October 9, 2017

Is anyone else growing weary of Turkey's Erdoğan?

The increasing tensions between the United States and Turkey - both nominally NATO allies - reached a new level with both sides suspending consular services in their respective countries (see image for the circulars).

The current state of relations between Ankara and Washington is not hard to fathom, despite the NATO veneer. Turkey has always been an outsider in NATO circles, most likely because of its majority-Muslim population and its geographic position - 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, and 95 percent of the country is on the Asian continent.

However, it is that geographic position that was, and remains, important to NATO - the country bordered on what was the Soviet Union. Today, its geographic position gives U.S.-led coalition pilots flying from Turkish air bases easy access to the airspace of Iraq and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On the surface, it sounds like Turkey and the United States should be close allies, participating in a combined operation against a common enemy. Normally, that would be the case, except for one factor - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since coming to power in 2014, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been instrumental in increasing the influence of Islam in what was was touted by political scientists as the model of a Muslim-majority democracy. Simple changes, such as allowing women to wear the hijab (head scarf) while working in government offices, were the start. When Erdoğan's wife began wearing the hijab full time, many Turkish women believed the AKP party, of which Erdoğan is a co-founder, was moving towards increased Islamism in the country.

The AKP identifies itself as favoring moderate Islamism (I am not sure there is such a thing), pro-West and pro-American. That may have been the initial position and intentions, but given Erdoğan's actions over the last two years, it is hardly the case. The party, and Erdoğan himself, have made alarming overtures to Russia and Iran, aligning himself with the East, not the West. It should not be surprising - it is where Erdoğan lives.

In fact, it is Russia, Iran and Turkey who are sponsoring the Syrian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The three countries believe they should be the key decision makers on the future of Syria, although for different reasons.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin wants a regime in Syria (Bashar al-Asad will do) which he can manipulate and guarantee Russian access to the Tartus naval facility on Syria's Mediterranean coast and Humaymim air base near Latakia. Putin has secured a renewable 49-year lease on both.

The Iranians also want a regime in Damascus that is friendly to Tehran. Bashar al-Asad fits the bill very well, since he is a member of the 'Alawi religious minority, considered by many to be a Shi'a sect when it suits their needs. The Iranians, who regard themselves as the leaders and protectors of all things Shi'a, want al-Asad in power to complete the "Shi'a Crescent" that runs from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. They believe themselves to be the major power in this entire area.

So, what is Turkey's reason for allying with the likes of Russia and Iran? It's complicated, but one factor emerges high on the list - the Kurds. The Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country, inhabit large areas of southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria. Accurate population numbers are hard to come by - estimates range between 35 and 45 million.

In all four countries, the Kurds are seeking autonomy and/or independence. They have achieved some autonomy in Iraq - the Kurdish Regional Government is thriving. The Iraqi Kurds recent referendum drew anger from all of the host countries, including threats of military action from Turkey.

Turkey is against any autonomy or independence for any Kurdish enclave, fearing that such moves will only incite Turkey's Kurds - as much as 25 percent of the population, to demand the same right.

The Kurdish Workers' Party (known by its Kurdish initials PKK) is a separatist organization that has been waging a campaign of violence against the Turkish government, seeking equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization.

The Kurdish issue becomes more complicated by the situation in Syria. In the fight against ISIS, the United States created the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) to be its boots on the ground. The SDF is mostly composed of Kurds of the People's Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Turks regard the PYD/YPG as nothing more than an extension of the PKK. To them, they are one in the same, and are all the enemy.

There are other groups in the SDF - Arabs and Assyrians - but the bulk of the fighters are Kurds. They have proven themselves to be an effective fighting force, and are on the verge of seizing ISIS's self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah in north central Syria.

American support for the Syrian Kurds has created a severe strain on American-Turkish relations. The Turks insisted that the liberation of al-Raqqah be done by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) with Turkish military support (air, armor, artillery, logistics, and special forces). The United States argued - correctly - that the Turkish/FSA force was too far away from al-Raqqah and that time was of the essence in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. field commander cited intelligence that the city was the staging ground for terrorist attacks against the West.

The Turks and FSA launched an incursion into northern Syria called Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting not only ISIS, but the SDF as well. This was an unnecessary, ill-advised, poorly-planned, badly-executed and easily-neutralized effort. The SDF, in a rare bit of cooperation with the Syrian regime, effectively cordoned the Turkish-led force into a small pocket, where they remain today. Turkey's response - attacks against Kurdish towns along the entire length of the Syria-Turkish border. For more, see my analysis of March 2017, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

The latest news from Turkey is Erdoğan's agreement to purchase the state-of-the-art S-400 air defense system (Russian: C-400 Триумф, Triumph / NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), despite warnings from senior American and other NATO officers that the system is not compatible with the combined NATO air defense system and will not be integrated into the common defense network.

If Turkey wants to continue to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. You have to ask, Mr. Erdoğan, whose side are you on?