By Ömer Taşpınar
There are some international locations the place a single situation can clarify just about every little thing that’s improper with its home and overseas coverage. Turkey’s Kurdish predicament is such a case. Ankara’s historic failure to seek out democratic options to Kurdish ethnic calls for has created a deeply insecure and chronically irrational Turkish political tradition.
Virtually 100 years after its inception, the Turkish Republic remains to be obsessive about the concern and trauma of its foundational a long time. The place others see manageable Kurdish calls for for decentralization, federalism, and minority rights, Ankara sees terrorism and the start of an intractable, bloody disintegration.
Virtually no situation at dwelling or past borders escapes this Turkish psychological eclipse in the case of Kurds. From its army incursions into northern Syria, to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transformation from reformer to autocrat, or from the Turkish buy of Russian S-400s to Erdoğan’s probabilities of profitable yet one more presidential election by dividing his opponents, Turkey’s Kurdish predicament has all of the solutions.
For anybody paying consideration, the top of the Turkish-American strategic partnership additionally got here due to Kurds. As a legacy of the Ottoman dissolution, Turkish nationalism has at all times been deeply suspicions of Western intentions. American wars in Iraq, with every one leading to much more Kurdish autonomy, exacerbated this Turkish insecurity bordering on conspiracy theories: a Better Kurdistan was within the making beneath American safety.
However for many Turks, it’s in Syria that the Kurdish-American conspiracy changed into prophecy. American army cooperation with Kurdish militias proved merely an excessive amount of to digest for Ankara. Making issues worse was the precise identification of the Syrian Kurdish group Washington determined to arm. The PKK, or Kurdistan Staff Get together, is a Kurdish militant group in Turkey designated as a terrorist group by each Ankara and Washington. Determined to combat ISIS with an efficient floor power, the Pentagon determined it had no higher choice than teaming up with the Syrian wing of the PKK, the PYD, or Democratic Union Get together.
It was a brief and tactical partnership, devoid of any long-term strategic dimension, Ankara was informed. However, to Ankara’s dismay. U.S. help for Syrian Kurds continues to today, regardless of heavy turbulence beneath the Trump administration. Most not too long ago, on September 15, solely days after the frantic evacuation of U.S. forces from Kabul, CENTCOM Commander Basic Frank McKenzie visited northeastern Syria to convey some sense of U.S. credibility with its Kurdish allies.
Why such U.S. engagement with Syrian Kurds, one could ask. Wasn’t Turkey, the second largest military in NATO, a greater choice for Washington within the combat towards ISIS? The quick reply isn’t any: ISIS doesn’t current an existential menace to Turkey the way in which the PKK does. In any case, CENTCOM commanders had no endurance for any reminders extolling Turkey’s NATO credentials, together with its steadfast contribution to Washington’s just-abandoned conflict in Afghanistan. They knew full effectively that Ankara welcomed jihadi infiltration of Syria by opening its borders broad. This was a Machiavellian transfer on Erdoğan’s half, extra so than a show of ideological camaraderie. In any case, these jihadists have been the simplest fighters towards Turkey’s foremost enemies in Syria: the Assad regime and secular Kurdish nationalists.
Enters the S-400
At present, on the floor not less than, it’s the thorn of a Russian missile protection system beneath Turkish possession that seems to have derailed Turkish-American strategic relations. Dig a little bit deeper, nonetheless, and you will note that Erdoğan’s determination to buy S-400s was additionally a direct results of strategic imperatives associated to the combat towards Syrian Kurds. Ankara was significantly alarmed about Kurdish autonomy and territorial features in northern Syria, and any Turkish cross-border army incursion to stem the Kurdish tide required Moscow’s blessing.
In any case, Russia had boots on the bottom and owned the skies of its shopper state. Putin’s inexperienced gentle to Erdoğan was at all times going to come back with a heavy price ticket, particularly after Turkey downed a Russian jet in November 2015. Disenchanted with NATO’s lack of tangible help, Erdoğan not solely apologized to Putin, however was additionally anticipated to kiss the Tsar’s ring.
The method that will finish with Turkey’s buy of Russian missiles started in 2016 at a time when Erdoğan appeared significantly weak. He had simply survived a weird coup try that summer time, throughout which F-16s bombed the outer partitions of the Turkish Parliament and his presidential palace. Whereas it took days for the Obama White Home to precise help for Erdoğan, Putin referred to as him the evening of the failed coup to supply his help. Determined to revive his authority and venture some renewed sense of energy, Erdoğan ordered a army offensive into northern Syria the next month.
Operation Euphrates Defend turned the primary of a collection of three main Turkish army incursions into northern Syria between 2016 and 2019. All these main floor operations wanted to be fastidiously deconflicted with Moscow. The final one, in 2019, additionally required coordination with a chaotic Trump White Home. Whereas Trump first gave a inexperienced gentle, he later modified his tune and threatened Turkey with heavy sanctions. Such discord on the American entrance made Turkish-Russian coordination much more important for Ankara. However on this unusual partnership the place Ankara and Moscow supported reverse sides of the Syrian battle, Putin at all times had the higher hand and by no means hesitated to play it laborious.
In February 2020, when 33 Turkish troops have been killed by air strikes in Idlib province — the final pocket of anti-regime resistance in Syria — Erdoğan needed to faux Russia was not concerned. He had merely no real interest in escalating army tensions with Moscow. The identical dynamics proceed to today. On points starting from Turkish dependence on Russian pure fuel to Turkey’s agricultural exports and tourism revenues, Putin holds all of the playing cards. However it’s in Syria the place Erdoğan is most weak. If tomorrow Russia have been to bomb Idlib province, dwelling to 3 million individuals, Turkey would face not less than a million Syrian refugees at its borders. At a time when Turkey already hosts 4 million Syrian refugees and public opinion blames the federal government for this burden, Erdoğan is in no temper to jeopardize good relations with Putin.
Erdoğan not too long ago was in New York and had excessive expectations of assembly the American president. Snubbed by Biden, Erdoğan defended his S-400 determination in an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation on the grounds that Turkey is a sovereign nation that wants no permission from Washington to pursue its nationwide safety pursuits. What he naturally failed to say is that he’s beholden to Moscow.
Just a few days later, after a closed-door assembly with the Russian chief in Sochi, Erdoğan praised Russia and personally thanked Putin for his or her constructive agenda on points starting from nuclear vitality to military-industrial cooperation. No marvel Putin regarded completely happy in his assembly with Erdoğan.
On the finish of the day, promoting S-400s to a NATO nation that has now been expelled from the F-35 superior fighter plane program and made topic to American army sanctions isn’t any small feat for Moscow. If I have been Putin, I might have expressed my because of Turkey’s Kurdish insecurity for this example.