I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Ezgi Basaran’s impressive new book Frontline Turkey: The Conflict at the Heart of the Middle East. In the book’s preface, Basaran, a Turkish former newspaper editor and columnist, reflects that if she had been asked a few years ago to describe herself in three words she would have chosen “woman, journalist and Istanbulite”. But following the closure of her newspaper, the continued repression of the media, and her new position at the University of Oxford, Basaran bemoans that no longer is she either a journalist or an Istanbulite.
But I say once and Istanbulite, always an Istanbulite. And replacing journalist for academic could be a lot worse. But that’s not really her point. The sad reality is that top quality journalists and academics are quickly becoming endangered species in Turkey. They are leaving for the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and other parts of Europe. The world is getting enriched by Turkey’s best and brightest while Turkey is getting poorer.
Reading Basaran’s book has made me think on my own views on the subject:
One of the great taboos of Turkish politics remains the Kurdish question. Examining the issue too deeply is a sure-fire way for journalists or academics to find themselves either jobless or doing time in the slammer. This despite the “opening” under Erdogan’s AKP government and the “solution process” between Turkey and the PKK.
The Kurdish issue needs to be part of the public debate in Turkey. The Kurdish question lies in the heart of Turkey’s security, democratization and foreign policies. In other words, it effects everyone. The failure of the peace process in 2015, which led to violence that killed hundreds and rendered hundreds of thousands displaced in the southeast of the country, had a profound effect on Turkey’s international trajectory, especially after the breakdown of the Syrian state.
As the uprisings against the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad descended into civil war, Turkey found itself with an increasing refugee crisis and an unpresented security threat right by its border. By around 2015 there were three major security threats emanating from Syria; Kurdish PKK affiliated organs such as the YPG which were in the process of carving out a piece of territory to the north of Syria in what they called Rojava, the rise of the so-called Islamic State who were creating an a militantly anti-Western Taliban style regime in Syria and Iraq, and, not least, the Assad-regime itself which Ankara remained adamant was the primary cause of Syria’s problems. Don’t forget, the situation was critical. Between 2011 and 2017, there were 87 terrorist attacks which left 956 people dead. These incidents were blamed on either Islamic State or affiliates of the PKK.
With three significant enemies along its immediate border, Ankara needed to think strategically and pragmatically. Surely, Turkey needed to avoid having to deal all three threats simultaneously? An effective policy would be for Turkey to identify a primary threat and focus on eradicating this one enemy. To do so would mean, at least in the short-term, deprioritising the others. In other words, Turkey had a choice of enemies. Who was Turkey’s real enemy, Islamic State, the PKK or Assad?
At first, Turkey didn’t make a choice and that was part of the problem. It wasn’t until the end of 2016 that Ankara finally made a decision. Sponsored by the PKK, it was decided that Syria’s Kurds were Tukey’s main security threat. Turkey subsequently launched Operation Euphrates Shield and a year later Operation Olive Branch to help the Free Syrian Army make inroads against Kurdish positions in the north of Syria. Sure, Turkish backed forces also fought against the Islamic State, but that was peripheral and not the point of the operations.
Ankara’s choice of the PKK and its Syrian affiliates as its main enemy contributed to the deterioration of ties with the US and Europe, angered that Turkey is fighting the strongest indigenous force against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Turkish-PKK peace process remains in tatters, the Assad regime is on the front foot, Iran has an ever-increasing presence in Syria, and Turkey is beholden to the overwhelming influence of Russia.
It needn’t have been this way. Had Turkey sought to revitalise the peace process with the Kurds, Turkey’s southeast would be calm, the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would not have been a security problem, the domestic terror threat reduced, and Ankara would be on better terms with the US and West. It may even have given Turkey more leverage against Assad. But despite all this, I fear that the cost of the failed Turkish-PKK peace process is only beginning to be realised.
I recently wrote two different but related articles about Turkey’s ties with the west which can be found here and here. I have come to the view that there is no longer a basis for strategic relations between the West and Turkey. This does not mean that I am advocating that the US and Europe cut diplomatic and economic ties with Turkey, far from it. Trade away! However, I am arguing that there should not be a security component between North America, Europe and Turkey.
Follow my logic.
Strategic alliances are built on mutual concerns over shared security threats. From the perspective of Turkey’s government, its main threats are the Gulen movement (FETO in the parlance of the Turkish government) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Note that both of these organisations are primarily Turkish internal non-state actors with transnational connections. However, from the perspective of the West, the PKK and the Gulen movement are not threats at all. It is not a PKK terrorist attack or the goings on in a Gulenist school that keep leaders in Washington, Paris, London or Berlin awake at night. In fact, the PKK’s sister organisation in Syria is considered an asset against ISIS which the West’s main enemy along with Russia. So, where’s the basis for strategic cooperation? I hold there are none.
As Turkey moves away from the West’s orbit based on its own security calculations (which Ankara is fully entitled to do), Turkey seems less like a strategic partner. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member only makes matters worse. As my articles suggest, Turkey doesn’t really offer its NATO allies that much by way of security anymore. Lax border controls during the Syria crisis until 2016, closer ties with Russia marked by intent to purchase Russian S400s, fighting the YPG, these do not contribute to the West’s security. If anything, they hinder them.
Again, this doesn't mean that trade can’t continue or other forms of cooperation. Perhaps if politicians on both sides are honest with each other and discount the strategic fallacy of their relations, the value of trade might actually increase. That is, of course, if human rights are brushed under the carpet in bilateral meetings and discussions. Kind of like China.
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