This article was originally posted on 10/10/14 on The Joy of Raki.
You'd think that a country that has a war literally on its doorstep might be doing something about it, but Turkey's seeming inaction over ISIS, Syria and Iraq is ominous.
As I write, IS are continuing their assaults on Kobane (or Ayn Al-Arab), refugees continue to pour over the border, Turkish Kurds are being prevented from crossing into Syria to help protect the city, and tens of people have been killed in protests in cities right across the country. Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Minister, in talks with the new head of NATO, has said that it is 'unrealistic' that Turkey should lead a ground assault, while demanding that his country be allowed to set up a buffer zone and no-fly zone inside the Syrian border.
So what's happening? Why has one of the world's largest standing armies not done anything so far except move its tanks to the border?
There are several explanations, some less charitable than others.
Let's start with the most benign interpretation. Turkey has been a vociferous opponent of Bashar Al-Assad's murderous regime over the past three years, and any attempt at involvement against ISIS will only bolster his rule. Also, as a NATO country, if it engages in Syria, it runs the risk of getting involved with a larger enemy: Russia, which is Syria's ally. Just to point out, in case it's been forgotten, that Vladimr Putin now has a highly effective Black Sea presence in Crimea, thanks to his annexation of the peninsula earlier this year. Turko-Russian wars, in the past, have not gone very well for the Turks. Not for the first time, Turkey is caught in a bit of a bind.
Extraopolating from this, what would happen if Turkey attacks ISIS? This may provoke a direct, large assault on Turkish soil. Now, this would admittedly be unlikely, as well as suicidal: As I said above, Turkey's military is enormous, well-funded, and far more of a threat than the Iraqi Army. However, an assault on any NATO member constitutes an attack on all members, leading to full engagement - and once again, we come back round to the risk of full-on war with Russia as a by product.
Moving on to a less generous interpretation, astonishing as it may seem, ISIS and Turkey, or rather the ruling AKP, and bonded by their religious outlook. The majority of Turks are Sunni Muslims, as opposed to the Syrian regime being Alawite muslim, and the Iraqi government's Shia majority. That's not to say the AKP (necessarily) share the off-the-loonbar-spectrum views of their ISIS co-religionists, but they have certainly demonstrated sympathy for them in the past. There are accounts of ISIS fighters being treated in hospitals, covert Jihadi training camps near the border and the tendency for authorities to turn a blind eye as people come and go from one country to the other. They also seem to be consistently supplying more and better weaponry to ISIS than any other resistance group. In April, I witnessed what was, as I later realised in retrospect, a large demonstration in support of ISIS, in the very heart of Istanbul.
The harshest interpretation is that Turkey is playing a murderous game of Silly Buggers with everyone concerned, in particular with the Kurds. Ankara has made no secret about its antipathy towards a de facto Kurdistan on its borders, while at the same time doling out the odd concession on language rights within the country. Quite simply, they are working along the lines of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', and they will be perfectly happy to see the destruction of the Peshmerga throughout Syria and Iraq. The government's propaganda machine is currently in full flow, claiming that Turkish Kurds are sacking government buildings and damaging infrastructure throughout the southeast, hence the reason why the police and Jandarma are being so heavy handed. Looking at social media, one can see that feelings are running very high. Many Turks associate the Kurds solely with the PKK (the Kurdish Workers' Party), and blame them for the brutal civil war of the 80s and 90s. In addition, the PKK are seen as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US, meaning that they would be seen as a 'legitimate' target in the event of Ankara ordering the tanks to roll over the border.
I cannot help but feel that this is an incredibly dangerous game to be playing. The Kurds are, in effect, guarding the Turkish state, and are paying for it in blood from both sides. And history shows, time and again, that every state that has existed in the Anatolian Plateau ignores the people on its southeastern flank at its peril.
At the same time, I have a little sympathy with Ankara's plight. It faces a genuine threat to its territorial integrity, albeit one that is to some degree of its own making. At the same time, other NATO members are really not making life easy for them. The best bet, at present, would be to ensure an effective flow of weapons, training and tactical support to the Kurds. However, to do so would fly in the face of years of political antagonism, and the AKP would be wary of doing anything to reduce their share of the popular vote. Yes, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is quite happy to let blood flow rather than risk the anger of the electorate.
Unfortunately, whatever they try to do, the Turks are being pulled into the black hole of war by the sheer gravity of events, and that should concern us all greatly.
And who, ultimately, is to blame? Probably those behind an agreement made just after the first world war, one that has caused unforeseen and untold damage in the region since. But that's something to be described another time.