Turkey’s high-risk power play
For most Westerners, Turkey is a hard nut to crack.
How can you understand a state sponsor of terrorism that is also a member of NATO?
How can you explain Turkey’s facilitation of Kurdish independence in Iraq in light of Turkey’s hundred-year opposition to Kurdish independence?
What is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan trying to accomplish here?
Is he nuts?
On the terrorism support front, today Turkey vies with Iran for the title of leading state sponsor of terrorism.
First there is Hamas.
Last week an Israeli security official told the media that the abduction of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah was organized and directed by Saleh al-Arouri, a Hamas commander operating out of Turkey.
Turkey has welcomed Hamas to its territory and served as its chief booster to the West since the jihadist terror group won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Erdogan has played a key role in getting the EU to view Hamas as a legitimate actor, despite its avowedly genocidal goals.
Then there is al-Qaida. As Daniel Pipes documented in The Washington Times last week, Turkey has been the largest supporter and enabler of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Erdogan’s government has allowed ISIS fighters to train in Turkey and cross the border between Turkey and Syria at will to participate in the fighting. Moreover, according to Pipes, Turkey “provided the bulk of ISIS’s funds, logistics, training and arms.”
Similarly, Turkey has sponsored the al-Nusra Front, ISIS’s al-Qaida counterpart and ally in Syria.
The Assad regime is not the Turkish- sponsored al-Qaida-aligned forces’ only target in Syria. They have also been engaged in heavy fighting against Rojava, the emerging Kurdish state in northwest Syria. Yet the same Turkey that is sponsoring al-Qaida’s assault on Syrian Kurdistan is facilitating the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In breach of Iraqi law that requires the Kurds to sell their oil through the central government and share oil revenues with the central government, earlier this month Turkey signed a 50-year deal allowing the Kurds to export oil to the world market through a Turkish pipeline. The Kurds are currently pumping around 120,000 barrels of oil a day to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Top Turkish officials have in recent weeks come out openly in support for Iraqi Kurdish independence from Baghdad.
Following ISIS’s takeover of Mosul, Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling AKP party told the Kurdish Rudaw news service, “It has become clear for us that Iraq has practically become divided into three parts.”
Blaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for Iraq’s instability Celik said, “The Kurds of Iraq can decide where to live and under what title they want to live. Turkey does not decide for them.”
To date, most Western analyses of the Erdogan regime’s behavior have come up short because their authors ignore its strategic goal. In this failing, analyses of Turkey are similar to those of its Shi’ite counterpart in Iran. And both regimes’ goals are wished away for the same reason: Western observers can’t identify with them.
Iran is not a status quo power. It is a revolutionary power. Iran’s goal is not regional hegemony per se, but global supremacy.
As Lee Smith recently noted, two decades before al-Qaida and its goal of establishing a global Islamic caliphate burst onto the scene, Ayatollah Khomeini had already made the Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War the basis for Iran’s foreign policy. He viewed his Shi’ite theocracy as the rightful leader of the Islamic empire that would destroy all non-believers and their civilization.
Iran’s first act of foreign policy – the takeover of the US Embassy in Teheran – was a declaration of war not only against the US, but against the nation-state system as a whole.
Iran uses terror, irregular warfare and subversion to achieve its ends because such tactics induce chaos.
As Iran expert Michael Ledeen wrote last week, to defeat the US in Iraq, “the Iranian regime provoked all manner of violence, from tribal to ethnic, because they believed they were better able to operate in chaos.”
The US failed to understand Iran’s strategy because the US was unable to reconcile itself with the fact that other actors do not seek stability as it does.
Like Iran’s mullahs, Erdogan and his colleagues also reject the nation-state system. In their case, they wish to replace it with a restored Ottoman Empire.
Spelling out his goal in a speech in the spring of 2012, Erdogan described Turkey’s mission thus: “On the historic march of our holy nation, the AK Party signals the birth of a global power and the mission for a new world order. This is the centenary of our exit from the Middle East [following the Ottoman defeat in World War I]. Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, from 2011 to 2023 we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands.”
To achieve this goal, like Iran, Turkey seeks to destabilize states and reduce peoples to their ethnic, sub-national identities. The notion is that by dividing societies into their component parts, the various groups will all be weaker than one unified state, and all of them will feel threatened by one another and in need of outside support.
This is the same model Erdogan is following in Turkey itself as he remakes it in his Ottoman mold.
As Amir Taheri explained last October, Erdogan has been encouraging members of ethnic groups that long ago melted into the larger Turkish culture to rediscover their disparate identities, learn their unique languages and so separate out from the majority culture of the country. At the same time he is repressing the Kurds, Alevis and Armenians, minorities that have maintained their identities at great cost.
In parallel to his attempt to subsume the Kurds, Alevis and Armenians into a wider morass of separate sub-Turkish ethnicities, Erdogan has been assiduously cultivating hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood associations to enable their takeover of mosques and other key institutions to build a countrywide support base for Islamic supremacism.
By fragmenting Turkish society into long-forgotten component parts while uniting it under radical Islam, he wishes to unite the country under his Sultanate rule while dividing its various factions against one another to maintain support for the regime over the long haul.
A large part of repressing the Kurds at home involves denying them outside assistance. This is where Iraqi Kurdistan comes into the picture.
By acting like Iraqi Kurdistan’s best friend, Erdogan hopes to attenuate their support for Turkish Kurds.
While Turkey and Iran are rivals in undermining the international system, their goals are the same, and their strategies for achieving their goals are also similar. But while their chaos strategy is brilliant in its way, it is also high risk. By its very nature, chaos is hard, if not impossible to control. Situations often get out of hand. Plans backfire.
What we are seeing today in Syria and Iraq and the wider region demonstrates the chaos strategy’s drawbacks.
As Pinchas Inbari detailed in a recent report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Syrian civil war is causing millions of Syrians to leave the country and their migrations are changing the face of many countries.
For instance, their arrival in Lebanon has transformed the multi-ethnic state into one with a preponderant Sunni majority, thus watering down Hezbollah’s support base.
The Kurds in Iraq may feel they need Turkey today, but there is no reason to assume that this will remain the case for long.
Kurdish unity across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran will destabilize not only Turkey, but Iran, where Kurds make up around ten percent of the population. Iranian Kurdistan also abuts the Azeri provinces. Azeris comprise nearly half the population of Iran.
As for ISIS, it is scoring victories in Iraq today. But its forces are vastly outnumbered by the Baathists and the Sunni tribesmen that defeated al Qaida in 2006. There is no reason to assume that these disparate groups won’t get tired of their new medieval rulers.
Many commentators claimed that Erdogan’s recent foreign policy setbacks in the Arab world convinced him to abandon neo-Ottomanism in favor of more modest goals. But his cultivation of Iraqi Kurdistan, and his sponsorship of ISIS, al-Nusra, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas tell a different story.
Erdogan remains an Islamic imperialist.
Like Iran he aims to destroy the global order and replace it with an Islamic empire. But like Iran, if his adversaries get wise to what he is doing, it won’t be very difficult to beat him at his own game by using his successes to defeat him.