The recent Turkish attacks on IS and PKK indicate that Erdogan’s regional strategy has failed, while Assad’s seems more likely to succeed.
Turkey has rapidly changed its approach towards IS by engaging in direct military combat, while simultaneously attacking Kurdish targets. For a long time, Erdogan seemed hesitant to engage either PKK or IS; the former due to peace talks, the latter due to hopes that IS would topple Syrian dictator Assad, creating a more pro-Turkish regime. The attacks indicate that both approaches have failed.
The increasing IS activity (boy, I sure know my euphemisms!) put Erdogan in quite a predicament: He had ben tolerating, if not supporting them, in order to topple Assad’s regime in Syria. Back when the Syrian civil war started, and the Western countries were cautious to intervene, Erdogan’s new Middle Eastern policy seemed to bear fruits. Everywhere in the Middle East, pro-Islamic, mostly pro-Democratic movements like the AKP emerged: Ennahda in Tunisia, FJP in Egypt, and countless minor groups in Syria, Algeria and Jordan. And after the successes in Tunisia and Egypt, it seemed like another pro-Turkish movement might succeed in Syria; after all, who would support them more than Egypt? Certainly not the US, who seemed so hesitant. Turkish activity in Syria was quite interesting, considering that Ankara had promoted a more moderate stance towards Assad and been an important partner in negotiations in the region. With the civil war, it was obvious now that Turkey was promoting regime change.
However, the war would drag on, longer than anyone could hope for. And Turkey’s new allies in the region, one by one, disappeared: Mubarak in Egypt was ousted by a coup, Ennahda is clinging to power through shaky coalitions, and in Syria, the regime is successful at preventing major gains by the opposition.
Assad’s waiting game
In a position were Assad could not win, he did everything to not lose either. Why fight IS if there are more fragmented targets? And even more importantly: Why fight a group in the periphery of the state, that is getting attack by third parties like the US and Kurdish militants? While the regime was consolidating its power base and putting pressure on smaller groups, IS was busy fighting Kurdish militants and Bagdad, while the US where busy bombing IS controlled regions.
This however meant that the moderate opposition in Syria was marginalized, so only IS (a group inacceptable to the international community), and Assad (someone the West seemed determined to oust, but still the lesser evil). US efforts to train “moderate” groups have so far resulted in only 54 recruits, whose leadership was already abducted by IS. Finding recruits seems to be hard for the US. Assad is being successful; not in winning, but in a situation where only his regime and IS are left, and if forced to choose, Assad is the better option than IS for the international community. Assad’s offer of amnesty for deserters is pushing towards that goal; uniting the anti-IS coalition under his leadership is a viable strategy.
As long as possible, Erdogan refused to play this game. Instead, he would ignore IS activity in Turkey and in the border area of Turkey, hoping they would weaken both Kurdish insurgents and the Syrian regime. However, after the IS attack in Suruc, domestic pressure to do something grew. It is not like there were no signs; increased police activity against IS-supporters indicated a changing Turkish stance. But Suruc was the final straw.
The military attacks, however, are endangering Turkey’s previous policy. By attacking Assad’s enemies for him, Erdogan got drawn into his game. Admitting to having been wrong would have been a major defeat for Erdogan. Meanwhile, the operations implied increased Nato cooperation. Turkey needs US support, both militarily and diplomatically, for complicated operations like prolonged air strikes and operational zones in its border area. Thus, suddenly, the Turkey is relying on the US again, more than its new-found strength and diplomatic activity in the last decade would have indicated.
To soften that blow, Erdogan did have to spin the air strikes. Not into him having been wrong, changing his foreign policy, but rather into a display of strength, that allows him to gain domestic power. And that is why the attack had to include the PKK. The message being that Turkey does not have an IS problem, but a terrorism problem, including all kinds of groups, like the PKK. This effectively ends both their ceasefire and the peace talks, something that Erdogan was elected to pursue. After all, he was the first Turkish politician with a good chance of ending the bloody war in Turkey’s east, giving him a chance to expand economic cooperation with the Kurdish areas in Syrian and Iraq, in their combined fight against IS.
Instead, we now have renewed fights. The electoral success of pro-Kurdish HDP in the last Turkish elections certainly did not help. The war does create a huge dilemma for Kurdish politician Demirtas: When telling the PKK to stop fighting, he risks losing support from his main voter base in the Kurdish areas. When criticising the attacks, that also cause civilian deaths, he risks being associated with the PKK, and thus “the enemy”, damaging not only his polls among non-Kurdish voters, but possibly even leading to legal repercussions for members of his party.
The attack on the PKK, thus, help frame the attacks on IS to Erdogan’s advantage, while putting pressure on his main political foes. And the 3-4 percent he might get just from rallying around the flag (I’m not making that term up) would be enough to win the next elections. To spell it out for you: I’m not saying Erdogan is cynical enough to start a war, just to win elections. But he is certainly smart enough to be aware of this effect and is welcoming it.
…and the winner is:
Hopefully, the attack on Kurdish areas will not last too long, but rather lead to renewed peace talks. However, Erdogan has made one thing very clear: Peace talks in Turkey are only possible with a political leader enjoying strong support. And dissidence is not something he approves of. If everything goes well, peace will ensue, but democracy will face some more obstacles. His dreams of a new foreign policy, however, have experienced another major setback. That is good for the US – a reliable Turkey is one of Washington’s most important assets in the region, and reliability is a rare thing nowadays.
As for Assad, he can watch with contempt as his enemies fight his other enemies for him, while he consolidates control over the rest of the country.