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Turmoil in Turkey
Kurdish Riots Show Cost of Turkey's Caution in Syria

Riots in Turkish Kurdistan have left 18 people dead over the past few days and forced the government, which had been moving toward a peace process, to patrol the region with military force. Why the sudden collapse in order? Look no further than the Syrian civil war. As the Financial Times reports:

Many Turkish Kurds accuse Ankara of obstructing support for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which has been besieged by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, forcing as many as 160,000 people to flee from the area.

Turkish armed forces are stationed a short distance from the town, watching passively and obstructing Kurdish fighters and weaponry from passing across the border to boost the city’s defences.

There are a number of push-pull factors at work regarding Turkey’s stance on Syria, and while Erdogan has handled them nimbly so far, the internal contradictions may be beginning to show. Reconciling with the Kurds was a key part not merely of Erdogan’s promise for a new Turkey, but also of his reelection coalition. On the other hand, Ankara wanted to make sure they were the right kind of Kurds—guided mainly by Barzani and the Iraqi KRG, not by the radicals among the PKK, who are aligned with the Syrian Kurds. For this reason, as American Interest editor Adam Garfinkle outlined yesterday, many suspect that Erdogan has been hoping ISIS would cut the Syrian Kurdish party (the PYD) down to size—until, perhaps, this backlash occurred.

The Kurds are not the only internal problem for Turkey: up to one quarter of the country (though the figures vary widely) belongs to the Alevi branch of Islam, a group that is distinct from, but has sympathies with, the Alawites who form the core of Assad’s support in Syria.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s relationship with ISIS is complicated. On the one hand, he is concerned about a destabilizing element on his border, one that has been able to strike targets within Turkey. On the other hand, if there’s one leader in the Middle East who wakes up each morning and sees a caliph in the mirror as he shaves, it’s Erdogan. He probably has not a small bit of sympathy for the radicals, and may also see them as a useful release valve for angry young Turkish men.

Above all, Erdogan does not wish to move against ISIS in such a way that strengthens Assad, whom he regards as the greater threat in Syria. While the United States continues to hit only ISIS and not the Syrian regime, Turkey will likely hold back its hand. So Erdogan gained authorization from Parliament to attack ISIS, thus pleasing the United States and offering hope to the Kurds, but has not yet struck them directly.

Now, Erdogan may be forced to choose among these competing priorities. American Interest contributor Henry Barkey explained why, speaking to the FT:

[T]he battle for Kobani is eclipsing all other issues for the region’s Kurds. “It is becoming the equivalent of Halabja,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, referring to Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Iraqi city in 1988 that killed thousands. “It is going to have a searing impact on the Kurdish psyche.”

As Adam Garfinkle points out, though, there are strategic reasons just as strong for Turkish inaction. Turkey is damned if it does act, and damned if it doesn’t. With the riots’ recent death toll, the price of the latter option is now beginning to be told in blood.

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  • gabrielsyme

    Above all, Erdogan does not wish to move against ISIS in such a way that
    strengthens Assad, whom he regards as the greater threat in Syria.

    It’s not that Erdogan imagines Assad to be a greater threat to Syria, but rather that he regards Assad as the greater threat to Erdogan’s own ambitions.

  • jeburke

    I find it hard to believe that Erdogan views Assad as the greater threat. After all Assad I and Assad II have been running Syria for 40 years with little evidence of any harm to the Turks. Rather, Erdogan sees himself and Turkey as the preferred leader of the Sunni world and paramount power in the Middle East — as opposed to Iran, whose influence over Assad is evident. I think Erdogan is quite happy to see ISIS take on pro-Iran clients. Why then should he send his tanks against ISIS?

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