Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Damned If You Do. Damned If You Don't.

Turkey is beginning to learn the very high cost of fighting wars by proxy. Unfortunately they never learned the lessons of the Americans or the Pakistanis who armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Russians 30 years ago. Both the United States and Pakistan soon learned at a very great cost that those heavily armed and well trained fighters had their own agenda – one that was viciously opposed to their former benefactors.

            After funnelling arms and money to radical Sunni groups in Syria opposed to the regime of Bashar al Assad Turkey now finds that those one-time allies are threatening to bite the hand that fed them. Welcome to the Middle East where alliances and loyalty are fluid at the best of times. What is interesting is that many of the same people in the United States who fervently supported arming the mujahedeen against the Russians in the 1980s now want President Obama to fall into the same trap in Syria. Good thinking, guys.

Exactly why Turkey is so vehemently opposed to its former best friend Assad is a matter of some speculation. President Tayyip Erdoğan would have us believe he is shocked, shocked at the violence and brutality that Assad has used against his own people. Others, less charitable, say he only wants to establish a strong Sunni belt on Turkey’s southern border to counter what he sees as the Shiite threat from Iraq and possibly Iran.

Whatever his reasons, this policy has left Turkey with extremely difficult choices, each of which has unpredictable and dangerous outcomes. Right now a heavily armed (thanks in part to Turkey) group of medieval jihadis (ISIS) has swept through large parts of Syria and Iraq. They have besieged a fairly large town right next to the Turkish border. If they take that town they will be right up against Turkey itself. What to do? From Turkey’s point of view it would appear to be the lesser of two evils.

The town in question, Kobani, is largely populated by Kurds who have pretty much established an autonomous region within Syria. Turkey doesn’t like that. It might give Turkey’s own large Kurdish population similar ideas.

On the other hand, Turkey has suddenly woken up to the dangers posed by ISIS. “Hey, these guys may be out of control and may not be our friends.” The Turkish parliament passed a motion allowing Turkish participation in the hastily formed anti-ISIS coalition. So far that participation has been limited to loud denunciations of terror and strident calls for more action -- by someone else -- against ISIS. But what action, and by whom are not clear. What is clear is Turkey’s ambivalence about the entire anti-ISIS project.

So far the Turkish army has provided great photo opportunities of its tanks lined up aggressively on the border across from Kobani. And there they sit. Turkey does not even allow coalition airplanes to use nearby bases in Turkey in order to provide more effective air power against ISIS.
Turkish tanks on Syrian border
Coalition commanders are frustrated and the Kurds are furious. Turkish leaders piously justify their do-nothing response by claiming that taking out ISIS without first taking out Assad would be pointless. The Turks also say they want a no-fly zone. Why, precisely? ISIS has no air force. But, for the Turks, the target is Assad, not ISIS. Therefore they will do nothing unless the coalition, i.e. the Americans, commit to regime change in Damascus. The Turks are silent on who or what might fill the power vacuum in Syria once Assad goes. Having, hopefully, learned the folly of regime change the Americans are in no mood to topple Assad, no matter how brutally he might treat his own people.

The Kurds are adamant that the Turkish lack of action is merely a pretext for eliminating the Kurdish population. If ISIS wipes out the Kurds, according to this logic, then that particular threat to Turkey is gone.

To be fair to the Turks, however, any action, or lack thereof, carries grave risks. Don’t attack ISIS and you risk inflaming your own large Kurdish population and ending whatever chance there was for reconciliation. Kurds in several of the country’s larger cities have already hit the streets in violent protests against Turkey’s lack of support. The cease-fire with the Kurdish militant group could end any day and plunge the country back into a brutal conflict that has cost about 40,000 lives over the past two decades. Soldiers are now patrolling the streets of major cities in an effort to stop the protests.

Kurdish protest in Turkey. A return to the bad old days?

Moving aggressively against ISIS, however, risks alienating a large part of the Turkish population that wants nothing to do with a war among Arabs that they believe was created by the Americans in the first place. “Let them stew in their own juice” seems to be the most popular attitude in Turkey. The government would also risk alienating that portion of the Turkish population that thinks ISIS is not such a bad thing.

The other serious risk of attacking ISIS is creating blow-back inside Turkey. I doubt that ISIS would challenge the might of the Turkish army directly. But it doesn’t have to. It could easily create problems using the 1.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey. ISIS could also ignite serious violence using its supporters already in Turkey’s sprawling major cities. A recent story in The New York Times about Pakistan’slessons for Turkey highlighted the problems the country could face with people it once thought were its allies.

"He (Erdoğan) is a fool," a Turkish friend fumed. "He wanted to be a big deal in the Middle East, the champion of the Sunnis, the new Caliph. All he did was to bring the problems of the Middle East inside Turkey."

The Turkish government is in a very uncomfortable place at the moment, condemned both for doing too little and possibly too much against ISIS. Sooner or later it will have to make a choice. And then the question is whether the Turkish leadership is wise enough to handle the consequences of whatever choice it makes.

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