Between Iraq and a Hard Place

By Glenn M Stewart B.A. M.A. Oxon:

The approval given by the Turkish parliament to allow Turkish troops to conduct military operations against the Islamic State should be seen as a complex and disingenuous policy.

Several political considerations will pull Turkey in different directions. Their support of the US led coalition will not be straightforward and will fall short of expectations in Washington.

Up until now Turkey has given support to the Islamic State in a number of ways. They have let foreign recruits pass through their border into Syria. They have allowed arms to go to the Syrian opposition some of which have fallen into the hands of IS fighters. They have supported IS attacks on the Kurds, particularly on the Kurdish Peoples Protection Force (YPG) in Syria.

Although the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to temper his Islamic agenda in public, he in fact has an incrementalist Islamic agenda of his own. This has made him not unsympathetic to some of IS’s goals. He and the Turkish leadership see IS as a weapon that they can use to remove Bashar Al Assad from power in Syria and ultimately to thwart Kurdish aspirations to create a larger independent polity in Kurdistan.

It should not be forgotten that the Ottoman Sultans also held the paramount position in Islam of Khalifat Allah or God’s Vice Regent for four centuries. This position conferred on them both ultimate spiritual and temporal power in Islam. Many in the Turkish leadership view the potential re-establishment of the Caliphate as something that should be theirs by right as it fits in so well with their revanchist views of their past and its glories.

Although Turkey is under pressure from the West and the US in particular to participate in the fight against IS, I do not expect them to send their troops into Syria or Iraq. In fact, the Defense Minister Ismat Yilmaz stated “Don’t expect any immediate steps”.

What is more likely is that Turkey will use its army to try to seal its border against further Kurdish refugees and to undermine the ability of the Kurdish forces effectively to fight IS. Syria and the YPG are of particular concern as this part of Syria is now in a position to join the Kurdish Autonomus Region in Iraq and thus enhance Kurdish power on Turkey’s southern frontier.

The double game that Turkey is playing will only further exacerbate tensions with the large Kurdish population in Eastern Anatolia. Already there is increased co-operation between the various Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and the PKK. The current Turkish inaction over the IS attack on Kobani has already prompted the PKK to indicate to the Turkish government that the fall of Kobani will jeopardize the peace talks between the two parties.

In the current situation the US policy of classifying the PKK as a terrorist organization is misguided.  It is only as a result of Turkey using its leverage as a member of NATO to have had the PKK so designated in the first place. If indeed the US wants to expand the fight against IS without committing US troops to the region then it needs to strengthen the Peshmerga and to achieve this we should also work with the PKK.

The political reality in the region is changing and the US needs more reliable partners and an enlarged Kurdish state would be the best partner we could have in the region. For example the airbase at Incirlik can easily be replaced with an equivalent base in Kurdistan. That shift would diminish Turkish influence over US policy and allow us to focus on creating a better balance of power in the region.

It is of course premature to predict how all of this will play out, but the Kurds need to seize this opportunity, put aside some of their own divisions and create the state they have long deserved. To do so they will need to keep one eye on Turkey, one on Iraq and one on Iran. However, it is not well known in the West that the Kurds are descended from some of King Solomon’s jinn.  We can only assume that this fact will help them succeed in their current struggles.

Glenn M Stewart was educated at Oxford University where he was a member of The Queen’s College, Glenn M Stewart obtained a BA and an MA in Oriental Studies with an emphasis in Islamic History and Arabic language. He resided in the Middle East for 27 years working with Arab-owned businesses giving him a unique and unparalleled view into both the business, cultural and political aspects of this challenging region. He is one of the world’s foremost experts in Islamic commercial law and has lectured on Middle Eastern affairs at Oxford and Harvard Universities.

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