Turkish military intervention against Isil in northern Syria looks like a neat solution to the West’s dilemma in dealing with the threat from jihadi terrorists. In London, Washington and European capitals we want to destroy Isil – but without getting our feet dirty. Boots on the ground are taboo for President Barack Obama and David Cameron, so all eyes are turning to our old ally in Ankara to solve the problem. As a neighbour to both Iraq and Syria, our leaders ask themselves, hasn’t Turkey got a direct national interest in stability across its borders?
What’s more, with Nato’s second largest army, Turkey could easily strike a deadly blow against Isil in what is no-go terrain for her Western partners. But for days the serried ranks of Turkish tanks have been marshalled a few hundred yards from the bitter fighting in the Syrian border town of Kobani, like Stalin’s Red Army outside Warsaw in 1944. Despite repeated pleas for action from John Kerry, Ankara’s troops remain spectators to the crisis.
Kobani is a Kurdish town. That’s the nub of the matter. Kurds, both in Turkey and across Europe, have been demanding action: the Dutch Parliament has been besieged by Kurdish-led protests (which were promptly followed by the Dutch Air Force joining Nato attacks on Isil in Iraq); meanwhile, as many as 14 Kurds have been killed in confrontations with the Turkish police. But still Ankara watches and waits.
The reasons are clear. For Turkey’s Nato allies, Isil is the problem and arming the Kurds part of the solution. For Turkey, however, Kurdish ambitions for a state are a mortal threat. Nor do Sunni adversaries of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria want to see a Kurdish state carved out of their country. And the reality is that, although a long-term Nato ally, Turkey has been diverging in key respects from its Western allies since 2002.
For 12 years, Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in an Islamic reaction to the tide of secularism that swept the country after Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate 90 years ago. Ironically, since being elected president in August, AKP leader Recep Tayip Erdogan has achieved a political dominance unparalleled since Ataturk’s death in 1938. But Erdogan is the antithesis of modern Turkey’s father-figure.
Ataturk wanted to distance the new Turkey from the Ottoman Empire’s involvement with Arabs and Muslims. Europe is the future, forget the past was his motto. Yet neo-Ottomanism is the grand name of Erdogan’s foreign policy today. Although AKP leaders have publicly remained loyal to Turkey’s application to join the EU, the lure of religious solidarity with Sunni Arab movements from Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brothers of both Egypt and Syria has had a stronger emotional pull.
Since 2011, when the civil war began in Syria, Erdogan has called for the fall of Assad, an Alawite ally of Shia Muslims, and backed Sunnis in Syria who are no friends of the local Kurds. For those Kurds, the Turkish president’s demand that they subordinate themselves to his Sunni allies in Syria if they want the Turkish Army to advance south has been an unacceptable ultimatum. They are well aware that Sunni fundamentalist violence against Kurds in Syria predates 2011. Isil’s actions today have simply exaggerated it.
All of which is further complicated by the fact that the sectarian splits brutally on display in Syria and Iraq, are festering below the surface in Turkey, too. Roughly a quarter of Turks are Alevi Muslims, with the majority Sunnis. Although scholars remind us that Turkey’s Alevis should not be confused with Syria’s ruling Alawites, the AKP has routinely dismissed Erdogan’s critics as sectarian Assad-lovers, so that poisonous confusion does exist. Turks of Alevi background, including in the army, find intervention in Syria against Isil fundamentalists one thing; but pushing on to Damascus against Assad’s Alawite regime quite another.
That might be one reason that Erdogan has been slow to act in Syria. But given his almost messianic sense of mission, which has overcome every obstacle on his way to the pinnacle of power, it is more likely that he’s pursuing another strategy – bargaining with the West.
What will he be demanding in return for a decisive Turkish strike at Isil? He is sure to insist that Kurds remain not only stateless but also defenceless. Meanwhile, will European members of Nato swallow their opposition to Turkish entry into the EU? Even so, without being allowed to replace Assad with a Sunni regime not in the least friendly to Kurds, Erdogan still may not act.
His is a tempting offer, though. Turkish military intervention would solve the West’s immediate problem while avoiding discontent over casualties in Britain and the US. But any Turkish action would, in effect, be unilateral. Ankara – not Washington or London – will dictate the outcome of this diplomatic dance. For though the Isil problem might well disappear under the weight of Turkish firepower, the Middle East’s snake-pit of conflicting rivalries will remain. Will Israel, for instance, be happy to see allies of Hamas brought to power in Damascus by Turkish troops?
We must be clear about this deal. Leaping at the possibility of crushing Isil, and quickly, via Ankara, will seem cause for celebration today. After the party is over, however, we will wake up with a new Middle Eastern headache.
On 27th September, 2014, The Mail on Sunday published:
How can we win this war when our allies despise everything we stand for?: recent experience of building democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is not encouraging."
No government could refuse the challenge after the bloody provocations of Islamic State. But having decided by a huge majority to embark on what David Cameron warned would be a long campaign, the House of Commons vote on Friday did not make clear what the endgame would be.
Without knowing what victory will look like, have we embarked on a war we cannot win?
Our model of victory is what happened at the end of the Second World War when the West successfully established democracy in defeated Germany and Japan.
But recent experience building new democracies from faction-ridden Afghanistan to disintegrating Iraq is not encouraging.The US Army thought it had kept George W. Bush’s promise to bring democracy to Iraq. But ‘winner takes all’ at the polls in countries riven by bitter religious rivalries means democracy has a sour taste for losers.
Things went wrong in Iraq despite the presence of so many US and British troops and billions of dollars in aid, training and equipment.
Now David Cameron tells us to ‘forget’ the last Iraq war. This time things will be different. No ground forces. Just air power to back up local and regional allies who share our hostility to IS.
That all seems straightforward enough. The enemy is obvious, almost a caricature of evil. But though knowing your enemy is vital in war, knowing what your allies’ real aims are is equally important.
It is our allies who frighten me almost as much as IS.
On the ground, the West has friends who have daggers drawn with each other. And they have contempt for our values.
Even leaving aside the oil-rich Arab despots who have signed up for the anti-IS campaign for their own reasons, inside Nato, its key regional member, Turkey, is not fully on board.
Turkey borders both Iraq and Syria and has Nato’s second-largest armed forces after America.
But precisely because Turkey is right in the thick of the Middle East, its government has a very different take on the crisis.
In London and Washington, the Kurds of the region seem natural allies against the common IS enemy. Arming the Kurds to fight the jihadis seems a neat way to get local boots to do the fighting on the ground in Northern Iraq and Syria.
But to Turkey, Kurds are not natural allies.
With so many Kurdish people living in Turkey itself, Ankara fears arming Kurds to fight IS today will provide them with the weapons to fight for independence from Turkey tomorrow.
Given how much expensive American weaponry fell into IS hands earlier this year as the Iraqi Army disintegrated, is Turkey unreasonable to harbour suspicions that defeat of IS by the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas could be the signal for a well-armed war for independence by its Kurds?
But the Islamic-led Turkish government has been drifting away from the West in any case. President Tayyip Erdogan has been a vocal critic of Israel and his open border policy to Syria has let foreign fighters, including hundreds from Britain, flow into the ranks of the jihadi forces fighting the Assad regime, but also taking Western aid workers hostages.
Syria’s civil war is key to the crisis. But there, too, Western values and the West’s allies are in conflict.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours say they support the American-led alliance but they don’t want the victory of Western democracy in the Middle East. What we see as the best way to guarantee a future for peace and freedom, our Arab allies see as a mortal threat.
The Sunni fundamentalist monarchs tolerated their rich subjects funding IS-style jihadis to fight Assad and other allies of Shia Iran, which they hate and fear.
But when upstart jihadis like the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, began to get too big for their boots, the ruling sheikhs were happy to join in cutting him down to size.
But promoting democracy, human rights, respect for women and religious minorities are not their war aims.
Chaos breeds enemies like IS. It is not the solution.
If anarchy is the problem, and democracy doesn’t take root easily, is dictatorship the answer?
Given how unsavoury and unreliable some of our allies in the Middle East are, it is remarkable how reluctant Western leaders have been to join up with the regimes of Syria or Iran, who have very good reasons of their own for hating and fearing IS.
David Cameron, like Barack Obama, has pronounced Assad beyond the pale. So it looks like the West is undertaking a three-sided war in the Middle East, fighting Assad and his allies as well as his enemies.
This may be consistent, but is it wise?
If the West isn’t prepared to cooperate with the forces fighting IS in its main strongholds in Syria, then mission creep by our troops seems inevitable.
A case exists for special forces operations against specific targets, like ‘high value’ IS targets or safe houses where hostages are held.
But large-scale deployment of Western soldiers on the ground would be an admission of failure.
This is a war which we cannot win for the locals. Maybe they can’t win it for themselves. Barring a lucky strike which knocks out the IS leadership and demoralises their supporters, air power is not going to produce rapid results.
Nobody should anticipate a Victory in the Middle East Day 1945-style.
The crimes of IS give us the right to fight it, but the war cannot be won by the West without local support.
Tragically for us, the enemy and our dubious allies will decide the terms of victory or defeat.