Turkey Headed for Trouble
Recent developments in the Middle East had a considerable impact on the standing of Turkey, a country deeply involved in the unfolding Syrian tragedy. It currently appears that Turkey’s neighbors – Iran and Iraq – are growing allergic to the attempts made by Ankara to establish itself as the dominant power in the region largely at the expense of the stability of the existing regional configuration…
The present state of the relations with Iran likely promises Turkey considerable problems. The climate between Ankara and Tehran warmed when, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party rose to power in Turkey. At the time, discontent at Kemalist policies which ignored long-standing Muslim traditions was brewing across the Turkish society, and, as a side effect, the Turkish population tended to favor the Shia Muslim regime in the adjacent country. The creed of the Justice and Development Party was rooted in moderate Islam and nationalism, and their approach to foreign politics was premised in an assumption that all neighbors were to be treated as friends. Therefore, the cooperation between Turkey and Iran widened regardless of the occasional discord. Iran as an energy exporter supplies 30% of Turkey’s oil and 20% of the country’s gas demand, while Turkey is Iran’s key foreign investor. On the whole, the economies of the two countries are fairly interwoven, mostly due to shared energy projects.
Regionally, Iran is the main counterforce to the pervasive Western influences. For all players, it is a country too powerful to be ignored, plus it has to be borne in mind that the Kurdish separatism is a headache common to Ankara and Tehran.
However, the former harmony began to evaporate as the Arab Spring swept over the region. Ankara read the changes that came along as an opportunity to open a game of its own, while its neighbors had to increasingly realize that the rationale behind Turkey’s outcries over human rights in Syria was to induce the fall of the fairly popular regime of B. Assad with an eye to installing in the country a seemingly democratic regime vulnerable to Turkish control. Part of the motivation which led Turkey to adopt the strategy was to use the leverage over the would-be Syrian administration to crack down on the segment of the Kurdish separatist movement entrenched in Syria.
From Iran’s perspective, Turkey’s current policies are a betrayal of the Muslim world’s cause and a case of collaborationism with the West. Resetting its relations with Iran to an even lower point, Turkey now hosts a NATO radar watching over Iran which, when the facility came online, even threatened that striking it was a potential option.
The Turkish-Syrian relations started to slide in earnest parallel to the Syrian crisis, and at present anti-Turkish invectives are an integral element of the wider Iranian foreign-policy rhetoric. Iranian army’s chief of staff warned recently that a tide of violence would spill from Syria to Turkey if the latter continues doing the job for the West. Damascus, moreover, dealt a non-virtual blow to Turkish interests last July when Assad offered the Syrian Kurds the government forces withdrawal and an autonomy for breaking up with the opposition. The Kurds said Yes, and the Syrian army left their territories, the result being that the Kurds were empowered in an area in direct proximity of Turkey. The Ankara administration was disturbed to learn that the flags of the Kurdish resistance movement active in Turkey were flying next to its border in a Syrian region. The Kurdish enclaves in Syria used to be a hotbed of the rebellion a short time ago, and Turkey actually had an intention to dispatch troops to them under the pretext of creating a buffer security zone. Now the Kurds are on friendly terms with Damascus and Ankara worries – quite cleverly in the context – that Kurdish separatists would be infiltrating Turkey from Syria to launch terrorist attacks. No doubt, Assad consulted Tehran ahead of taking the bold step.
Ankara is frantically searching for a response strategy, the key plan on the table still being to send troops to Syria and to carve out of the country a buffer zone akin to the one set up by NATO in Libya. Tehran, in its turn, vocally threatens to use its might full-scale should Turkey invade Syria and cites a 2008 deal with Damascus that, as it looked, had sank into oblivion right after being penned.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu may continue to describe Ankara’s approach to international affairs as a ”zero conflicts policy”, but the above must have been quite a shock to the doctrine. At the moment the Kurds, having unlimited freedom of maneuver in Syria, waste no time and are preparing to seriously undermine Turkey. Chances are the Turkish army’s grip on things at the Syrian border is not tight enough to keep Kurdish groups out. Adding to the pressure, Kurds are growing increasingly active in Iraq. Baghdad was outraged when Turkey bombed the Iraqi Kurds in a retaliation campaign and threatened to respond harshly if more of the same followed. There is currently some coordination on the issue between Iraq and Iran.
Overall, Turkey is en route to regional isolation, and the niceties pronounced by the Saudis will be of little help if it becomes an accomplished fact. As for Turkey’s relations with Israel, they are marred by the 2010 incident in which the Israeli special forces raided the Mavi Marmra ship carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, killing nine Turkish citizens. A report which reflected mounting concern over the regional settings was presented by Israeli military intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. “It will be an environment that deals with a series of crises, regional and internal, which raises the level of sensitivity of all players, and which could lead, without prior planning, to an eruption”, said the document.
If the forecast proves sound, the series of crises will anything but leave Turkey unaffected. Seeking regional dominance via the demise of Assad’s regime in Syria, Ankara obviously failed to take into account the similarities between the Turkish and Syrian regimes. The truth is that both imposed secular order on countries with profound Muslim legacies, and, for the forces of politicized Islam, Erdogan’s government deserves to be displaced just as much as Assad’s. The Israeli intelligence holds based on sober analysis that the secular regimes would be the prime targets for Islamists, and if the assessment is right, Turkey is the first to get hit. Ankara backed the mutiny in Syria and contributed crucially to fanning regional-scale unrest. Now, facing isolation, it is desperate for a solution, but the only viable one is to quit support for the rebels in Syria. If the levels of political realism and courage in Ankara are insufficient to reach out for the solution, Turkey is in for trouble – the competence of the Israeli military intelligence may be trusted on that.