Unheeded Warnings and Turkey’s Multiple Wars

Turkish columnist Cengiz Candar bewails Turkey’s wrong-headed Syria policy and expresses the consensus view that involvement in Syria’s civil war has destabilised his country.

Candar, along with Amberin Zaman and Kadri Gursel, who are also columnists in al-Monitor, are among rare Turkish commentators who can view the events in Turkey from a western perspective and report with little fear or favour.

His article begins with the final paragraph of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s piece in the Guardian post-Reina club attack:

“The country is at a critical juncture — or perhaps beyond it… Once we thought Turkey would be a shining role model for the Muslim world; now we are worried that our country may in fact be following some of its worst examples.”

Along with Patrick Cockburn, of Independent, Candar also notes that it is not so much the number of the dead in the attacks but the diversity of ‘terrorist’ organisations confronting Turkey that should be of grave concern.

Currently, it is al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) offshoot Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) have claimed responsibility for mass casualty assaults in Turkish cities. ISIS goes for soft civilian targets, while TAK targets specifically the police force that caused multiple massacres in the country’s Kurdish southeast last year. It is highly likely that Assad regime elements also targeted Free Syrian Army jihadists in Turkey, with 2014 Reyhanli attack a case in point.

Indeed, during the ISIS siege of Kobani in 2014, Turkish leaders were warned by western diplomats, Turkish commentators, and a number of think-tanks, near unanimously, that its Syria policy is fundamentally wrong; that Turkey should be helping the Kurds defending Kobani instead of cheering on for the town’s fall in ISIS hands.

Ultimately, while Turksh soldiers sitting on their tanks watched the battle for Kobani, the US dropped arms for the Kurdish defenders and started a bombing campaign that defeated ISIS in Rojava (Northern Syria). Under pressure from the US, Turkey also allowed passage for a small, heavily armed, contingent of Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga troops to help liberate Kobani.

In Kobane, Turkey lost a historic opportunity to make peace with its beleaguered Kurdish citizens and to ally with them against Islamic extremism in Syria and elsewhere. Had turkey been positive to the idea, the PKK would have transferred all of its armed forces in Turkey to go save Kobani from ISIS. Instead, turkey chose to re-ignite the war with the PKK.

Katherine Wilkens of Carnegie Endowment Institute warned at the time that:

The outcome of the battle for Kobane will have significant implications for the fight against the Islamic State and developments in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq moving forward.

The belief that Turkey’s Kurds have no other option in the face of the Islamic State threat but to hitch their wagon to Ankara represents a risky gamble by Turkish leaders. If open conflict with the PKK resumes, Ankara could potentially find itself facing three challenges to its security simultaneously—the PKK, Assad, and the Islamic State—effectively a three front war.

No one in Ankara listened to that sage advice in October 2014, and now Turkey, although ruled by a strongman, is at war on multiple fronts. Too late to bewail now.