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.
The first crack in the peace shield with ISIS came after Erdogan made an abrupt switch on his Libya policy following the Arab Spring. Turkey initially condemned the invasion of Libya by NATO allies, warning that a drawn-out conflict risked turning the country into a "second Iraq" or "another Afghanistan" (he was right). Though Turkey finally joined its NATO allies in their criminal undertaking, Turkey piously still refused to conduct bombing missions against Libya.
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".
Erdogan had a much friendlier relationship with President Bashar Assad than he (or anyone) had with Gaddafi, even vacationing with Bashir and his family. Initially, despite the flood of refugees already pouring into southern Turkey from Syria in 2011, Turkey refused to back western sanctions, calling for a mediated settlement. Before setting out on a tour of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia in July 2011, Davutoglu told reporters at the Southeastern European Cooperation Process summit, "Syria's future is common with that of Turkey's. The important thing is that the Syrian people and the government get ready for the future with a new vision and to implement a new reform process."
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.
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.