Turkey painting itself into a corner in Syria
The U.S. decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has dealt a huge blow to the Turkish government’s position. Worse, it came just before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the United States. Despite that, Erdoğan is still harboring hopes of convincing President Donald Trump to reverse the decision. The opposition has suggested that Erdoğan should have canceled the meeting with Trump. Both are utterly unrealistic responses to such serious crises. The prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, sounded more realistic when he stated that Turkey cannot possibly declare war on the U.S. Nevertheless, his words only express desperation.
I think the major problem arises from the long-running refusal of Turkey’s rulers to acknowledge the facts of the Middle Eastern situation. The fact is that Turkey’s insistence on playing a major military and political role in Syria and Iraq is not viewed favorably by its Western allies. Besides, Turkey’s wish for a role at the expense of the Kurds further complicates the problem.
Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria was effectively limited by both the U.S. and Russia, and the whole affair was halted a while ago. Later, Turkey’s air attacks on Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militia positions were declared illegitimate. Despite Turkey’s claims that “the war on terror” should include the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the YPG, none of the international actors recognize the YPG as a terrorist organization.
Moreover, the Western coalition has limited its fight with terrorism in the region to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as the PKK has never been mentioned as a terror theat. Besides, even the PKK is not listed as a terror organization by the Russians, let alone the YPG. Even Turkey’s best Arab friends, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have refrained from clearly declaring their support for Turkey in its fight against the PKK and the YPG.
It is true that Turkey faced a fait accompli when the Syrian Kurds declared autonomy along Turkey’s southern border, but the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, tried to reach some sort of agreement with Turkey at the beginning.
This notwithstanding, the Turkish government refused to engage with the PYD on any level, especially after the Kurdish peace process in Turkey came to a halt. That is not to say that Turkey would not have any problem with Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria even if its Kurdish policy were more moderate, but Turkey would have not faced so many crises in the region in such a case.
Unfortunately, it would not be possible to suggest a revision to the Kurdish policy within the framework of the crisis in the Middle East or within the framework of democratic politics at home, without facing a nationalist uproar and backlash in Turkey. Worse than that, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has long been held hostage to nationalism concerning the Kurdish issue and foreign policy.
Most recently, a CHP MP, Öztürk Yılmaz, criticized the governing party and Erdoğan for failing to stand up against the U.S. At the same time, the party is expected to warn the governing party to avoid putting Turkey in the position of North Korea by antagonizing the international community. Still, the opposition often tries to corner Erdoğan and his party on the grounds that it is not being nationalist or anti-Westernist enough, rather than suggest sober policy revisions concerning major issues like the Kurdish question and international and regional politics.
Yıldırım might have stated “we are not in a position to declare war on the U.S.,” but it also means that we would be on the verge of conflagration if it were possible to challenge the world power. Our only hope is that Erdoğan makes it up with Trump by then.