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Why Turkey Will Not Help Kobani

From Gizmag

"Tragedy." This is how U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the Islamic State's takeover of Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. One wonders whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agrees.

Kobani is not a particularly important city; Kerry said its submission would not alter Washington's counterterrorism campaign going forward. But the battle for Kobani is politically relevant to Turkey, which has been forced to navigate several issues, including Kurdish militancy, its regional ambitions and the extent to which the United States will re-engage with the Middle East militarily. Perhaps most important, Ankara has been forced to confront its relationship with the Islamic State.

In fact, that relationship is complex and, to some, troubling. Turkey does not sponsor the Islamic State, nor does Erdogan actively collude with the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But Turkey has done little to prevent the group from wresting control of Kobani, and its abstention from the conflict has raised concerns among its neighbors and the United States. In fact, Turkey has not participated in the campaign against the Islamic State at all even though the militant group holds positions precariously close to its southern flank. Instead, it has elected to secure its border. With the most powerful conventional fighting force in the region, Ankara knows it will not succumb to the group's advances as Iraq did. With that in mind, Erdogan and his associates are looking at the bigger picture -- a view that conflicts with Washington's plans for the Levant.
Turkey's Dream for the Region
Geography helped form that view. Caught between the Middle East, Europe, Russia and the West, Turkey is not quite European, and like Iran, it is not Arab. But it is still powerful enough to be regional leader, in contrast to the dream of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish state who brought about a temporary reprieve in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkic ambition.

Erdogan sees greatness in Turkey's future, but his path to get there differs from Ataturk's in several ways. Unable to expand into Europe and blocked by Russia from conquering the Caucuses, Erdogan sees Turkey's future leadership role defined not by Western notions of modernity but by Turkey's identity as a Sunni Islamic state. Like al-Baghdadi, Erdogan wants a broader sphere of influence demarcated not by language or ethnicity but by a broader Islamic identity, albeit a much tamer one than what the Islamic State has forced upon its subjects.

Erdogan's vision explains why Ankara is so hesitant to fight the Islamic State, especially when abstaining from the fight actually benefits the country. Beyond its southern border, Turkey sees a broad arc of Iranian influence from Lebanon to Iraq, the many years of regional conflict notwithstanding. For that reason, Turkey has insisted that any action it takes against the Islamic State in Syria must also include the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Ankara's demands for a buffer zone in northern Syria delineated and defended by the international community would be the first step in such an initiative.

But Turkey's demands include more than merely the ouster of al Assad: Erdogan and others want to shape Syria's future, removing the autocratic Alawite regime and replacing it with a democratic Islamist government more akin to the one currently in power in Turkey. Iran was able to use its influence in the al Assad regime to link its Shiite proxies in southern Lebanon with those in Iraq. Similarly, Turkey would like to create a place in Syria in which moderate Sunni Islamists, especially those beholden to Ankara, could thrive. With a Sunni Arab Islamist partner in the heart of the Levant, Turkey would be able to extend its influence in the region more easily and push back against Saudi-backed Salafists and Iranian-backed Shia.
The Short-Term Benefits of the Islamic State
And so while a militant Islamist group such as the Islamic State does not exactly fit into Turkey's long-term regional ambitions, it does have some short-term uses. The group's members strongly oppose the al Assad regime and in recent weeks have fought against Syria's Kurds, who want their own country made from the Syrian territory on which Turkey has so many designs.

Indeed, Kurdish separatism is something Ankara cannot abide. Syrian Kurds have a healthy relationship with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has fought Ankara for decades. That relationship discouraged Turkey from helping Kobani more than it did. Notably, Turkey has also blocked its own Kurdish populations and has used its relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan to halt the flow of would-be supporters to join the battle for Kobani.

Turkey's strategy is not without risk. The country has strained its relationship with the United States, emboldened domestic critics of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and enabled Iran and others in the region to criticize the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. It has also risked ending a yearlong truce between Turkey and Kurdish militants. But the Kurds will not defeat Turkey, and Ankara apparently is not that scared of the Islamic State. Unless the Islamic State directly threatens Turkish territory or interests -- an unlikely prospect -- or upsets the current regional balance of power, Turkey will moderate its involvement in the campaign until it can be sure of Syria's future. In the meantime, Kobani and other cities are likely to continue to suffer.


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