October 11, 2012 § 7 Comments
Robert Wright has been keeping an eye on developments between Turkey and Syria, and unlike me, he thinks there is at least a 50/50 chance that the two countries end up going to war. Wright’s argument boils down to the fact that events on the ground are rapidly spinning out of both Turkey’s and Syria’s control and Turkey is facing serious refugee and Kurdish problems, so that “both of these issues–refugees and Kurdish nationalism–could lead Turkey to conclude that the sooner the Syrian civil war ends, the better.” In addition, Wright believes that the U.S. and NATO may get involved, and that the Turkish-Syrian border is not going to quiet down since Syria cannot afford to ignore it and because Turkey is basically poking Syria in the eye by arming the rebels.
With one exception (the point about the U.S. and NATO), all of these things are arguably correct to some degree, but Wright is overlooking a bunch of other factors that either mitigate or cancel out completely the variables that he has pointed to as reasons a full blown war may happen. First and most importantly is that Turkey does not necessarily have the ability to intervene in Syria in such a way as to end the civil war. As friends of O&Z (and superb guest posters) Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman persuasively argued in the National Interest yesterday, Turkey’s military options in Syria are actually quite limited. Ankara does not have the intelligence capability to carry out extensive target selection, its air force faces a challenge in the face of Syrian air defenses, and its months-long bluster has not been backed by equivalent action, destroying its ability to use credible threats to deter Syrian provocation. In short, Turkey has been exposed as a paper tiger when it comes to Syria. Despite General Özel’s constant tours of the Syrian border and the military buildup, this appears to be similar to what Turkey did following the downing of its F-4 during the summer, when it made a show of force but ultimately did not use it. This is the double secret probation strategy, in which Turkey keeps on ramping up the threats to punish Syria to the point of absurdity. Wright’s argument is that Turkey will end up intervening in Syria in order to put a swift end to the civil war, but the inconvenient reality here is that Turkey might not have the capability to do so, which has obviously been affecting Ankara’s calculus this whole time. In addition, even if Turkey did have the capability to step in and put an end to the sectarian fighting in Syria, Wright assumes that this would put a damper on Kurdish nationalism, but in fact it might very well have precisely the opposite effect. Once the Assad regime falls, the PYD and other Syrian Kurdish groups are likely to try and carve out their own autonomous sphere within Syria, and Turkish intervention on the side of the rebels could accelerate this process.
Wright’s argument about NATO arrives at a similar dead end. He writes that ”helping fight it [the Syrian civil war] could help end it–especially if Turkey’s fellow members of NATO help out. Speaking of NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention.” There is, however, no way that NATO is going to get drawn into this war. There is zero appetite for it among NATO countries not named Turkey, and while NATO may be willing to convene an Article 4 meeting any time Turkey requests one and issue strongly worded condemnations of Syria, that is as far as NATO is going to go. The same goes double for the U.S., which is also going to sit this one out no matter how much Turkey begs and pleads. Wright is buying into the Turkish pipe dream that an international coalition is eventually going to be shamed into intervening in Syria, but I don’t see any plausible way that this happens.
Finally there is Wright’s point about the shelling along the Syrian border and Turkey already essentially fighting a war against Syria by arming and training the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. The tit-for-tat shelling has been going on now for a week, yet despite this Syria has shown no inclination to ramp up its military activity, and Turkey has been making a big show of force while essentially standing pat. Wright asks, “ If Syria doesn’t want a war, and Syrian shells that fall on the Turkish side of the border could start a war, why doesn’t Syria quit firing shells anywhere near the border?…The answer is simple: The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy.” There is another simple calculation in play here as well though, which is that Syria is not targeting Turkey with its shelling but is targeting the rebels on its own side of the border, and Syria knows that Turkey knows this too. Intervening in Syria is a potential nightmare for the Turkish army given the sectarian issues and the fact that Turkey will be fending off attacks from not only the Syrian army but Kurdish fighters well. When Syrian artillery misses, as it is bound to do, and kills Turkish civilians, then Turkey is forced to respond, but Turkey does not want to go into Syria on its own and will do nearly anything to avoid such an outcome. By the same token, Turkey has been arming rebel groups now for months, yet Syria is not deliberately shelling Turkish military positions because it too does not want to draw the Turkish military across the border. I get that there is a logic of unintended consequences at work here with the potential to spiral into a war, but Wright’s arguments for how this will happen ignore that there is a very powerful set of incentives on both sides to avoid such an outcome.
September 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Michael Doran and Max Boot wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times calling for U.S. intervention in Syria and arguing that there are a number of reasons why this is the opportune time to do so. Plenty of people who spend a lot more time than I do thinking about Syria and the costs and benefits of U.S. intervention, including Doran and Boot, have been writing about this issue for months, and so while I happen to think that intervention is not a great idea, I’m not sure that I have anything new to add to the debate. Doran and Boot did, however, invoke Turkey a number of times in their piece, and each time it was in the course of making claims about Turkey that are incorrect.
First, Doran and Boot wrote that “a more muscular American policy could keep the conflict from spreading. Syria’s civil war has already exacerbated sectarian strife in Lebanon and Iraq — and the Turkish government has accused Mr. Assad of supporting Kurdish militants in order to inflame tensions between the Kurds and Turkey.” Turkey has indeed accused the Syrian government on multiple occasions of supporting the PKK, and maybe Assad is and maybe he isn’t (I think that he probably is), but Doran and Boot are still inflating the benefits of intervention here. To begin with, the Syrian civil war is in absolutely zero danger of spreading to Turkey in the form of sectarian strife, and that won’t change even if it rages for a decade. More relevant though is that the PKK foothold in Syria is firmly established and American intervention and the removal of Assad will not change that. The PYD, which is the Syrian equivalent of the PKK, controls a large swath of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, and American intervention would not be aimed at dislodging the PYD. What this means is that it actually doesn’t matter all that much anymore whether Assad stays or goes when it comes to the PKK inflaming tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish population since the PKK’s safe haven is pretty well established. That ship has already sailed, and using Turkish concerns about Assad’s support for the PKK as an excuse to advocate U.S. intervention is a red herring.
Second, they argue that “American leadership on Syria could improve relations with key allies like Turkey and Qatar. Both the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Qatari counterpart have criticized the United States for offering only nonlethal support to the rebellion. Both favor establishing a no-fly zone and ‘safe zones’ for civilians in Syrian territory.” As anyone who spends any time studying the U.S.-Turkey relationship knows, bilateral ties between the two countries hardly need improving, and it can be argued that they have actually never been closer at any point in history as they are now. It is correct that Ankara is frustrated that it has not had much luck budging the Obama administration on intervening, but the implication that our relationship with Turkey is in need of repair falls somewhere between ludicrous and absurd. Doran and Boot are both extremely sophisticated analysts who know that catering to Turkish or Qatari wishes is not a good enough reason for the U.S. to undertake military action, and so they threw in the suggestion that by not intervening we are endangering ties with our allies in the region. As far as Turkey goes, that is just not the case.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most egregious mistake in their piece, Doran and Boot posited, “The F.S.A. already controls much of the territory between the city [Aleppo] and the Turkish border, only 40 miles away. With American support, Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies.” Sounds like a piece of cake, right? In reality, the claim that this would be an easy and cost-free mission for the Turkish military is a highly dubious one. As it is, Turkey is having a difficult time dealing with the PKK inside its own borders and has suffered high military casualties in the past few months of fighting. Then consider the fact that establishing, but even more saliently then holding and defending, a corridor for aid and supply lines is no easy task under any circumstances, least of all during a civil war when you will be targeted along a miles-long corridor by whatever is left of Syrian troops, PKK terrorists, and possibly PYD fighters as well. Tack on that the Turkish military has no experience with this type of mission, is currently bogged down fighting the PKK, and is facing leadership and morale issues at the top stemming from the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledeghammer) cases and the simultaneous resignations of its chief of staff and service heads last year, and you will start to see just how the “easily establish a corridor” line begins to break down. In addition, from a political perspective, Turkey’s Syria policy is not popular domestically and a military invasion would be even less so. It would be certain to result in Turkish casualties, and so the decision to launch an invasion to establish a corridor inside Syria is not going to be an easy one for the government to make, which might explain why despite months of bellicose threats, it hasn’t yet happened.
There may be lots of good reasons why the U.S. should be intervening in Syria, but let’s not pretend that we should do so for Turkey’s benefit, or that our stepping in will solve Turkey’s PKK problem, or that our partnering with Turkey in a Syrian invasion will be a cost-free enterprise for our Turkish allies. If we are going to have a debate about intervention, it should be based on reality rather than on fantasy.
August 9, 2012 § 3 Comments
It is no secret that the Kurdish question is one of the thorniest issues to be dealt with in the new Turkish constitution. Unfortunately, the recent PKK attacks and the Turkish assault on the terrorist group are making dealing with Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights even more difficult than it would otherwise be. I have been harping for awhile now on the importance of finding a political solution in order to fully integrate Turkey’s Kurds into the Turkish polity, but since abandoning his short-lived Kurdish opening, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seemed bent on little more than trying to eradicate the PKK militarily. This policy has been distilled to its very essence with the ongoing army operation in Şemdinli, in which the military has closed the district off entirely and is closing parts of the Şemdinli, Çukurca, Hakkari, and Yüksekova districts until October 6, all the while deploying tanks and jets against the PKK fighters holed up there. Erdoğan has displayed a zero tolerance policy toward the PKK, and relations have soured with Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq over Barzani’s support for PKK-linked groups such as the PYD; indeed, fighting the PKK is not only looking like the sole facet of Erdoğan’s Kurdish policy, but is rapidly taking over any other foreign policy priority that Turkey has voiced over the past decade.
Erdoğan is certainly justified in adopting a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the PKK, but the underlying question that needs to be asked is how the narrow focus on the PKK is going to affect the larger Kurdish problem, and particularly how it will color Erdoğan and the AKP’s view of Kurdish rights under the new constitution. While there have been reports that the AKP is going to actually propose recognition of a separate Kurdish identity, rumors have also persisted that the AKP is making a back room deal with the nationalist MHP to circumvent the need for consensus on the constitution, and any deal with the MHP is going to keep Kurdish rights and identity suppressed. While this has all been conjecture up until this point, Tuesday revealed a preview of what might be coming down the road in the guise of a dispute over whether to convene a special parliamentary session dealing with the PKK and Şemdinli. The opposition CHP has complained about a delegation of its deputies being barred from visiting villages that have been cordoned off and of a general lack of transparency from the government about what is going on, and are now bringing things to a head by calling for an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss what the government is up to and what its longterm plan might be. Erdoğan blew off the CHP request, but also brought up the MHP unprompted and predicted that the MHP deputies would not cooperate with the CHP on this issue either.
That the MHP would not want to spend any time debating a response other than a military one to the PKK is not at all surprising, but the explicit linking of the AKP and MHP together in the manner that Erdoğan did it is revealing. The CHP and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have been more vocal lately in stridently challenging Erdoğan over a host of issues from military operations against the PKK to the government’s Syria policy, and Erdoğan has been characteristically bombastic in his responses. The increased tension between the AKP and what appears to be a newly emboldened CHP is not going to make a collaborative constitutional process particularly easy, and it’s not surprising that Erdoğan would look to the MHP to give him cover to do what he really wants to do, which is turn Turkey into a strong presidential system. In return, Erdoğan is going to continue taking the fight to the PKK, but it also means acceding to MHP demands not to recognize any type of Kurdish rights in the new constitution. The spat over whether or not to call a special session of parliament is not in itself a big deal, but Erdoğan’s invoking of the MHP and his increasing nationalistic approach to dealing with the PKK, the PYD, and even Barzani seem to foreshadow what is going to transpire once the constitutional process moves out into the open. A closer relationship with Devlet Bahçeli and the MHP means consigning Turkey’s Kurds to remain a permanent non-recognized underclass, and this is exactly what appears to be happening.
August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.
All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.
It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.
In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.