The prominent Turkish columnist Murat Yetkin wrote that «tens of thousands of demonstrators in the predominantly Kurdish populated towns in east and southeast Turkey held rallies ‘to celebrate the revolution in Rojaya, or the Kurdish region in Syria, as they call it». The political temperature in the rest of Turkey is also shooting up with all-round criticism of the government’s policy on Syria.
Prime Minister Recep Erdogan began with an excellent personal equation with President Bashar al-Assad till he abruptly changed course at the instigation of the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and swung to the other extreme to be the spearhead of the regime-change agenda.
Turkey expected that the Syrian regime was tottering in the face of the Arab Spring blowing across the region and would collapse overnight. But the Syrian regime has shown its staying power and the armed forces are steadily regaining the upper hand with a string of military victories. Turkey’s covert operations aimed at forcing Syrian forcesout of the northern region so that a ‘buffer zone’ could be created for infiltrating rebel fighters, supplying them with weapons and establishing ‘safe havens’. But in the event, it has led to a power vacuum in that sensitive region into which the PYD is now stepping in.
The PYD leader Saleh Muslim rubbed this in on Friday while announcing the setting up of an independent council to govern the Kurdish region in Syria. «It’s just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and our people have needs. They want some kind of administration to handle their issues», Muslim explained. Turkey had hoped that the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani whom it patronizes would restrain the PYD from pushing the envelope of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, but that too is proving a misplaced expectation.
To be sure, there is extreme disquiet in Ankara. On Thursday Turkish President Abdullah Gul met for over two hours with Prime Minister Erdogan and the chief of general staff Gen. Necdet Ozel to discuss the emergent situation in northern Syria. But what can Turkey do now? In Yetkin’s estimation, «Will strong messages by Ankara and a beefed up military along the Syrian border deter the PKK and its sister organizations from their plans to tailor out a Kurdish Spring out of a failed Arab Spring? It is not easy to say ‘yes’ to this question, since it will be a major surprise if Turkish military intervenes in Syria without a NATO consensus».
Not a word of support
The Kurdish surge comes at a time when Turkey’s ties with Europe and the United States are under strain. Indeed, Turkish commentators speculate that there could even be a congruence of interests between the western powers and the Syrian Kurds over the latter’s military potential to counter and weaken the extremist Al-Nusra Front affiliated to the al-Qaeda. Historically, the Kurds have acted as pawns in the US’ regional policies. In the fighting on Saturday, Syrian Kurdish fighters fought fierce battles against jihadists in several areas of northeast Syria, where they captured a prominent jihadi commander with the nom-de-guerre Abu Musab.
Washington’s support has been extremely vital for Ankara to cope with the Kurdish problem. The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by the Turkish security agencies in February 1999 in Kenya was possible only with the back up fromAmerican intelligence. However, the US state department spokesperson Jen Psakihas so far evaded a straight reply when asked to comment on the latest developments in northern Syria.
The spokesperson’s stance is that the US has concerns over the «propensity for spillover violence» and regional instability; it is «watching events on the ground all across Syria very closely»; «very concerned» that any declaration by the PYD of an independent Kurdish region in Syria will be «highly provocative, as it will certainly exasperate tensions between Arabs and Kurds and give extremists to exploit the situation».
Psaki said not a word expressing solidarity with Turkey. Nor would she be drawn into discussion regarding contacts the US would be having with the PYD or other Kurdish groups in the region.
Washington doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Ankara on several issues. Principally, the latter’s moves to strengthen direct ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] in northern Iraq, bypassing Baghdadand Turkey’s burgeoning economic relations with Arbil, particularly the dealings on oil, haveemboldened the KRG to defy the federal government in Baghdad, whereas,the US has been warning Ankara against undercutting the unity of Iraq.
Turkey on its part has been unhappy with the Obama administration for cold-shouldering its pleas for a robust western military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, the deep chill in Turkey’s ties with Israel worriesthe US. Obama took a hand during his visit to Israel in mid-March to mediate a patch-up, but Erdoganfinds it expedient on the «Arab Street» to be seen crossing swords with Tel Aviv. Most recently,Turkish ruling party members alleged a «Zionist» conspiracy behind the anti-government protests in Istanbul. A nadir has been reachedand it complicates the US’ regional agenda.
Again, Erdoganflaunts his contacts with the Hamas leadership and when secretary of state John Kerry said Washington considered it «objectionable» that Erdogan was contemplating a trip to Gaza, Ankara retorted by saying, «only the Turkish government decides when and where the prime minister or any other Turkish official travels to». Washington has lately begun voicing criticism of Erdogan government’s crackdown on political dissent and condemned Ankara for excessive use of violence against the protestors in Istanbul.
The Obama administration used to praise Turkey’s «moderate» leadership and it was from Istanbul that Obama made his famous overture in 2009 to the Muslim Middle East. The US projected Erdoganas the role model for the new Middle East to emerge out of the «Arab Spring». But all that is history today. The US’ attitude toward political Islam has become ambivalent and the events in Egypt highlight, inter alia, a degree of wariness in Washington regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional agenda.
On the contrary, Erdogan insists he still considers Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s presidentand refuses to speak withthe new vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei. Unsurprisingly, Obama is ignoring the Turkish leader inhis regional consultations overEgypt. In sum, the wheel has come full circle and the Obama administration has abandoned the high expectations regarding Erdogan’s usefulness to advance the US’s regional strategies.
Indeed, there has also been a disconnect between Turkey’s real capabilities and Erdogan’soverblown ambitions, which alienated the oneother regional capitalthat mattered to Ankara mostin coping with its Kurdish problem – Tehran. Turkey’s miscalculation has been appalling and becomes amorality play of overreach.
There was a time not too long ago when Turkey and Brazil defied the US on the Iran nuclear issue and offered a hand of friendship to Tehran. But by November 2011, Erdogan changed course and allowed the deployment of NATO’s missile defence system in Malatya whose stated purpose was to counter Iran’s missile capability. Again the Syrian conflict finds Turkey and Iran arrayed against each other. Meanwhile, the West encouraged the flare-up of sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite schism in the region as the core Middle Eastern question and portraying Turkey and Iran as archrivalsvying for regional supremacy.
The heart of the matter is that within Turkey the West began lionizing the Islamists no sooner than the Cold War ended, counting on their potential to vanquish the satte ideology of Kemalism, which was heavily laden with Turkic nationalism. However, Islamismunder Erdogan’s watch has proved even more assertive than Kemalism and also happens to be a supranational ideology with regional appeal, which aspires to offer a blueprint for the «Arab Spring».
Put differently, Erdogan’s»strategic defiance» of the western regional policies needs to be curbed. The exclusion of Ankara from Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy to kick start the Middle East peace process is a poignant signal to Erdogan where to get off.
Of course, the West has no interest in destabilizing Turkey and disrupting its flourishing economy (which is a thriving market at Europe’s doorstep) or challenging the territorial integrity and redrawing the map of a NATO ally that remains integral to the western alliance system (in selective roles, though).
The point is, Erdogan needs to be brought down by a peg or twoso that he understands the inherent limits to an independentrole in regional politics and the pitfalls of overreach. This is where the Kurdish Spring may come handy.