An Alternative Strategy for Ankara in the Levant

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Under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has secured its position as a major global actor. The country benefited from robust economic growth in the early 2000s and strengthened its ties with the region, the European Union, Africa, and the United States. Turkey rose to prominence with its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, but it has strayed from this policy as its leadership became increasingly emboldened and the region became engulfed in conflict. Since 2002, when the AKP came to power in the general elections, Turkey has immersed itself as a prominent regional power and as a crucial member of NATO. This increased power and critical role in international politics has empowered the country and its leaders, namely current President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, to take more aggressive action in the region. The wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as the wave of instability that cripples Turkey’s neighbors, have introduced new stresses to the country and given rise to new challenges.

To continue its global rise, Turkey must reorient itself as a regional power that is willing to combat Islamic extremism and pursue peace with its Kurdish population. All support for ISIL, whether direct or indirect, must stop. The government must refocus its air assaults, the majority of which have focused on Syrian Kurdish forces, to ISIL targets. Alleged support for ISIL ranges from turning a blind eye to recruitment and radicalization within its borders to foreign terrorist fighters using Turkey as a gateway to Syria. In addition to the support of moderate forces that oppose Bashar al-Assad, the Government of Turkey should pursue a political solution to Erdoǧan’s adamant position that Assad must go. If Turkey fails to fully support the mission of its NATO allies to combat ISIL in Syria and to de-escalate the conflict with its Kurdish population, the country will suffer from increased instability, decline in its regional and global standing as a major power, and reverse many of the reforms and policies that have enabled the country to politically and economically flourish.

Turkish policy toward Syria has drastically evolved since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. After a brief period of neutrality, Turkey has since called for Assad to step down, and eventually began direct support of opposition forces. One of the opposition groups to the Assad government that emerged in the conflict are Syrian Kurdish forces, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has seized territory along the Syrian-Turkish border, which raised concerns in Ankara that the Syrian war has vitalized the cause for an independent Kurdish state.

Violence between the government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant organization in Turkey that is considered a terrorist organization by the government, has caused between 30,000 and 40,000 casualties in the past three decades.[1] Concern over a more influential and geographically significant Kurdish population has impelled the government to support organizations at odds with the YPG and the PKK. According to Gultan Kisanak, the mayor of Diyarbakir, a city in southeastern Turkey, “‘ISIS became a such a large force thanks to an open-door policy from Ankara…Militants come and go. ISIS has been delegated to fight a proxy war against Kurdish Rojava, and all kinds of support has been given to them.’”[2] Turkey’s initial tacit support of ISIL sought to, “enable the Syrian opposition to defeat Assad and the Syrian Kurds.”[3] This neglect has a price. Turkey has been victim to six domestic terrorist attacks since March 20, 2014, the deadliest of which killed over 100 people on October 10th, 2015 in Turkey’s capital city, Ankara. A similar suicide bombing killed 33 Kurdish activists in July 2015. As Roger Cohen stated in his New York Times piece, “…Erdoǧan, bolstered by the electoral triumph of his conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party…has shown a troubling penchant for benign neglect toward the jihadi Islamists – enough for them to establish a Turkish network.”[4]

The Turkish government veils its inaction to combat ISIL as a member of multiple bodies that lead the fight against the terrorist organization. Turkey is co-chair of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF), has conducted a number of airstrikes against ISIL, and allows the United States to conduct air operations from its bases. However, it appears Turkey is more intent on targeting Kurdish forces in Syria than ISIL targets. In the view of the AKP government and its supporters, ISIL and the PKK are similar evils – “‘Both organizations are being used by external powers to destabilize Turkey.’”[5] The greater threat to Turkey’s stability and security, however, is ISIL. Therefore, all support to ISIL must cease, it should escalate its operations against ISIL, and secure its 500-mile border with Syria to prevent foreign terrorists fighters and smuggled goods from passing through and entering the country.

Policies are needed to prevent further attacks within Turkey, to diffuse internal tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish population, and to refocus its policies to those of inclusivity and good governance. Erdoǧan’s efforts to swell Turkish nationalism at the expense of the Kurds to secure AKP majority in the national election is no longer necessary. Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and secure long-term peace between the government and the PKK will not prevail until Erdoǧan returns to his prior willingness to enter peace talks. Furthermore, Turkey should take steps to pursue its position that Assad must step down through diplomatic and political means and through the support of moderate opposition forces. Efforts towards a political solution will improve Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies and increase ties with its regional partners.

Turkey’s stance that President Assad must step down is a popular one, and its concern for YPG forces on its border are legitimate. However, Turkey must implement forward-looking policies that will enable the country to prosper and increase its standing as a major regional power in the long-term. The defeat of ISIL is paramount to such goals, as is the resumption of peace talks with the PKK. Turkey’s continued reluctance to defeat ISIL will only ensure the country will fall victim to attacks similar to those it has already faced this year. Additionally, to achieve its aim of removing Assad from power in Syria, the utilization of diplomatic tools to resolve this crisis will provide Turkey with a prominent role in the Syrian peace process and reconstruction, and strengthen the country’s legitimacy with the international community.

 

Citations:

[1] Albayrak, Ayla. “Turkey’s PKK Conflict Takes Toll on Kurdish City.”

[2] Cohen, Roger. “Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game.”

[3] Gunter, Michael M. “Iraq, Syria, Isis and the Kurds: Geostrategic Concerns for the US and Turkey,” 103.

[4] Cohen, Roger. “Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game.”

[5] Cohen, Roger. “Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game.”

Works Referenced:

  1.     Albayrak, Ayla. “Turkey’s PKK Conflict Takes Toll on Kurdish City.” Wall Street Journal, 13 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
  2.     Cagaptay, Soner. “Turkey Is in Serious Trouble.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 05 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
  3.     Cohen, Roger. “Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
  4.     Gunter, Michael M. “Iraq, Syria, Isis and the Kurds: Geostrategic Concerns for the US and Turkey.” Middle East Policy 22.1 (2015): 102-111.

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