The Pakistanization of Turkey beyond “Zero Problems”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Masoud Rezaei
PhD of International Relations, Visiting Research Fellow at
the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

Post 1923, the Turkish relationship with its southern neighbours has “fluctuated between bad and very bad”.  After independence, Turkey showed little interest in the states carved out of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces, propelled by Ataturk’s desire to face westwards and a lingering sense of betrayal directed towards the Arabs for having sided with Britain in the World War I. Today, after a decade of the twenty-first century, Turkey has been wrestling with its neighbors (Syria and Iraq) since 2011 and now this relation is troubled and occasionally terrible.

The AKP previously and to some extend, had very good relations with Syria and Iraq, but after “Arab Spring” in the region, Ankara’s policy has changed radically as a result of the 2011crisis in Syria. The battle in Syria and Iraq consists of "Turkish-backed Sunni jihadis rebelling against an Iranian-backed Shi'ite-oriented central government. In this regard, some of politicians and analyst believe that Turkey’s response to the Iraq and Syria crisis has largely been reactive. However, now that it is involved, removing Assad from power and establish Sunni government in Baghdad is only one of its goals and Ankara wants to ensure that  whatever emerges after Assad and post - shi'a government in Baghdad serves Turkey’s local and regional interests.

While Erdogan and Davutoglu aspire to being “regional players”, Turkey lacks the more underhand tools of influence used by regional rivals. By contrast, to achieve this object, in recent years, Turkey after Pakistan has become a major center of radical Islamist ideas and Jihadi radical groups and Erdogan seems even prepared to accept a massacre in Kobani. Turkey’s status as an Islamic ambitious state is rooted deeply in history and is linked closely with the elite’s worldview. For the foreseeable future, Islam will remain a significant factor in Turkey’s politics. Unless Ankara's objectives are redefined to focus on economic prosperity and popular participation in governance, the state will continue to turn to new version of Islam as a national unifier.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 has created a power vacuum that Turkey has attempted to fill. Turkish support of Jihadi radical groups has put Assad’s government and Baghdad in a difficult spot. This can be reversed, to some extent, if Ankara imposes policy of violent and continues to support the terrorist and jihadi groups such as ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front).

Independent experts and even the Syrian opposition agree that Turks and foreign fighters have crossed the Turkish-Syrian border at will, often to join IS. Actually, the Turks offered far more than an easy border crossing: they provided the bulk of ISIL funds, logistics, training and arms. A "two-way jihadist highway," has no bothersome border checks and sometimes involves the active assistance of Turkish intelligence services. Other incidents also suggest a close relationship between Turkish government authorities and radical Islamists. Turkish residents near the Syrian border tell of Turkish ambulances going to Kurdish-ISIL battle zones and then evacuating ISIL casualties to Turkish hospitals. Indeed, a sensational photograph has surfaced showing ISIL commander Abu Mohammad in a hospital bed receiving treatment for battle wounds in Hatay State Hospital in April 2014. Ankara may deny helping ISIL, but the evidence for this is overwhelming. Turkey's support was vital for the jihadists in getting in and out of the country. Indeed, the ISIL strongholds not coincidentally cluster close to Turkey's frontiers.

In this regard, the Kurdish issue has also emerged as a source of tension between Turkey and its neighbors. As the unrest in Syria has spread, the Assad regime’s control over the Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border has eroded, deepening Turkish anxieties that this will strengthen calls for greater autonomy among Turkey’s own Kurdish population. If these internal divisions cannot be overcome, there is a danger that the uprising in Turkey will degenerate into a Turkish-Kurdish conflict that could spread beyond big cities’s borders and further destabilize Turkey and likely to lead to an open confrontation between Ankara and its peoples.

For example, the protests that broke out at the end of May 2013 in Istanbul and spread over 70 Turkish cities have tarnished Erdogan’s image and also twin car bombings struck a bustling market street in Reyhanli, a border town in Hatay province, killing 53 people. Turkish people linked the AKP regime to the attacks, which were widely interpreted as punishment for Turkey's support of rebel fighters. This could make it more difficult for AKP to obtain popular support for changes in the constitution that address Kurdish grievances. Without agreement on these changes, talks with the PKK could stall or collapse, adding a new element of uncertainty in an already highly unstable security environment. In March 2014, rebels from the hardline Islamic State opened fire on a checkpoint in the Central Anatolian province of Nigde, killing three and prompting a broader operation which saw Turkish counter-terrorism units raid a sleeper cell in Istanbul, leading to another shoot-out with al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the heart of Turkey's economic and cultural capital. Turkey's permissive policies have inexorably led to the escalation of this conflict. Specifically, the Turks have not differentiated between jihadi factions and those without extremist ideological leanings.

And on the other hand, if the Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds succeed in gaining local autonomy, pressure for the Turkish Kurds to be granted similar rights is bound to grow, exacerbating internal divisions in Turkey. Many Kemalists see Kurdish calls for autonomy as the first step down the slippery slope leading to the territorial dismantlement of the Turkish national state and are likely to strongly oppose granting the Kurds local autonomy. So, any further disintegration of the Syrian state could provide a launch pad for Turkish Kurdish separatists and might raise questions about Turkey’s own territorial integrity. Economic concerns have also been raised should the crisis spread into the key market of northern Iraq.

While there is much to suggest that Turkey's role in the world is likely to grow, confidence appears to have turned into hubris. But we know that, there is a fine line between self-confidence and hubris. In fact, Turkey’s current situation resembles the early years of Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. The recent and unprecedented arson attacks on Shiite mosques in Istanbul may indicate that Turkey is entering this phase. It is still not clear however how far Turkey is prepared to continue to support the wider military and logistic Jihadi groups, which risks further complicating Turkey’s already tangled relationships with its own restive Kurdish population.

Looking forward, it is possible to see that as long as the Erdogan and Davutoglu remains in power, 'double standard' will likely continue to guide Ankara’s foreign policy. But indeed, many of Western experts believe that, building regional influence of the type to which Turkey aspires is a process that takes place gradually and incrementally over decades and not as an immediate result of the hyperactivity of Divisive diplomacy. At the end, Turkey must end support for radical jihadists for its security and territorial integrity.

Key Words: Pakistanization of Turkey, Zero Problems, AKP, Iraq, Syria, Jihadi Radical Groups, ISIL, Kurdish Issue, PKK, Erdogan, Davutoglu, Double standard, Rezaei

More By Masoud Rezaei:

*Erdogan and an Independent Kurdistan: Strategic Interest or Political Suicide?:

*Will Referring the Case of Syria to the ICC Be of any Help in Resolving the Crisis?: