Category Archives: Turkey

Updates from Iraq and Syria: Turkey Stepping Up Involvement Abroad

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

After the May ISIS siege on Ramadi that captured the regional capital of Iraq’s largest province,  US defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within the Iraqi military for the significant loss. Among the soldiers who retreated from Ramadi, there was significant frustration and disillusionment with the Iraqi military leadership which prompted questions of whether the city was sold out to ISIS. Since the fall of Ramadi, more local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight, the latter in dramatically increased numbers.

Turkey3

Map of Kurdish YPG and ISIS controlled territory

More than 55,000 left Ramadi upon the ISIS takeover according to the UN Population Fund, the majority of which came to Baghdad, 75 miles to the east of the Anbar capital. In response to the loss, Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani stated, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran.” Soleimani went on to criticize the US as well as the governments of Iraq and Syria for the recent gains by ISIS.

Analysts of the conflicts have noted recent developments have significantly changed the long term options for both Iraq and Syria. Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy reiterated that the Obama administration’s goal to eradicate ISIS is unachievable because, “you cannot destroy a movement.” Ricks went on to point out the logistical and military drawbacks that have plagued the military response to ISIS and proclaimed, “If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved.” While Ricks argues containment would foster a sanctuary comparable to Bin Laden’s Afghanistan prior to 9/11, his colleague Stephen M. Walt defends containment as the best possible option when coupled with working with regional actors like Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS expands on the latter, noting “Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy.”

The largest recent development in the fight against ISIS involves the increasing role of Turkey in combating the radical jihadist group along its border. An agreement between the US in Turkey has spurred perhaps the greatest increase in Turkish involvement since the inception of the conflict. The goal of the new coordination is to create a “ISIS-free zone” within Syria on the Turkish border from which more moderate groups may operate and refugee Syrians may find safety. Turkey’s increased vigilance against ISIS comes after 32 were killed in a suicide bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey has additionally allowed US aircraft to utilize Turkish air force bases to stage strikes for the first time. Additional details are being worked out between the Turks and Americans in an ongoing strategic dialogue.

Turkey4

Turkish airbases near borders of Syria and Iraq

The dark side of the increased Turkish military activity is that it has reignited their conflict with the Kurds, as a two year cease-fire agreement is already deteriorating between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Many have questioned Turkey’s newfound motivation to combating ISIS as a cover for renewing their offensive against Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has long been accused of not taking on the ISIS threat as directly as it should, but its evolving position will show in due course the regional power’s objectives. Kurdish-led fighting units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have made stunning gains against ISIS near their headquarters in Raqqa, recapturing the critical Liwa 93 base and more recently together with Syrian government units they overtook significant areas in and around the city of Hassakeh. There are significant differences between the PKK and YPG, though it is clear more Turkish involvement will make Kurds across both countries a little uneasy.

Thus, the balancing act the US has been playing between the Turks and Kurds in the fight against ISIS is going to become ever more complicated. US and its NATO allies, including Turkey, need to prioritize the campaign against ISIS over the Turkish feud with Kurdish militant groups. Many Kurdish units have achieved great successes against ISIS, and if Turkey is to focus too much on escalating the tensions with them then the only beneficiary would be ISIS and other extremist groups. Now more than ever, the involvement of neighboring regional actors will play a larger role in the fate of Iraq and Syria.

2 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey

Turkey’s Difficult Balancing Act

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Within the modern Middle East, there are two non-Arab regional leaders. Iran continues to play a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million, and is 99% Muslim. Turkey also plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million and is 99% Muslim. Unfortunately, the more you read about the Middle East, the more you learn that such generalized simplifications can be just as misleading as they are meant to be informative; Turkey and Iran couldn’t be further from the same.

Iran has garnered significant attention over its nuclear controversy and the succession of President Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Turkey, on the other hand, has largely been on the backburner of mainstream media coverage in comparison. At present Turkey is finding itself stuck in the middle of many issues, globally, regionally and domestically. An insight into these issues will give a better understanding of where Turkey stands and the complexities they will face as the situations develop.

Turkey’s decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the US and the rest of NATO (Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 60 years). The deal has not been signed yet and Turkey insists it is not a political move, but it’s hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself  squarely in between its traditional Western allies and a rising power in the east. The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to contradict itself and limit future options in building its own nuclear power infrastructure by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits. Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the US and NATO.

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into into Turkish territory. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, although this caused significant controversy between the ruling and opposition political parties in Ankara. Turkey has been crucial in humanitarian initiatives but has faced difficulties in controlling the border. Turkey has the right to defend its borders, but it doesn’t want to incite further violence by lending too much support to the opposition or becoming directly involved. All in all, there’s no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Internally, protests have persisted since the Gezi Park demonstrations in  late May over discontent with the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been in power since 2003. Turkey is officially secular and has no state religion, and Erdogan has found himself in the precarious position of trying to initiate reforms that have fallen far short of expectations. Erdogan and the AKP have been rightfully criticized for their repression of the freedom of assembly and controlling the media, and the concessions they have given in response have been minimal.  Protests have continued and are likely to continue so long as police repression persists. Erdogan may not be immune to negotiations, but the accusations of growing authoritarianism are hard to ignore.

The results of the Balyoz “Sledgehammer” and Ergenekon coup trials, in which top ranking military leaders were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government further highlights the internal conflict within Turkey. Modern Turkish history is rife with military coups, and the recent trials, as controversial as they have been, serves to show that such an era may be over. If Erdogan and the AKP wish to remain as the legitimate leaders of Turkey, they need to find the balance between prosecuting those who threaten to undermine the state and attacking perceived political opponents.That balance is incredibly difficult, but listening to the masses and conceding faults would be a solid starting point.

Turkey independently has own prerogatives and its own problems. The rest of the world also needs to find a balance when dealing with Turkey. A middle ground should be pursued to constructively criticize Turkey for its shortcomings and offering to work with them against regional threats. If this can be successfully achieved, Turkey may be influenced to move towards more democratic reforms and be a powerful partner in resolving conflict in the region.

1 Comment

Filed under Turkey

Why You Should Care About the Kurds (Part II of II)

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

(Part I on the background of the Kurds can be found here)

Why should anyone care about the Kurds? The Kurdish role in the Middle East could drastically change the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s bid to the European Union and the future stability of Iraq. Most importantly for Americans, the Kurds could be a significant force in the long term war against al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, the recent reforms initiated by the government to solidify the peace with the Kurds and address their grievances fell short. Despite all the other obstacles and realities in play concerning Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a revived Kurdish insurgency would spell disaster for Turkey’s PR image. For both the Kurds and Turkey, leaving the negotiating table for the battlefield is a no-win situation.

Just across the border in Syria, Kurds are not getting the attention or credit they deserve for fighting al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The Kurds are not as concerned with who’s in charge of the Syrian government as the Free Syrian Army, so they have less of an incentive to partner with Islamic extremist groups when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds will be in a much more consolidated position to gain significant regional autonomy or seek full independence. With more independent authority, the Kurds would have more of an incentive to drive away violent extremism from the region altogether.

The relationship between the government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has continually been tenuous especially concerning oil revenues. Nonetheless, Iraq deteriorating into another sectarian civil war is a scenario that neither wishes to face, and the two may be forced to collaborate against Islamic extremists for the sake of stability.

The Kurds are the only major group in the region that both fought against Saddam Hussein in 2003 and  al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War . Although at the surface they seem like the perfect US ally in the region, it’s a very complicated relationship due to American ties with the Baghdad and Ankara. However, the United States may find more incentives in working more closely with the Kurds as Kurdish relations with their host neighbors change.

The Kurds of today are making modest political gains in Turkey, consolidating territory in northern Syria, and making bold moves towards oil autonomy in Iraq. The Kurds of tomorrow could force Turkey to concede further recognition, establish legitimate autonomy or control in parts of Syria and hold more sway in the oil and political affairs of Iraq. US policymakers should seriously consider closer ties with the Kurds while constructively working with both Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurds could definitely use an ally in the US, and the US has a chance to make a new friend in an emerging Kurdistan.

5 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey

Who are the Kurds? (Part I of II)

Kurdistan1

Kurdish Flag, Kurdistan, Iraq

(Part I of II)

The Kurdish people are a distinct ethnic group primarily concentrated in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria. They have their own language, culture, and customs, and they have been persecuted to varying degrees by host countries for decades. They are frequently referred to as “the largest ethnic group without a homeland” and number around 40 million. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but there are also large portions that are Shi’a Muslim and many Kurds follow smaller sects as well.

In Turkey, Kurds account for roughly one-fifth of the population. Recent democratic reforms have allowed Kurds to teach their language in schools and Kurdish towns and villages may officially be recognized by their Kurdish rather than Turkish names for the first time. Reflective of the contentious status of Kurds in Turkey, the reforms were criticized by Turkish ultranationalists for granting too many rights to Kurds while Kurdish groups have contended that the reforms were insufficient. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist group by the US, EU, NATO, and many other countries, reached a cease-fire with the Turkish government in March of this year ending 30 years of war in which over 40,000 were killed. Tensions are still high, but there is optimism towards negotiations progressing.

The Kurds in Iraq live in three northeastern provinces which together form the autonomous Kurdistan region. Massoud Barzani is the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Jalal Talabani is currently the President of Iraq. The KRG has had disputes with Baghdad over their sovereignty, especially in regards to oil development and exportation. Nonetheless, the Kurdistan region in Iraq is one of the safest in the country and its citizens enjoy higher standards of living and better infrastructure than the average Iraqi.

Within Syria, Kurdish militias fighting under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have consolidated territory in hopes of creating an autonomous area within the new country or a separate and independent country altogether. Kurds account for about 10% of Syria’s population. The KRG’s Barzani in Iraq has threatened to intervene in the Syrian Civil War in order to defend Syrian Kurds if necessary. The role of the Kurds in the Syrian Civil War is closely tied to the future of Kurds in the region in general.

(Part II analyzes the future of Kurds in the region and may be found here)

12 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey