by Arras

Amid rising tensions between Turkey and Russia over the situation in Syria, one important fact got lost. It’s not Russia that caused the current Turkish problems. It was the USA.

The most fundamental problem modern Turkey is facing is the Kurdish question. It’s a chronic problem, which threatens the integrity of Turkey and the Turkish elite perceives it as the largest security treat the country is facing. Turkish policies in Syria are determined by the Kurdish issue more than anything else. The change from the so called policy of zero problems with neighbors, which Erdogan and his government used to promote, came as a surprise to many and is directly related to the Kurdish issue and the events in Iraq after the disastrous US invasion.

Kurds Kurdistan

Here, a little historical excursion is needed. When the modern Turkish state was created on the ashes of the Ottoman empire following defeat in WWI, it was seeking a new identity on which it could successfully establish itself. The new young Turkish elite chose the model of nationalism, at that time a progressive concept so popular in contemporary Europe.

Turkey, just like some of its European counterparts, was however faced with the imperial heritage of diverse ethnic groups living on its newly established territory. There were large and ancient communities of Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and many other people living in Anatolia and the European part of Turkey. Ethnic Turks themselves were relative newcomers to these parts of the world, having arrived only in the 11th century. Greeks and other ethnic groups, on the other hand, can trace their presence in what is now Turkey well into the Bronze Age and beyond (3300-1200 BC).

The Turks managed to solve the Greek question after the Graeco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 and the large exchange of population which followed it. Most Greeks left Turkey and Turkey received an influx of ethnic Turks from Greece in return. The Armenian question got solved already during WWI in what many call the Armenian genocide. Term which Turkey fiercely opposes. It was a forceful deportation of Armenians into the Syrian desert. It is estimated that about 1.5 million of them died. Turkey acknowledges the fact of the deportation, but claims that loss of life was an unintended consequence rather than a deliberate act.

One ethnic question which Turkey however did not manage to solve is the Kurdish question. The Kurds are an ancient community of Iranian people who accepted Islam. They were skilled soldiers and played an important role in Islamic armies, including the Seljuk and the Ottoman. Indeed, the most famous historical Kurdish figure is Saladin (name under which he is known in the West), a Muslim general who reconquered Jerusalem during the Crusades and a sultan of Egypt and Syria.

The Turks tried to solve the Kurdish issue by straightforward assimilation. They announced that from now on, Kurds are simply „Eastern Turks“ and banned the Kurdish language. The Kurds resisted and the Turks answered with repression, forced relocation, discrimination and heavy handed military crackdown. Kurds in Turkey are since then in de facto constant rebellion and a, sometimes less sometimes more intense, war with the Turkish government, which claimed thousands of lives on both sides.

Despite having an advantage in numbers and equipment, Turkey seems to be slowly losing this war. It is estimated that Kurds make up to about 20% of the Turkish population and Kurdish families have about double the birthrate of Turkish ones. In a few decades, this will eventually lead to a situation when there will be more Kurdish than Turkish men of military age in Turkey.

To make matters worse for Turkey, Kurds do not live only in Turkey. Thanks to the post colonial legacy and arbitrariness of borders, which France and Britain drew in the sands, plains and hills of the Middle East, similarly sized Kurdish communities live in the neighboring countries of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Together they inhabit one large, almost continuous area called Kurdistan. Fortunately for the Turks, the Kurds in these countries until recently faced similar persecution as in Turkey. All these countries perceive their Kurds as a threat to their territorial integrity. The most well know episode of this repression came when Saddam Hussein used poison gas on Kurds in Northern Iraq. That was by no means an exclusive example, but one which at the time suited Western interests in the Middle East and thus received widespread publicity in Western media. After decades of silent complicity. Which brings us back to the cause of the recent change in Turkish policies and the rising tension on Turkish-Syrian border.

When the USA decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Turkey correctly concluded that the operation is pure hazard with an unpredictable outcome. In a hope of minimizing the negative impact on Turkey itself, they decided to keep strict neutrality and to not intervene, and went so far as to refuse to allow their US and British NATO allies to use Turkish territory and bases for an attack.

The US attack on Iraq and the occupation led to an all out civil war inside the country and eventually broke Iraq into de facto Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parts. All of a sudden Turkey was faced not just with Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, but, for the first time. also with (de facto) an independent Kurdish state right on its borders which could provide a safe haven (regroup and supply) area for Kurds from inside Turkey. That was a disaster. The Turks tried to deal with the situation with limited military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, attempts to buy Kurdish leaders and reliance on the ability of their US partners to keep the Kurds in check and prevent damage. Something the Americans turned out not to be very capable at. Perhaps even not willing.

The lesson Erdogan and the Turkish leadership sees to have learned from the events in Iraq was likely that abstaining from conflicts in the region will not shield Turkey from negative consequences and, if Turkey can not prevent these conflicts, it’s better that Turkey participates in them and thus is at last able to protect its interests by influencing the outcome.

When the USA and their NATO allies decided to change regimes in Northern Africa and engaged in yet another imperial adventure in Libya, following initial reluctance, Turkey agreed to join. And when the USA then decided to start a war in Syria, Turkey jumped on the wagon, probably on the promise of a quick victory and the instalment of a new government of the Muslim Brotherhood, friendly to Turkey and its ruling party. Ankara might have even expected such a government to be a Turkish client. That certainly was the expectation of Riyadh, another unfortunate victim of US Middle Eastern policies.

As is the rule with similar US foreign policies, they seldom work as advertised. When Assad proved to be resilient, Ankara and Riyadh were expecting Washington to do what it did in Libya and intervene under the pretext of a no fly zone and an alleged protection of civilians, a pretext well tested already in Yugoslavia. No man however steps into the same river twice, wisdom already ancient Greeks understood. After the disaster in Libya, opposition to intervention, led prominently by Russia and China, proved to be stronger, and support inside the USA and their British and French allies weaker than might have been anticipated. A no fly zone did not materialize. Of note is, that Turks and Saudis were its most outspoken proponents and they insist on establishing a no fly zone in Syria (euphemism for a US led intervention) till today. Meanwhile, Obama’s administration walked away, quietly thankful to the Russians for the face saving pretext in form of the chemical weapons deal.

Regime change in Syria thus had to be accomplished solely through proxies in the form of a colorful collection of various more or less disgusting Sunny Islamic groups, both local and foreign. Turkey and Saudi Arabia engaged in an enthusiastic support of these groups; openly supporting those under the moderate name, and less openly others, while publicly pretending to fight them as radicals and terrorists. In reality. the only group Turkey ever really fought in Syria were Kurds. Which is ironically probably the only significant opposition group in Syria which really deserves name moderate. Despite the catastrophic heterogeneity of these opposition groups, which are willing to fight each other as much as they are willing to fight Syrian government, it seemed that the government will be eventually worn down in a war of attrition.

But then came the unexpected Russian intervention and, against all assurances from Washington about the Russians having another Afghanistan, it managed to turn the tables and forced the rebels to what is increasingly looking like an all-out retreat. This is a disaster of epic proportions for Turkey. Instead of a friendly regime of the Muslim Brotherhood type in Damascus, which Ankara would be able to control, they are faced with the creation of a second Kurdish independent state on their borders. That’s what has sent the Turkish leadership into panic mode and that’s why the Turks are seemingly irrationally rising tensions on the border with Syria. In my opinion, the downing of the Russian plane, the shelling of Kurds and the concentration of military forces on the border, accompanied with aggressive rhetoric, are not so much meant to threaten Russia or Assad, they are first of all desperate attempts to force Washington to lead an invasion in Syria at last. Which is probably something Washington itself made Ankara and Riyadh expect in the first place. Now Washington is being seen dragging their feet and backing out. Neither Turkey, nor Saudi Arabia are likely to invade alone.

To conclude, the US policies of destabilizing countries and whole regions to suit their geopolitical and economic interests in the last decade or two proved to be often as damaging to US allies as they are to US opponents. If not more. Another case in point of course is the European migration crisis. What effect is that going to have on relations between the USA and their allies on one side, and US opponents on the other, remains to be seen. But it is reasonable to expect that dissatisfaction with US leadership will be on the rise.

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