ISIS advances spoil Turkey’s plans for the Kurds

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calculating how to increase his clout inside and outside Turkey

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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Since consolidating near absolute power in Turkey for nearly two years, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calculating how to increase his clout both within Turkey’s borders and in its vicinity. Kurds came to the rescue.

When a political force is in opposition against an authoritarian system that denies power to a majority of the people, it is relatively easy to seem like a democratic party. The ruling party AKP fooled Turkey and its former friends in the world by cultivating relationships with the West and working with liberals in Turkey to get rid of the hostile judiciary, politicized military and anti-democratic bureaucracy. As soon as they were successful in burying the so-called “military tutelage,” Erdogan turned against liberals and the opposition to solidify a greater power. For him, as he earlier put it, democracy was not a goal but a “train to get off at the right station.”

In 2011, Erdogan traveled across Turkey to ask for more votes so that the government can draft a new constitution to replace the one written by a military junta in 1982. Half of Turkey voted for his party in 2011, falsely believing that that his ruling party will further democratize the nation. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s promise to write a new constitution was primarily driven by his desire to change the political system of the country, from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. His insistence to shift to the presidential system effectively stalemated the constitution-writing process. It is only clear today for his former supporters that Erdogan had no plan to advance Turkey’s democracy and freedoms and most of his calculations were based on extending his throne.

For a long time, Ankara fed the Islamist militants in Syria with arms and money so that they could fight against the Assad regime

Mahir Zeynalov

Although the AKP government suspended its democratic reforms after its re-election in 2011, its authoritarian face was relatively hidden to majority of the people until the Gezi protests, which unmasked a bellicose prime minister who benefited from the polarization and violence. In his 2011 electoral campaign, Erdogan could fool people by promising them a new constitution and hence strengthening his electoral base. The Gezi events in summer 2013, however, dashed Erdogan’s hopes that he could increase his power through false promises. He then chose to consolidate his support base through polarization and divisive rhetoric. Cooperating with Kurds was his way to seek a presidential post he longed for.

Plans for Kurds

The prime minister has two-stage plans for Kurds for a greater hegemony both in Turkey and in the region. First, he seeks to cooperate with Kurds to increase his support base. Second, he will use Kurds both in Syria and Iraq to counter a rising and more threatening Shiite belt along Turkey’s southern border.

To be elected as a president, Erdogan needs to secure the votes of the Kurds. In return, Ankara will recognize the highest autonomy for Kurds in southeastern Turkey. The jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to rumors, will be put under house arrest right after the 2015 parliamentary elections and will be released in the upcoming years.

Outside of Turkey, Kurds play an important role for Erdogan’s ambitious plan to create a sphere of influence in its south. That role exclusively belongs to the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan and its president, Massoud Barzani. For instance, when the PYD, a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, challenged the pro-Barzani political party in northern Syria, Erdogan’s government threatened them for months and vowed not to allow a PYD-led administration near Turkey’s borders. When Islamist extremists fought against Kurds in Syria, Ankara either silently blessed the radical militants or ignored the Kurds’ plight.

ISIS goes rogue

For a long time, Ankara fed the Islamist militants in Syria with arms and money so that they could fight against the Assad regime and root out the PYD militants from northern Syria. Islamist militants, however, had a larger, different plan. When they blew up the border town of Reyhanlı and killed 53 Turks, Ankara started to reconcile with the Syrian Kurds. PYD leader Salih Muslim traveled to Turkey several times to discuss the PYD presence and statehood in northern Syria. Frustrated Ankara had to accept his terms, although he was told that the PYD must also contribute to the anti-Assad fight.

When the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded northern Iraq, they threw a spanner in the works. Ankara fostered ISIS and the al-Nusra Front to use only against the Assad regime, but they turned out to be a bigger headache for Ankara, especially when they seized nearly 100 Turkish nationals as captives, including several diplomats, and threatened the regional Kurdish government in Arbil. On Sunday, AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik said Ankara would welcome an independent Kurdistan - a statement that reflects Turkey’s desire to use Kurdistan as a way to extend its influence and counter the Shiite dominance in Iraq.

Erdogan is now exclusively focused on the presidential election slated for August 10. If he is elected as a president, he will want to see an independent Kurdistan. Once Kurdistan is independent, there is little chance that the Kurds of Turkey and Syria won’t join them.


Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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