Turkey joins the war — sort of

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Last Fri­day, Turkey joined the war against Is­lamic State (IS), the ter­ror­ist-run en­tity that now con­trols east­ern Syria and western Iraq. Af­ter four years of leav­ing the bor­der open for sup­plies and re­cruits to reach IS, the Turk­ish govern­ment sent planes to bomb three IS tar­gets in Syria.

At the same time, Ankara ended a four-year ban on its anti-IS “coali­tion” al­lies us­ing the huge In­cir­lik air­base near the Syr­ian bor­der. There was re­joic­ing in Wash­ing­ton, since coali­tion air­craft (mostly Amer­i­can) will now be much closer to IS tar­gets in Syria, and Turkey will also pre­sum­ably close its bor­der with Syria at last. But there may be less to this change than meets the eye.

On Satur­day, Turkey broke a two-year cease­fire with the PKK, a Kur­dish rev­o­lu­tion­ary group that fought a 30-year war to es­tab­lish a sep­a­rate state in the Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity south­east of Turkey. In fact, since then Turkey has car­ried out con­sid­er­ably more air strikes against the PKK than it has against IS.

So which war is Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan re­ally plan­ning to fight, the one against Is­lamic State or his own pri­vate war with the Kurds? And why now?

Er­do­gan has spent more than a decade sub­vert­ing a sec­u­lar and demo­cratic sys­tem and es­tab­lish­ing his own un­chal­lenge­able power. At first he was re­spond­ing to real pop­u­lar de­mands for equal civil rights for re­li­gious peo­ple and for an im­prove­ment in liv­ing stan­dards. He de­liv­ered on his prom­ises, and won three suc­ces­sive elec­tions by in­creas­ing ma­jori­ties.

But he re­duced the once-free mass me­dia to sub­servience, un­der­mined the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary, and staged show tri­als of his op­po­nents. He also al­lowed his own po­lit­i­cal as­so­ciates to en­gage in mas­sive cor­rup­tion.

As his power grew, more­over, he be­gan to in­dulge his ob­ses­sions. He is a deeply con­ser­va­tive Sunni Mus­lim who shares the wide­spread Sunni be­lief that Shia Mus­lims are not just heretics, but heretics whose power is a grow­ing threat.

From the start of the Syr­ian civil war in 2011, there­fore, Er­do­gan sup­ported the Sunni rebels against the regime of Bashar al As­sad, which is dom­i­nated by the coun­try’s Alaw­ite (Shia) mi­nor­ity - and he didn’t much mind if the Sunni rebels were head-cut­ting ex­trem­ists like Is­lamic State or not. That’s why the Turk­ish-Syr­ian bor­der stayed open, and the coali­tion didn’t get ac­cess to Turk­ish air­bases.

At the same time, Er­do­gan opened peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with the PKK, be­cause con­ser­va­tive Kurds who voted for his party on re­li­gious grounds were an im­por­tant part of his elec­toral base. But then his party lost its ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment in last month’s elec­tion (7 June).

What cost him his ma­jor­ity was the new Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party (HDP), which se­duced most of his Kur­dish vot­ers away. It’s lib­eral, plu­ral­is­tic, all the things that Erdo an isn’t. But con­ser­va­tive Kurds had al­ready got the re­li­gious free­doms they wanted, and the HDP was also ad­vo­cat­ing equal po­lit­i­cal rights for the Kur­dish mi­nor­ity. Of course they switched their votes.

So now, if Er­do­gan wants to form a coali­tion govern­ment (or even win a new elec­tion), he needs the sup­port of the hard right — but they are ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists who loathe his will­ing­ness to make deals with the Kurds. To win them over, there­fore, he has started bomb­ing the PKK.

He might be re-start­ing a Turk­ish-Kur­dish civil war (the last one killed 40,000 peo­ple), but that’s a risk he’s will­ing to take. And on the side he has dropped a few bombs on Is­lamic State to make the Amer­i­cans happy.

Er­do­gan’s prob­lem with Wash­ing­ton was that it fi­nally had the goods on him. A US Spe­cial Forces raid in Syria last May killed Abu Sayyaf, the IS of­fi­cial in charge of sell­ing black-mar­ket oil from IS-con­trolled wells into Turkey. The Amer­i­can troops came away with hun­dreds of flash drives and doc­u­ments that proved that Turk­ish of­fi­cials were deeply in­volved in the trade, which has been IS’s main source of rev­enue.

Is Er­do­gan still in ca­hoots with IS? Maybe. Is he ac­tively sup­port­ing the other big Is­lamist group, the Nusra Front, which dom­i­nates the bat­tle in western Syria? Yes he is, quite openly, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween these two ter­ror­ist groups is only skindeep. So if you’re ex­pect­ing a rad­i­cal change in the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion in Syria - don’t. As­sad is still los­ing slowly, the Is­lamist ex­trem­ists are still win­ning, and Turkey is still play­ing a dou­ble game.

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