Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

Opinion

Turkey's dangerous gambit

  • "While Turkey appears to have won the battle within Nato, it actually finds itself in a bind that is largely of its own making" (Photo: svenwerk)

The statement issued by the North Atlantic Council on Tuesday (28 July) said little but was still unable to hide the disunity within Nato.

Worse, it exposed Europe’s inability to be heard. Even more dangerously, by not mentioning the PKK or the military operations undertaken by Ankara at all, let alone condemn them, it showed that Turkey’s gamble to thrust itself into the turmoil across its southern border might be paying off—for now.

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Initially, Turkey’s decision to go to war against ISIS was heralded as a game-changer, until it became clear that the real targets were the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militias. The recent advances by the YPG appear to have unnerved the Turkish government to such an extent that it deemed military action to push back these Kurdish militias a necessity. The attack on 32 Turkish, mostly Kurdish, citizens followed by smaller attacks against Turkish police and military personnel by Kurdish fighters provided the trigger.

However, military action undertaken by a Nato member protected by fellow Allies against a target other than ISIS was clearly no option. Hence Turkey's choice for a two-pronged operation that targets both ISIS and Kurdish forces, even if in terms of the dynamics of the conflict south of the border this makes little sense.

Given that the Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria have been among the few credible forces that the US and its allies have been able to count on in the fight against ISIS, some Nato members including Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK have urged Turkey to show restraint against the Kurds. But footing a mere 25 percent to the Alliance's collective bill means Europe's voice at the table is rather weak.

As a result, it was the horse-trading between Washington and Ankara that saw Turkey get Nato's blessing to go ahead as planned.

Party-political interests trump

It is unclear what prompted Ankara’s volte-face vis-à-vis the Kurds, or rather, what prompted President Erdogan and his AK Party to change course.

In fact, with Turkey’s once-hailed policy of ‘zero problems’ now more distant than ever, it could be expected that Turkey would seek to purchase stability by investing in good relations with its neighbours and allies.

Yet today, Turkey’s relations with Russia, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Israel, Europe and Saudi-Arabia are all strained in one way or another, leaving the US as arguably the country’s most reliable ally.

However, Tuesday's standoff in the North Atlantic Council put pressure on that relationship. Granting the US access to military bases in south-eastern Turkey and agreeing to help the anti-ISIS coalition to create a buffer zone in northern Syria proved sufficient to assuage the US’ discontent.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, things have changed for Erdogan's party. Following the June election, the AK has been forced to find a coalition partner in order to form a government. It is the first time in 12 years the party is unable to rule alone. The biggest winner in these elections was the pro-Kurdish HDP party.

If a government is not formed by mid-August, the president can call snap elections. This could lead to people

- believing they are facing a twin threat of PKK and ISIS-induced attacks - voting overwhelmingly for AK.

A strategy of alienation

But if this is indeed the strategy, it will be fraught with danger.

For not only does the AK government then effectively give up on reconciliation with the Kurds, it also risks creating a strategic rift with the US, which is loath to abandon the Kurds (once more), and which has little appetite for discord within Nato as the Alliance still faces the threat from Russia.

Moreover, by taking on two adversaries abroad simultaneously, the government risks inviting potential terrorist attacks or worse on its home soil. Finally, it is not certain that voters will return an AK government should elections be called. The previous elections show that support for AK is diminishing, and it is unclear whether Turkish citizens are prepared to vote for a new constitution that would enhance presidential powers.

The tragedy here is that Turkey has all the potential to become a key regional player for the good. It can play a constructive role by being a reliable energy transit country. It can benefit from the gradual opening up of Iran as trade and fossil fuels from that country start flowing through Turkey. And constructive relations with the Kurds could help expand Turkey’s influence in Syria and northern Iraq—and if not today, then tomorrow.

The EU in particular would welcome Turkey becoming a force for stability. Now, however, while Turkey appears to have won the battle within Nato, it actually finds itself in a bind that is largely of its own making, alienating friends in the process.

At a time of persistent if not increasing regional turmoil, Turkey can ill afford such a strategy.

Dr. Willem Oosterveld and Dr. Sijbren de Jong are Strategic Analysts at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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