative infrastructure that have relentlessly plagued Kurdish regions onerously tied to Turkey’s rugged, remote, and contiguous east and southeast provinces. Such detriment has similarly intensified causal links to unemployment, resentment, Kurdish nationalism sentiments, and PKK recruitment (Sollenberger 2016).


Recalling the September 2014 offensive in which Daesh conducted a brutal incursion against the northern Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani (Cockburn 2014), underscored not only rifts within regional ethnic conflicts, but placed increased emphasis on Kurdish sovereignty. Turkey was notoriously accused of doing little to help in the effort against the crisis in Kobani—unequivocally fracturing any semblance of Kurdish conciliation. Instead, renewed anger and distrust of Ankara rapidly launched civilian protests and violence, promptly ending the 2013 cease-fire with the PKK. Tensions climaxed during summer 2015 when a bombing attack in the Turkish border town Suruç that was alleged to Daesh, killed several young Kurds en route to volunteer with rebuilding efforts in Kobani (BBC 2015).


Situated south of the Turkish border, Kobani earlier had gained a status of de facto autonomy within the demarcation position of three Kurdish subdivisions or cantons collectively known as Rojava. This status was secondary to earlier effects of the Syrian civil war¾ethnic and sectarian partitioning by the Assad regime (Bozbuga 2014). Highlighting Bar Ilan University academic and Arabic studies expert, Dr. Mordechai Kedar in a comparative assessment, the Syrian land divide was estimated between Daesh strongholds at “30%” and an independent Kurdish territory on the frontal northern border with Turkey. Significant to deep-rooted regional ethnic conflicts, Dr. Kedar ‘s assertions that “Kurds feel a strong connection to their Iraqi brothers and have no intentions of being under Arab dominion again” (Kedar 2015), may expound upon the analogous views rendered to the Rehova cantons and more importantly, autonomy.


Turkey’s guise of diplomatic rapport relative to the coalition against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria compounded when the U.S. seemed to slightly overturn sensitive policies in relation to Syrian Kurds. The implications initially involved secondary aid and partially conferring with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) through its military units, aligned in large part with vetted opposition forces (2017, 4-7, 9). Exemplifying key fighters within the civil Syrian quandary, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, previously had commanded an impressive force against the thenceforth-gaining Daesh insurgence. Commencing on 19 October 2014, American forces airdropped arms, munitions, and supplies to Kurdish fighters to stay Daesh advances into Kobani, mindful of the potential for diplomatic detriment at offending Turkey relative to Ankara’s Kurdish sensitivities (Cockburn 2014).


U.S. forces thereby did not commence a full-scale assault against the terrorist group—instead dropping only provisions. Erdoğan seemed to dismiss the impending turmoil, quickly forecasting a quickened defeat upon the Kurdish town. Fighters from the Iraqi Peshmerga were eventually permitted passage through to Kobani from northern Iraq via Turkey, but only at American pressure to do so. Before October’s end, effective air campaigns in fact, had continued against Daesh positions and were largely based on tactical and targeting information provided by Kurdish fighters (Cockburn 2014).


Still, the assumed ties between YPD and PKK further rocked Turkish resolve with its NATO allies, inclusive to straining Turkey’s relationship with Washington. Accusing PKK incursions to inciting Kurdish nationalism within its borders, Turkey also asserted similar incitements against offshoot Kurdish factions as a backlash of contentions against the PKKs implicit dominance. Heated political exchanges had also begun contrarily linking the AKP’s loss of parliamentary majority following the June 2015 elections, with intentionally stirring discord against legitimate political opposition—inclusively against the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Demirtas 2015). However, reintroducing politicking and peace talks with the PKK had synchronised well with Turkey’s 2014 presidential polls. An election orientation alleged to fostering a Kurdish peace process, and which highlighted the aftermath of more than 30 years involving violent and deadly skirmishes with the PKK, indubitably contributed to Erdoğan’s successful presidential bid. According to Karmon, the politicised alignment had been methodically designed to garner Kurdish votes (2014).


Turkey’s notion that the YPD is nothing more than a front organisation for the PKK highlighted tensions and a discernible reluctance at joining anti-Daesh coalition efforts. Further, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), initially a coalition of Arab insurgents and principally backed by reinforcements from the YPD and military support from the U.S., increasingly provoked Turkish displeasure. Obvious aversion rested largely upon what Ankara saw as a transitional domestic threat that might not only bolster Kurdish nationalism, but also more strongly advocate independence and autonomy directly at its southern border. Indeed, the 2016 Turkish-driven Operation Euphrates Shield sought to counteract this manifestation with selected military intervention into Syria—purposed at marginalising the SDF with probable expectations that Turkish troops would then supersede allied initiatives with collaboration. Tactical exertions therefore emerged motivated to reducing American dependence upon Kurdish troops (Çandar 2017).


Kurdish autonomy was also stirring international interest with some favourable opinions in addition to the PKK having gained some bit of reputed global consideration (Winter 2014). Conversely, the Syrian-Kurdish relationship with the United States was nonetheless fragile and strained, due in part to allied and NATO connections with Turkey and the PKK’s significant designation link to terrorism. Yet according to Middle East analyst Chase Winter, the Kurds, in general, are notoriously pro-Western, and any peripheral recognition or acknowledgment remotely aligned with the PKK compelled “a difficult balancing act” with respect to the U.S. gaining Turkey’s participation in the anti-Daesh coalition effort (2014).


Diplomatic impediments may have also stressed contentions with the Assad regime. Turkey had initially encouraged political reform in opposition to the Assad regime’s “use of force to quell growing street protests,” further hoping to promote revocation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s (SMB) decades-long ban (Stein, 2014). However, de facto autonomous zones allegedly in exchange for PYD neutrality in Syria’s escalating civil war may have ultimately pushed Erdoğan’s angst. Assad’s military forces henceforth had withdrawn from the strategic north-eastern Kurdish enclave much to Turkish chagrin (Karmon 2014). Border contentions with Syria hovered not only around the ostensible autonomy, but potential for spill over into Turkey similarly intensified anxieties. Underlying risk indicators were likely perceived as not only potent, but juxtapositional against Ankara’s domestic vulnerabilities. Increasingly, the predictable “influx of Syrian refugees” had become in 2011, a growing crisis (Stein 2014).


Turkey’s efforts to influence and marginalise what it sees as threats within its own borders have nonetheless failed. The immediate threefold challenge has involved keeping radical extremists at bay, tempering Kurdish conflicts, and seeing to the downfall of the Assad regime that would, in Turkey’s view, downgrade Kurdish autonomy at an extensive border with Syria. Rising authoritarianism has also suppressed criticism and political opposition inclusive to escalated militancy with Kurdish nationalists. Early into the Syrian conflict, Turkey having disengaged diplomatic ties with the Assad regime also began collaborating with Qatar in generating a sustainable opposition through the ranks of army defections, and notably for mobilising the Free Syrian Army (FSA).


Integrating the long-exiled SMB with plans for absorbing defecting Syrian Army officers, also likely inferred prospects for reinforcing Sunni resistance and weakening plausibility for ethnic and factional convergence. Turkey’s early strategy included establishing a buffer zone along the borders with Syria as a holding area to encourage oppositional forces¾the FSA and setting an anticipated backdrop for transitioning power beyond the Assad regime (Stein 2014). Yet it was already assumed in recent years that exiled Brotherhood elements had marshalled some influential ties by primarily yielding to anti-regime activism and refugee populations. The group still generally lacked a significant internal foothold. The escalations of Salafist factions were demonstrating substantial challenges, especially given the SMB’s alleged lack of influencing disenfranchised youth, and perhaps due in part to the group’s subsequent and reformist detachment from extremism (Lund 2013).


Rendering an approach with distinct Islamist implications, Turkey may have foreseen both for itself and conflict-wide, a strengthened Sunni-led opposition notwithstanding ethnic and sectarian diversities. Perhaps too, these dynamics integrated allusions for Ottoman resurgence, whereby solidifying a Sunni force within the Muslim world might be seen by Turkey as ultimately securing long-term influential and regional purposes. Remarkably, author and scholar Yvette Talhamy indicates that the SMB today embodies a political platform of “Islamist moderation and tolerance…forged alliances with secular dissident groups…”(2012). Additionally, much of the Sunni Arab world’s aversion towards Ankara’s identification with the Muslim Brotherhood and its at-large elements, especially under AKP leadership, has created contentious rhetoric and diplomatic hurdles. Considering Turkey’s relationship with Qatar also highlights Sunni Arab state contentions relative to Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, Islamists, and dealings with Iran (BBC 2017).


Does Turkey really have clear strategies? Triangulation may underscore Ankara’s strategy for bolstering Sunni enfranchisement in line with hegemonic designs. Having exploited Kurdish fragmentations through to securing ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) not only stressed ethnic contentions, but had also elevated prospects for creating a buffer against Iranian influence in Iraq. Yet the independence referendum passed in September last year (2017) provoked contentions between the KRG and Turkey, diminishing diplomatic fervour and sending Ankara to immediately reinforce support with Baghdad. These dynamics enforced a guise of shared security interests with Iran, and were partly stimulated by resorting to the standard Israel blame of the situation (Uyanik 2017). Using the unifying target-scapegoating approach against Jerusalem’s response in supporting the referendum, integrated with Turkey’s manipulation and seeking collaboration against Kurdish sovereignty.


Diplomatic rifts further expose regional vulnerabilities, generating openings for lingering extremism, plausible inroads to Daesh and Al-Qaeda affiliates, and broadening proxy strongholds. The latter is principally juxtaposed to Iranian access for firmly embedded status in the Levant—a measure of hegemonic quests inclusive to securing strategic strongholds through to the Mediterranean (Yaari 2017). To the same matter, trifold diplomatic rifts may extend hegemonic ambition imbalances as Turkey continues a similar proxy conflict against Kurdish territories in Syria’s north with its Operation Olive Branch, a military extension into the Afrin canton. Proxy aggression is clearly delineated upon ethnic and sectarian lines, leaving to wonder Russia’s irregular position in both supporting the Assad regime alongside Iran, recent Iranian escalations with Israel via Syria, and the quagmire of rising Shia vs. Sunni aggressions. Meanwhile, geopolitical consequences will likely continue plaguing vulnerable population displacement and humanitarian crises, replicating sequences of refugees, migration movements, illicit trafficking, and bolstering extremism and factional insurgent movements.




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About the Author(s)

Allyson Christy holds an MA in Intelligence and Terrorism Studies from American Military University, in addition to an Executive Certificate in Counter-Terrorism from the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel. Follow @allysonchristy