Syria: Turkish Ambivalence

Amid the many and ever-evolving shifts of policies and geopolitical alliances in the various countries of the Middle East, one used to be at least sure what are the prime objectives of the major actors, both in the region and in the outside world.

This is not true of Syria today. Syrian politics today are formed by a triad: supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime; supporters of the caliphate that calls itself the Islamic State (IS); and so-called moderate Islamic groups that claim to be fighting both of the other two groups. Triadic struggles are notoriously difficult both to analyze and to predict because triads have an almost fatal way of reducing themselves in the relatively short run to a clearer two-sided struggle. However, in this case many of the main actors in the region and beyond are highly ambivalent about what it is they want. Many of them prefer to maintain the triad if they can, and are afraid of being forced to choose to which dyad they give priority. This ambivalence is particularly true of Turkey, although also of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Turkey shares a large border with Syria. It has been governed for some time now by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), an Islamic party that seeks to project itself as oriented to Islamic values and practices but nonetheless tolerant of other perspectives and commitments. It started its rule with an announced foreign policy of maintaining its links with the western world as a member of NATO and a country seeking to join the European Union while at the same time attempting to restore Turkey’s role as a major power in the Middle East, one that would maintain good relations with all other Middle Eastern countries.

When the civil war began in Syria, Turkey offered its services as a mediator. In the process, at some point, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had lied to him. Deeply affronted, he turned from being a mediator to being a leading proponent of a change in Syrian regime.

Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority to which the successive governments have always denied recognition, devolution, and linguistic rights. Ever since the establishment of a Turkish republic over ninety years ago, Turkish governments have reacted to Kurdish demands with total suppression, some even denying that there was such a group as the Kurds. Some thirty years ago, a Kurdish militant Marxist-Leninist movement, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), sought to achieve Kurdish objectives with armed revolt. The leader of this movement, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A few years ago, the present Turkish regime changed course and surprised the world by entering into negotiations with the PKK to see if a compromise could be realized. For its part, the PKK indicated that they no longer were a Marxist-Leninist movement and were ready to contemplate devolution as an objective instead of independence for the Kurdish region. These discussions have been difficult but ongoing and seemingly promising.

The Syrian civil war upended the internal situation in Turkey. The caliphate forces (so-called IS) expanded considerably in northern Syria and have been seeking to control the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. This is actually a region peopled largely by Syrian Kurds. Their main movement, the PYD (Party of Unity and Democracy) has been the principal target of IS attack as well as the principal force in the zone that is resisting the advance of the IS. The IS is presently attacking Kobani, the de facto capital of the Syrian Kurdish region.

The movement of Syrian Kurds is also in close relation with Turkey’s Kurdish movement, the PKK. When the United States announced its policy of creating a “coalition” of forces to fight the IS forces and using its airplanes to try to stem their advance, Turkey found itself immediately under considerable US pressure to join the struggle. In particular, the Kurds on both sides of the border, and the United States, have called for Turkey’s opening its borders in both directions: to permit Syrian Kurds who are under threat in Kobani and elsewhere from the IS forces to enter Turkey for safe haven and to allow Turkish Kurds to enter Syria to assist militarily the Syrian Kurds.

Turkey has been most reluctant to accede to any of these requests. President Erdogan declared that, from Turkey’s point of view, both the IS and the Turkish Kurdish movement, the PKK, are equally terrorist movements, and Turkey saw no reason to open its frontier in this way. This is a strange position to take since the Turkish government has been negotiating for some time with the PKK despite the fact that they label it as a terrorist movement. The Kurdish movements, the PKK and the DYP, cannot in any sense be equated with the IS which is pursuing a very aggressive military campaign against all and sundry.

So what is Turkey saying to the world? The government has argued that fighting the IS will strengthen Bashar al-Assad. This is probably true. But therein lies Turkey’s choice and its ambivalence. The Turkish government is demanding a promise from the United States that it will not be diverted from pursuing a struggle against the al-Assad regime, and in particular that it establish now a no-fly zone on the frontier. The United States argues this is impossible to do without troops on the ground, which they will not send.

And here is the choice: which dyad? If one gives priority to the struggle against the IS, it does reduce the support given to the ever smaller so-called moderate Islamists in Syria. If one gives priority to fighting al-Assad, it does strengthen the IS and will undoubtedly lead to a widespread massacre of Syrian Kurds by the IS, as the United Nations Syria envoy has just warned.

The other Turkish ambivalence concerns their negotiations with the PKK. If Turkey turns its back on the dilemmas of the Syrian Kurds, it will probably lead to a rupture in the negotiations with the PKK in Turkey. They have been so warned publicly by the PKK. But if the Turkish government turns more actively against the IS, the result could be that the PKK would have a stronger position in the continuing negotiations.

In addition, Turkey has been trying to improve its relations with Iran. The two countries share strong common interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even support the same forces in Palestine. But not fighting actively against the IS will interfere with this attempt to increase ties. On the other hand, active opposition to the IS will interfere with Turkey’s attempt to present itself as a champion of Sunni Islamists.

One way or the other, Turkey will have to come to a more coherent policy in the very near future. Otherwise, its claim to be a major actor in the region will fall flat. And its internal struggle with the Kurds will probably explode into violence again. Ambivalence is not admired in a zone of such hot struggles.

Afghanistan – Unending Outside Interventions

When does this story begin? It is difficult to decide. The modern story began in the nineteenth century, when the British and the Russians fought the “great game” competing to influence and control Afghanistan. They struggled directly and via Afghan proxies. The British thought they did better, but it was largely an illusion. I would call the contest a draw.

In the 1960s, the game was resumed with the coming to power of a ruler who sought to institute a new “liberal” constitution. He failed but opened the way for the emergence of parties of the left and right. His successor, Mohamed Daoud, was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), actually a Communist party. The PDPA established a totally secular regime, with full equality for women. The great game had resumed. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA regime and the United States (successor to Great Britain), supported the mujahidin who struggled against it and in favor of an Islamist regime.

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The United States Heading for a Crash

President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.

The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.

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Merkel and Putin: Ukrainian Diplomacy

Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014

There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.

They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.

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The Caliphate vs. Everyone Else

Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014

In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.

This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.

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Hamas vs. Israel: Winning the Diplomatic Game

Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014

There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.

The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.

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Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach

Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.

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The Two Competing Middle-Run Scenarios for Iraq

Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014

The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.

The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.

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