Turkey’s Kurdish phobia resurfaces

Turkey’s Kurdish phobia resurfaces

A Turkey that was flying high at the time with ambitious plans for the Middle East under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have started off trying to shape the new Syria on the basis of democratic arguments. Given the AKP’s understanding of democracy as majoritarian rule, and the realities of Syria’s demography, this meant in effect that Ankara was banking on a Sunni majority government that would be friendly to Turkey.

With developments following the Arab Spring, it became clearer over time that what really lay in the AKP’s hearts was to see the emergence of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Syria. This would have completed the circle for Ankara as the brotherhood gradually came to power across the Middle East and North Africa. President Bashar al-Assad, however, proved to have much more resilience than expected by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, not to mention their team of advisers.

Developments in the Middle East did not shape up as expected either, and the Egyptian coup has dealt a serious blow, not just to the brotherhood, but also to the AKP’s “vision” for the region. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are fighting now to keep this vision alive but are alone in this endeavor, having been cold-shouldered also by the region’s established Sunni order, which is supporting the interim government in Egypt.

In short, the AKP now faces the possibility that al-Assad and his Baathist cronies may be around for longer than expected. Meanwhile, Ankara’s backing of Islamist groups that are not only fighting al-Assad’s forces, but were also expected to keep the Syrian Kurds at bay, is also proving to have been a miscalculation. The result is that Turkey’s “Kurdish phobia” has resurfaced with the victory in northern Syria of the Democratic Union of Party (PYD) against al-Qaeda-related groups.

The fact that the PYD is organically linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a violent separatist campaign in Turkey for Kurdish autonomy, complicates matters even further for the AKP, given the government’s ongoing peace process with the PKK.

There is an angry talk coming out of Ankara now with Davutoğlu vowing that Turkey will not tolerate any “fait accompli” in northern Syria that runs the risk of dividing Syria along ethnic lines. But there seems little Turkey can do to stop the course of developments despite such statements.

The call by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli to send in the tanks to northern Syria to prevent the Kurds from gaining authority also has no credibility or credence. Not only would this embroil Ankara in an armed conflict in the Middle East, at a time when not everyone in the region is friendly toward Turkey, but it would also ruin any chance of domestic peace with the PKK, thus involving Turkey in conflicts both inside and outside the country.

With such high stakes, the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity is once again of prime importance for Ankara but will require a radical change to the AKP’s overall game plan. The new plan will also have to involve some form of dialogue with the PYD, as an extension of the ongoing dialogue with the PKK. As matters stand, the PYD is already trying to reach out to Ankara with assurances that it has no ill intentions toward Turkey.

The new game plan will also have to override the AKP’s obsession with the al-Assad regime, especially now that it is apparent that no one – including Britain, France, and the United States – is prepared to help arm the Syrian opposition in a meaningful way.

But given Erdoğan’s hard-line stance, which has proved to be to the detriment of Turkey’s interests, on issues from Gaza to Syria, and now to relations with Egypt, it remains an open question whether the AKP is ready, or even capable at this point in time of revealing a new game plan based on the prevailing realities of the region. It seems things may have to get worse before the AKP realizes it has been flogging a dead horse.