Is ISIL a bigger threat or are the Kurds?
Turkey, like all countries in the region and the world, was caught unprepared by the Arab Spring.
The rebels in Tunisia had a relatively quick victory, before Turkey could even determine its position. Ankara again failed to take an early stance when things started in Egypt and Libya, but when it became clear that the uprisings would succeed and the regimes would collapse, Ankara took the Muslim Brotherhood’s side (When the Shiite population revolted in Bahrain and the uprising was crashed by shedding blood, Ankara only condemned the Bahrain regime but did announce support for the rebels.)
Ahmet Davutoğlu, then-foreign minister at a time Gaddafi was toppled in Libya and Turkey conducted a successful eviction operation for its citizens, had met with a group of journalists in Istanbul. At that meeting, Davutoğlu refused that Turkey was caught unprepared by the Arab Spring, and even said “We have a series of analysis and scenarios regarding which countries this wave can reach in the future.”
But Ankara was really unprepared when the first wave of uprising hit Syria; for months it advised Bashar al-Assad not to attack peaceful demonstrations, not to fall into the trap of its own security bureaucracy, change the constitution as he had earlier promised and allow opposition parties. At that time, for example, the U.S. strictly condemned Syria, while Ankara was still in touch with Damascus.
As the wave of uprising grew in Syria, Ankara’s efforts, including Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s latest visit to Damascus and the famous six-hour meeting with Assad in which he tried to convince him, could not delay Obama’s “Assad must go” remark.
Then…Then things got out of hands, Obama said “Assad must go,” Ankara thought this would be quick like it was in Egypt and Libya, the opposition started to organize.
But things did not develop as fast as it was hoped in Syria, the uprising evolved into a civil war that was clear to last long even on the first day, and as the war lingered on, some components that are not welcome by the West assumed important roles in the war.
It is much clearer now that when the uprising turned into a civil war in Syria, Ankara should have started acted differently and prioritized its own security and strategic opportunities, instead of trying to change the regime in its neighbor.
The Syrian regime had never been a “friend” of Turkey, expect a short-term of spring in ties between 2000 and 2011, but it was a predictable “enemy,” it was an “enemy” that could be lived with.
Correspondingly, the uncertainty created by the war, the shifting of the Kurdish minority living in a wide area on the Syrian Turkish border under PKK control, pointed at a different strategic threat in Ankara’s perspective. Ankara watched the PKK gaining control of the Kurdish regions; if they had estimated the situation we are in today at that time, they would have most probably preferred Barzani controlling the region rather than the PKK. But the policy makers in Ankara insisted on not taking Rojava seriously. Turkey had eyes on a regime change in Syria, not Rojava.
Then, when the civil war in Syria started to change course and the regime started to look like it would last, Ankara was also late to notice the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat.
Now two enemies in Syria, the PKK and ISIL, fight each other on the one hand while attacking Turkey on the other.
And Turkey still sees the PKK and the Kurdish presence in Syria as the main strategic threat, while ISIL is considered a lesser strategic threat, and rather a tactical threat. The same mistake was made during the Kobane siege and the perception that ISIL was a more preferred enemy than the Kurds was created.
It is, of course, easy to look from today and see the mistakes, to say this or that should have been done, the difficult thing is to realize the strategic change at the time it occurred and set priorities accordingly. When we look today, we see that Turkey could not timely do prioritizing, and it was late to put own security policies ahead of the policies regarding Syria’s future.
For this reason, our debate now is the debate of a few years before: Is the PKK a bigger threat for Turkey or is ISIL?
What I’m saying does not necessarily mean pushing the PKK threat aside. The biggest source of the horrendous terror wave we have been witnessing for a year is the PKK; when bombs were going off in an Istanbul airport, the PKK detonated bombs in Van.
But Turkey still gives the impression that it hesitates before acting against ISIL thinking “Will the Assad regime, or the Kurds, benefit from this?”