ISIL, Kurds and Turkey’s ‘new deal’

ISIL, Kurds and Turkey’s ‘new deal’

As I suggested last week, the Turkish government is trying to present its “policy shift” concerning the “struggle against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)” in “different terms” than those of the Western-Arab coalition.

Now, it has become a “national strategy” to prepare for “military intervention” in the region if necessary. That is why the government called on Parliament to approve a motion to authorize the government to undertake “military action in Iraq and Syria” against all sorts of potential threats rather than focusing on the struggle against ISIL. The government succeeded in passing the bill with the support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but the wording and scope of the motion is open to debate. The opposition argues that the motion may pave the way to the government’s adventurous foreign policy by granting it the right to start military operations and even a war.

The other claim of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is that the government has been, and still is, covertly supporting ISIL, even though the claim may sound contradictory or confusing. If the government is supporting ISIL, why has it also sought an excuse to start military operations against them?

First of all, it is still difficult to prove that the Turkish government has had any sort of link with ISIL, despite all the claims and some evidence. Nevertheless, we may better argue that Turkey has vested interests in the expansion of Sunni radical movements in the region. In the beginning, it was Turkey’s ambition to remove the Bashar al-Assad regime which led it to support all sorts of armed groups, something that was no secret.

Then, it was the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) declaration of autonomy in the Kurdish parts of northern Syria that angered Turkey, with then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denounced the claims of the PYD as “an unacceptable fait accompli.” There were hints that Turkey would then become more supportive of armed groups in Syria against such attempts. Kurds still believe that Turkey supported armed groups and then ISIL against their “political gains.”

Nevertheless, I think that even if that is true, it is only part of the story. In fact, Turkey at least was not too bothered about ISIL’s march because of its broader regional ambitions. After Turkey failed to achieve regional power as it imagined, amid further disappointment at the survival of the al-Assad regime, it turned its eye to the so-called “Sunni zone” in Iraq and Syria. That is why, after ISIL captured Mosul, government circles argued that it was the “Sunni frustration and anger in Iraq [and indeed in the broader region] that paved the way for the rise of ISIL.” Many supporters of the government suggested that ISIL is the tip of an iceberg and that the real thing was the rise of “Sunni statehood.”

We should also remember that the controversial Sunni leader Tariq Hashimi has been given refuge in Turkey and declared the occupation of Mosul by ISIL as “the victory of the oppressed,” according to a news article in BBC Turkish.

In short, Turkey mulled filling the power vacuum in Sunni areas as a potential regional power, and it was at this point where ISIL’s march against Shiites and Kurdish regions coincided with Turkey’s ambitions. That is not to claim that Turkey actively supported ISIL but it explains at least Turkey’s ambiguous stance concerning ISIL.

Now, it seems that Turkey’s dreams of regional power are being hindered by the Western-Arab alliance. Finally, it also seems that Turkey’s “last and only leverage” in the region is Kurds. I know it seems odd that Turkey may be considering playing with the Kurds to gain more of a say in regional politics, as the government is currently in a bitter confrontation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the PYD. However, it seems that the Turkish government is considering a new deal with the Kurds, according to which the Kurdish political movement and PYD may be pressured to ask for Turkey’s help against ISIL. Besides, Turkey is still trying to marginalize the “PKK hawks in Kandil” as they call them, and is looking to effect a possible split among Kurdish politicians in favor of Turkey’s plans.

I know that it sounds rather “surreal,” but in the end Turkish foreign policy is being shaped on “great ambitions” and “wild dreams” which are equally surreal. As for the government’s Kurdish policy, it is still being mostly handled by the intelligence service’s negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and still nobody knows about “the terms of the deal,” if they exist.

Therefore, I think that ambitions and fantasies in search of “greatness” may help us better understand Turkey’s politics than the realities.