What will Turkey’s role be in shaping the region?

What will Turkey’s role be in shaping the region?

Developments show that it is the powers that defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who will determine the future of Syria and Iraq. All of the accusations leveled at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are correct, of course, but the real enemy for the world today is not him but ISIL. 

That is why the international war against this group has intensified. The U.S.-supported Iraqi army is said to be close to clearing the strategic town of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, of ISIL. The Iraqi army is also poised now to take back Mosul, which fell to ISIL in 2014.

In Syria, the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the Syrian Kurds play a major role, are also advancing against ISIL. The SDF recently captured the strategic Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates, as well as seven nearby villages. Their target now is Raqqa which is considered to be “the capital of ISIL.” 

There are also reports that the SDF has already moved west of the Euphrates and is working to clear that area, too. It is obvious that the U.S. and Russia are cooperating against ISIL, even if they are doing this indirectly. 

This has not ended their struggle for regional influence, of course. Russia’s bombing of mostly Sunni anti-al-Assad fighters in northern Syria – including the Turkmens that Ankara is sensitive about – rather than ISIL targets, has to be seen in this light as well. The two superpowers are nevertheless moving cautiously in order not to step on each other’s toes. Meanwhile, they are maintaining their open and secret diplomatic dialogue on Syria and Iraq. Put another way, it is clear which powers will lead the efforts to reshape the region after ISIL has been defeated.

Where Turkey – which acts with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria in supporting anti-al-Assad Sunni groups – will fit into this equation is not clear. To start with, if we leave aside the accusations Moscow is hurling at Ankara after Turkey downed the Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24, there are indications that many in Washington also have lingering doubts over just how committed Turkey is to the war against ISIL.

The negative reaction by the U.S. to Turkey’s recent attempt to deploy troops in Bashiqa in Iraq, near Mosul, was most probably also the result of continuing doubts that the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is pursuing an agenda that is not quite in line with the West’s main priorities.

One may justifiably ask, of course, why Turkey should not pursue its own agenda in these two countries when everyone else is doing so. But Turkey needs to have the necessary military and political clout to be able to successfully promote its specific interests in the region. It lacks these today, having weakened its hand with a series of wrong moves.

This will become apparent again when fighters attached to the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), who are operating with U.S. support under the SDF banner, move west of the Euphrates, if indeed they have not done so already.

Turkey has declared the YPG and its mother organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which have links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to be terrorist organizations. It has also set a “red line” against these groups moving west of the Euphrates and establishing a foothold there.

Ankara is worried that the Kurds will gain a corridor along Turkey’s border with Syria which links Kurdish northern Iraq with the Mediterranean, and has vowed to prevent this. But it is not clear what Turkey can do if the PYD and YPG, with U.S. support, crosses its “red line.” 

The most likely outcome is that it will not be able to go beyond making angry statements. It is apparent that a country that cannot enforce its red lines is not poised to be a major international player. 

Pursuing overambitious policies which are removed from reality often ends up harming the interests of a country. That is the positon the AKP has landed Turkey in today.