Under intense pressure from the United States--not to mention Russia--Turkey has begun to reassess its support for anti-Assad groups after the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) third suspected terrorist attack on Turkey in six months. The first two attacks were against Kurds (one terrorist attack killed 33 people outside a Kurdish cultural center in the border town of Suruc in July, and another killed more than 100 in Ankara in October). These attacks have pushed Turkey to where it did not want to go.
The poor Kurds have few friends anywhere. The West had betrayed the Kurds at Versailles in 1919, and many
times since then. The Kurds are a thorn in the side of Turkey, and ISIS's
mortal enemy, so the ISIS attacks against the Kurds did not raise much protest
either abroad or in Turkey. But the latest terrorist attack was in the heart of
Istanbul against foreign tourists. If ISIS was responsible, then it broke its
devil's pact with the Turkish government as a sort-of ally, undermining
Erdogan's rationale to let ISIS carry out attacks as long as they target Kurds.
Pacts with the devil usually go wrong and this is one of those.
Erdogan's wild scheme in Libya and Syria
The Turkish political scene has changed dramatically since the Arab Spring five years ago. At that time, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was the golden boy, with his "zero problem" foreign policy with his neighbors, and the ability to "square the political circle", and to have good relations with Russia, Iran and NATO. Even the Kurds got an olive branch from Erdogan, with a peace process in 2013 after one of the Kurd's militant leaders Ocalan called from his prison cell to his fighters to abandon their armed struggle against Turkey in return for political reforms.
Turkey only recognized the rebel National Transitional Council of Libya in July 2011, when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Benghazi's "Tahrir Square", named in honor of Egypt's revolution. Davutoglu told the rebels that Turkey and Libya have a "common history and a common future [and that] Turkey's role will be to withdraw from Libya as soon as possible, [and] restore the unity and integrity of the country based on the democratic demands of the people. This deployment should not be carried out for Libya's oil." Those were fine words and seemingly a balanced position, given that the fall of Gaddafi was already written on the wall by then. A more cynical reading would be that Turkey was joining the winners to reap some of the gains.
Eerily, the same scenario unfolded in Syria at the same time: a stalled insurgency, with the al-Qaeda types flocking in and receiving support from the West, intent on toppling President Bashar Assad, come "hell or high water".
More fine words. But as Gaddafi was being hunted down and gruesomely murdered, Assad was being shafted by his fair-weather friend. Just why Erdogan turned so abruptly on his erstwhile friend a few months later can be explained in one way: Assad would fall under the wave of the Arab Spring, so join the winning side and reap the benefits. Syria was until a century ago the heart of the Ottoman Caliphate, and Erdogan was determined to re-establish their "common history".
Erdogan said he was dreaming of a day, "when people can pass from a free Palestine through Istanbul to London. Not building walls around Turkey, but opening up to share with our neighbors. In Cairo, we are the Middle East, in Europe we are Europeans. We must shape history with all the nations around us." He told the Leaders of Change summit in March 2011 that the Middle East developments held out the promise of showing the way towards a "global, political, economic and cultural new order".
Those were more fine words. But like the Libya plan, the uprising in Syria went disastrously wrong. For many reasons: hubris, Kurds, anti-imperialists, and, of course, the duplicity of Turkey's NATO allies.
Kurds, Kurds, Kurds
Rather than launch a serious campaign against the ISIS-type terrorist groups in Syria, as the West and Russia had called upon him to do, Erdogan remained focused on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which continued to protest Turkish oppression by attacking a police station last week, killing six people. That was a mere drop of blood in the terrorist bucket compared to ISIS, but Erdogan called for a harsh response. He is also in electioneering mode. Targeting the PKK is good fodder ahead of the referendum that Erdogan has called for to grant him greater powers.
Syria now has an autonomous Kurdish region led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with ties to the PKK . The ability of Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS (the Kurds a one of the few faction of the insurgency doing so) is a feather in their cap, and deserves the respect of the Syrian government and the West in any future settlement.
The Kurds have also exposed the perfidy of Erdogan in trying to use the Turkmen against the Kurds, and has revitalized Kurdish nationalism in Turkey in the face of the ongoing military campaign against Kurdish towns and cities. This is not a pretty picture for Turkey, but it is not the Kurds' fault.
Given the longstanding Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, the Kurds will now have a strong position to finally get the recognition they were denied at the Treaty of Versailles. NATO--including Turkey--is being pushed into Kurdish arms by the ruthless logic of history.