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Erdogan contends with ISIS, Kurds and a government crisis

The security situation in Turkey has started to resemble what is happening in Arab nations

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

The security situation in Turkey has started to resemble what is happening in Arab nations, whose capitals and ancient cities are frequently rocked by bombs but also confused politics. Turkey will not become a new Syria, which all powers have worked to transform into a magnet for terrorism and score settling on the corpses of the Syrians. However, Turkey will no longer be able to dominate the Middle East, as its influence declines in favor of the Islamic Republic with Eastern and Western blessing.

Relations between Turkey and Russia are tense, and have become more hostile as a result of their radical differences over Syria, whether on account of the Islamic angle or the economic angle related to oil and gas pipelines and interests.

The attack in Istanbul a few days ago coincided with Erdogan’s insistence on holding snap elections, and came in the wake of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul weeks ago

Raghida Dergham

The United States has had conflicted relations with Ankara over the past years. Two weeks ago, there was a new agreement between Washington and Ankara, but it was undermined by Turkey’s interpretation of it as a green light to wage war on the Kurds.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group (ISIS) has declared war on President Erdogan in retaliation for Turkey’s betrayal, as Erdogan seeks absolute powers to revive Ottoman glory.

Turkish relations

Turkish relations with Arab countries are also conflicted, especially when Erdogan embraces the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and Gulf countries, but relations converge when it comes to the regional balance of power that is becoming increasingly tipped in favor of Iran and Israel.

The attack in Istanbul a few days ago coincided with Erdogan’s insistence on holding snap elections, and came in the wake of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul weeks ago. Recently as well, eight Turkish soldiers were killed by Kurdish militants, while ISIS has called on the Turkish people to rebel against their “atheist” president and threatened to invade Istanbul.

Erdogan has put himself in a predicament, but he seems to be adamant to press ahead with his decisions at any cost. After his ally Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu failed to form a coalition government, Erdogan refused to give the opposition a chance to form a government. Instead, Erdogan wants an interim government to oversee the elections led by Davutoglu and comprising the four main parties in parliament, but this was rejected by the opposition.

Erdogan now wants to hold early elections if no agreement is reached by August 23. If this happens, a snap vote would take place in early November, and the country would be paralyzed and unstable throughout the tenure of the interim government, which would consist of parties that have disparate visions and ideologies.

Regionally, Iraq and Syria are important arenas for Turkey. Erdogan plays his cards there with his eyes on Iran, whose agenda in Iraq and Syria is diametrically opposed to that of Turkey. Iran and Turkey are at odds regarding their influences and roles in these two Arab countries, and regarding the relationship with the Kurds although they both are opposed to a Kurdish state. They also differ over how to deal with ISIS.

Turkey entered as a party to the international anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria led by the United States, following an agreement to open up the Incirlik airbase to U.S. forces. The Turkish move follows the nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers.

Ankara must have seen that Tehran was moving to consolidate its position as a de facto ally of the major powers on the ground, especially to the United States, marketing itself as a reliable partner against ISIS out of its understanding of the priority this poses to both the East and the West.

Defeating ISIS

Ankara believes Iran is assisting the Kurds militarily against ISIS in Iraq and the regime in Syria under the pretext of defeating ISIS, al-Nusra Front and similar groups. Thus, Ankara decided that an agreement with Washington would make it a serious rival to Tehran and the Kurds when it comes to being a strong partner on the ground that can fight ISIS and radical groups.

Erdogan, however, exploited the agreement with Washington to attack the Kurds, to the point that he was accused of ignoring ISIS in Syria. This drew the ire of Western powers, as evident from the withdrawal of the Patriot missile batteries that the United States and Germany had deployed along Turkey’s southern border.

Moscow and Tehran, which have an almost identical agenda in Syria, were not pleased about the agreement between Ankara and Washington. These capitals are the Syrian president’s closest allies, and insist on keeping him in power, while Ankara demands his departure as a condition for it to become a full partner in the war on ISIS in Syria.

Tehran’s other ally, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, responded to the parliamentary probe that blamed him for the fall of Mosul to ISIS, by saying from Tehran on Facebook: “What happened in Mosul was a conspiracy and a plan developed in Erbil in collaboration with Turkey and the intelligence services in Ankara.”

Maliki is still a vice president in Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi parliament passed a package of reforms declared by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to abolish the posts of vice president, downsize ministries, fight corruption and expose abuses. There are signs Iran will give shelter to Maliki to preempt any measures against him, as the Supreme Judicial Council has called on the authorities to freeze the assets of individuals accused of corruption and banning them from travelling. There are also indications Tehran is furious with Abadi for taking these steps.

ISIS not only threatened Erdogan, but also the Kurds, calling them “atheists” in reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is currently embroiled in war with Turkey that many Kurdish forces oppose. The ambiguity and chaos surrounding ISIS is the primary motive for dubious alliances, partitioning plans, and fragmentation drives.

Turkey has been accused of serving as a conduit for international terrorists to cross to Iraq and Syria and join ISIS, as part of a policy overseen by Erdogan to guarantee Turkish interests and influence. Ankara’s policies have been dominated by Erdogan and his inner circle, and their arrogance and stubbornness have cost Syria a lot.

Pulling the rug from under the feet

Perhaps Turkey has genuinely resolved to pull the rug from under the feet of ISIS and al-Nusra Front. If this has really occurred, then one could read ISIS’ recent video warning as revenge against Erdogan’s betrayal of ISIS. In this case, Turkey will enter a stage of security unrest and terrorist attacks.

However, some expect Ankara can quickly control the ISIS threat, thanks to the nature of the relations between them, but would have trouble containing the PKK threat and the threat from other segments angered by Erdogan’s monopoly of political decision.

On the Syrian question, just like there is an “Assad obstacle” preventing consensus over a political solution in Syria, there is an “Egypt obstacle” for Turkey. Turkey does not want Cairo to be part of the regional working group to resolve the conflict in Syria, in addition to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia.

The “Assad obstacle” stems from Moscow’s insistence on removing Bashar al-Assad’s departure as a condition for negotiations and the transition that Geneva I states should be led by a transitional governing body.

Egypt and Turkey are not ready for reconciliation. Both have a “Muslim Brotherhood obstacle,” Turkey adopting the Islamist group and Egypt categorically rejecting them under Sisi. Some in Egypt are gloating over what is happening in Turkey, with newspaper headlines such as “Erdogan pays the price for supporting terrorism.”

But some fear for the crucial relation between Egypt and major Gulf countries because of Tukey’s cozying up to Riyadh and other capitals, as this might weaken the possibility for the Arab nations to restore the Arab weight in the regional balance of power through Egypt.

Turkey’s neighborhood is not a zero-problem neighborhood as Erdogan and Davutoglu once envisaged. The problems for Turkey today come from the interior, amid threats and security chaos that it fomented in neighboring countries. Ankara was once a key to a breakthrough in Syria but it balked. Today, it is just an invitee to a regional set by Moscow with U.S. blessing.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 21, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

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Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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