For weeks, idle Turkish tanks have been watching from the hills in southeastern Turkey as Islamic State forces pound the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, just a few hundred meters across the border. That lassitude has prompted many Westerners to voice doubts about Turkey’s commitment to eradicating the Islamic State. But it is fears rooted in Turkey’s own history that are exerting the most influence over Ankara’s stance in the international war against this terrorist group.
“The Kurdish phobias have been revised again with the events in Kobane,” warned diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Taraf newspaper.
For three decades, the Turkish state waged a bitter war against the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Group (PKK) over rights for ethnic Kurds, the country’s largest minority. The fighting killed or displaced tens of thousands and left a deep divide in Turkish society over how to preserve stability while respecting minority rights.
A nearly two-year-long peace process between Ankara and the PKK has done nothing to answer these questions, or to allay officials’ mistrust of Kurds.
For this reason, Ankara has maintained a wary stance toward the three Kurdish-run autonomous provinces in Syria that border ethnic Kurdish areas of Turkey, and Turkish officials have steadfastly refused international calls for an arms corridor through Turkey to supply Kobane.
Turkey’s motivation is simple; if Kurdish fighters, with coalition ssistance, prevail in Kobane, “[i]t will mean we finally gained a victory, we made a revolution and we defended against a counter-revolution,” elaborated parliamentary deputy Ertugrul Kürkçü, honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party. “It will be a huge psychological advance; not only for Syrian Kurds, but also Turkey’s and Iran’s Kurds.”
That is one psychological booster that Ankara does not want to enable. Most Turks believe the government’s claim that Syria’s Kurdish provinces have ties to the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and European Union.
Consequently, many Turks, mindful of past foreign partitions of Ottoman or Turkish-held territory, now equate outside efforts to push Ankara into coming to Kobane’s defense with an attempt to undermine stability in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. “There is this public perception that all of this that is happening is being designed outside the country, probably in Washington, to create a greater Kurdistan,” said Idiz.
Meanwhile, Ankara is lobbying for the scope of international action in Syria to expand from operations against the Islamic State (IS) to include the Syrian regime itself. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has made no secret that an expansion is the price of Turkey’s joining the battle against the Islamic State. “We need a multi-layered, not a single-layer approach,” Davutoğlu told MPs on October 14.
As yet, no sign has emerged that other members of the anti-IS coalition want to expand Syria operations.
The risks to Turkey for doing nothing appear to be increasing. Earlier this month, over 30 people were killed in unrest in half of Turkey’s provinces as anger at Ankara’s refusal to help Kobane boiled over into the streets. It took the intervention of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan – ironically, at the government’s request – to restore order.
“The government used the nuclear option,” dryly remarked Soli Özel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. At the same time, it was not an option that prevented the Turkish army from bombing PKK bases in Turkey on October 13 in response to an alleged attack.
The air strikes, the first in an 18-month ceasefire, only raised additional questions in the West about Ankara’s priorities. “Ankara and the United States and its other allies, even other Sunni members of the coalition, are not on the same page as Turkey,” observed Kadri Gürsel, diplomatic columnist for the mainstream Milliyet daily.
Aside from Kurdish concerns, reluctance among Turkey’s ruling Sunni-Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party to take on a Sunni uprising in Syria further distances Ankara from its Western allies, he continued.
Ankara delivered what Turkish media dubbed an “Ottoman slap” to Washington when it refuted the claim that Turkey would allow anti-IS coalition members to use its Incirlik military base.
A senior Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted to EurasiaNet.org that Turkey remains committed to the war against the Islamic State and that talks are continuing over use of the base. Nonetheless, international patience over Turkey’s hesitancy appears to be dwindling – with potentially alarming consequences for Ankara.
French President François Hollande has called for the arming of Syrian Kurds in Kobane, while in Germany the idea is being floated of even arming the PKK.
Volker Kauder, the leader of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party, told Der Spiegel Online on October 15 that German “support for the PKK,” among other anti-IS groups, could not be excluded.
“But this would have to be done with Turkey, not against it,” noted Kauder in comments that seemed not to take Turkey’s history with the PKK into account.
The prospect of its allies even talking about arming the PKK is likely to cause deep concern in Ankara. But, as the failure of Turkey’s October 16 bid to gain a non-voting seat on the United Nations Security Council suggests, foreign sympathy for Turkish interests these days does not necessarily run deep.
“In terms of public opinion, [the] outside world may turn against Turkey,” predicted analyst Özel.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.