THE recent claim by Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey’s intrepid president, to go for the jugular of the militant Islamic State group in Syria, and take his fight against the terrorists to their stronghold in Raqqa, may seem bravado to his myriad critics. But not so to those who know this man with nerves of steel.
Erdogan has unveiled his plan to administer his coup de grâce after dislodging IS from Al Bab, inside Syria but not too far from its border with Turkey. However, he knows the group’s nuisance capacity for pinpricks and the need to take it out of the Syrian equation. This will not be possible until IS is driven out of its ‘capital’ in Raqqa, nearly 200 kilometres from Al Bab.
Erdogan has gone through many a detour on Syria, Bashar al-Assad and IS. Before Assad was engulfed in his civil war, Erdogan had a soft corner for him and admired him for being a rare liberal among the well-entrenched orthodox Arab rulers. However, once the Gulf potentates, driven by their myopic sectarian take on an Iran-friendly Alawite Syrian regime, helped unleashed the IS genie in Syria, Erdogan too changed his stance. He saw distinct prospects for Turkey to play the role of kingmaker in a post-Assad Syria, if not in an Iran-leaning Iraq.
Erdogan initially erred on Syria and IS when he turned a blind eye on his land being used by IS-inspired jihadists from all over to take both men and weapons into strife-torn Syria.
But course correction wasn’t long in coming once he realised that his Gulf ‘brethren’ had unleashed monsters that could also unravel Turkey’s fragile national equanimity.
The game changer for Erdogan included the shenanigans and antics of Turkey’s Kurds in the wake of the Syrian imbroglio.
Course correction for Erdogan wasn’t long in coming.
The Kurdish issue has been Turkey’s Achilles heel from the day the modern Turkish Republic was born in 1924 after Kemal Ataturk had admirably renegotiated the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Sevres imposed on the tottering Ottoman caliphate at the end of the First World War. A major achievement of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was the evaporation of an autonomous Kurdish region that was anathema to the Turks as much then as it is now.
The Kurds may be mourned as perhaps the most unfortunate people on earth because despite having all the attributes of a nation — and a glorious past — they have no prospects of becoming a sovereign nation anytime soon.
The Kurds make up at least 15 per cent of the Turkish population. They are more numerous in Turkey than in other neighbouring countries: Syria, Iraq and Iran. However, Turkey has a red line drawn, not today but since the Kemalist era: it will not allow even an autonomous Kurdish region let alone a sovereign Kurdistan.
But Turkey’s Western allies haven’t shied away from turning the screws on the issue to its inconvenience, off and on.
This scribe knows from his personal experience as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iraq — with its own inconvenient Kurdish minority — during the post-Gulf War I days how the Americans used the cover of UN sanctions against Iraq to whet the Kurdish appetite for independence from Baghdad. Alarm bells had been set off in Ankara, as early as those days, with regard to America’s mischief in using the Kurds as their Trojan horse.
The Americans have been up to their tricks with ill-disguised intent on the heels of the festering Syrian civil war. In the guise of combating the menace of IS, the Americans have been beefing up the militant Kurdish outfit YPG.
For months, if not longer, a battle of nerves has been going on between Ankara and Washington over this thorny question posed by Erdogan: what’s the American end-game in Syria? Is it only to get rid of Assad or use this as a foil to create a new geostrategic dynamic for Turkey by quietly building up Kurdish strength, which could only be at the expense of not only Syria but also of Iraq and Turkey?
Trump’s unexpected induction into the White House has made it urgent for Erdogan to accomplish his own political architecture in Syria before the flippant Trump sets his gaze on the region.
Finishing off IS is as much an end-game for Erdogan as, simultaneously, breaking the back of YPG before it becomes a force to reckon with for Turkey. Ostensibly Turkey’s push towards Raqqa is to ensure the creation of a safe zone where millions of Syrian refugees could be relocated in safety. But this ‘noble’ mission also has a pragmatic sideline: snuff out the Kurdish ambition of independence before the genie becomes hard to be put back in its bottle.
The writer is a former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.
Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2017