Diagnosing Sèvres Syndrome in Turkish Stance on Syrian Kurds

Turkish capital city Ankara is again staggered by a suicide attack. According to the official reports from Turkish General Staff a terrorist targeted a service bus transporting off duty military personnel. Attack resulted in 28 dead and 61 wounded. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the Democratic Union Party representing Syrian Kurds for the violence.

The recent attack is just an episode in the ongoing spiral of violence rocking the country. With geopolitical instability in the region, Syria and Iraq being on the verge of collapse and unending clashes with PKK and Turkish government similar attacks on the Turkish soil are likely to happen again. Experts share pessimism over deteriorating security in Turkey.

17 February attack took place in the safest quarters of Ankara
Turkish government underlined on multiple occasions that country is facing a double threat coming from Kurdish separatists from PKK and Islamists from ISIS. Notwithstanding the fact that biggest share of victims fall on the suicide attacks carried out by ISIS sympathizers Ankara avoids direct engagement with the terrorist organization. Its reaction so far was limited to the rather symbolic bombardments of insignificant positions of ISIS in Syria. Moreover, police periodically reports on arrests of like-minded persons in Turkey while clearly doing nothing to prevent activity of ISIS operatives who feel unhindered to carry out political assassinations.

Turkey presents a completely different picture in its fight against Kurdish separatists. With the outbreak of war in Syria and rapid advancements of the Syrian Kurds both on the ground and on the diplomatic arena Turkey became anxious that the international dimension of its fight against PKK will prevail thus inviting foreign players to decide on the Turkish national security issues.

From now on stability inside Turkey is defined by the developments in Syria. Ankara’s reaction exposes deep concern over its ability to keep the PKK further at bay. Turkish government went on to renew clashes with PKK’s urban military wing in the eastern provinces. Assessing the threats of the unchecked Syrian Kurdish political entity along the border Turkey now is threating to invade war torn neighbor to prevent any further advancement by the Kurds under PYD.

While looking for the ways how to forestall PYD’s territorial consolidation Turkey tries to make its American partners to cut all existing ties with the Syrian Kurds.

Turkish President calls on its American partners
to cut ties to PYD
Turkish President Recep Erdogan, while expressing its discontent over close cooperation between Washington and PYD, suggests that US can lose one of its partners in the Middle East. Dispute is not only about statements alone. In its response to the recent meeting of the high-ranking US diplomats with PYD’s representatives Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador John Bass to a meeting. Observers agree that Turkish-American relations are strained over Syrian issue despite U.S. efforts to mitigate disagreements.

The reason behind souring relations lies in Turkish fears of another de-jure autonomous and de-facto independent Kurdish polity on its borders. Emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan during the Gulf war in 1991 showed that Kurdish factor can potentially force Turkey to reconsider its relations with the West.

Erdogan recently claimed that decision of the Turkish Parliament from 2003 on nonparticipation of the Turkish troops in the occupation of Iraq was a mistake. Head of state hinted that by taking a part in the military campaign Turkey could prevent Washington from further supporting Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now formally a part of the federal Iraq.

PKK's main headquarters are in the Qandil Mountains 
Emergence of the Kurdish state could lead to the substantial changes inside Turkey itself. PKK fighters, taking advantage of mountainous landscape of the border with Iraq, could attack Turkish security forces and retreat into the safe heavens of the Qandil Mountains. Turkey witnessed its biggest nightmare come true. Now Turkish government is forced to nourish friendly ties with existing political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan so as to prevent advancement of PKK further in the region.

Ankara’s gradual recognition of Kurdistan’s right to exist was possible thanks to American guarantees that Erbil (current capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) will not demand full independence from Baghdad. Clearly, Turkey has so far believed in American ability to control political forces in Iraq and Kurdistan in particular and to limit Kurds’ ambitions.

With all negative developments in relations between America and Turkey and uncertainty about the region’s future, Turkey still thinks and hopes that U.S. is able to control Syrian Kurds in the same manner like it does in Iraq. Turkey is realizing that political situation on the ground in Syria will be affecting more and more its own domestic security. Without any guarantees in regard to the Syrian Kurdistan Ankara is limited in its actions against the PKK. That is why Turkey is so persistent in demanding from U.S. assurances that there will not be independent Kurdish state in Syria.

What Turkey fails to understand is that in reality cooperation between Washington and Kurds is based on their coinciding interests not on the long term considerations. Reliance of Kurds on U.S. assistance is not accompanied with diplomatic support. Kurds therefore will be able and interested in diversifying its relations with major stake holders in the region, like Russia, thus getting away from the U.S. control.

U.S. sees in PYD an effective ground force against ISIS
Ankara’s trust in U.S. seems to be rooted in the almost mythological notion that all political actors can’t act without the generalized collective West’s notion. Arap uprisings, Mursi’s deposal, Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2013, emergence of ISIS and PYD – these all dramatic events happened with a direct participation of the West, according to the wide segments of the Turkish society.

Ignorance of the existing cobweb of interdependence of political players in the Middle East and desire to see hidden western designs in everything that is happening in the region is to a great extent rooted in a legacy of Turkish historical past.

Predecessor of the Turkish Republic, Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War found itself occupied by the Entente states. Imperial government was forced to sign ill-fated Sevres peace accord in 1920. Treaty envisaged all Ottoman colonies to be put under direct control of France and England while core territories of Anatolia to be occupied by the European expeditionary forces. Government of the Turkish Republic through victories on the battlefields managed to review the provisions of the treaty which eventually was transformed into more acceptable Lausanne peace treaty of 1923.

Even though a new republic under the leadership of a strongman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was rapidly transforming in order to become a part of civilized (read European) world, mistrust toward the West and paranoid obsession with western conspiracies to divide the country seemed to be firmly entrenched in the public mind.

History of relations between Turkish Republic and the West gave reasons to regard existing mistrust as well founded. Mosul question was the first time when Turkish government realized that western countries are not interested in compromising over Turkish vital interests. In 1924 Turkey upon decision of the Council of the League of Nations was forced to acknowledge oil-rich territory around city of Mosul as a part of the Iraqi state. In reality decision was pushed through by Britain who back then administered Iraq.

Emergence of the Syrian Kurdistan can
drastically affect security situation inside Turkey 
Next blow to Turkey’s trust into western sincerity was inflicted by the Cyprus crisis in 1960-70s when U.S. rejected Turkish demands to stabilize situation on the island. Ankara’s decision to invade the Cyprus in 1974 was dictated by the strong urgency to prevent further intercommunal clashes and specifically attacks on the Turkish residents of the island.

Sevres syndrome today can be described as an established opinion among broad segments of the Turkish society about the collective West being the only political power that exerts control in the Middle East. Moreover, Western states are conceived as a single actor who aims to further divide Turkey, in particular, by establishing an independent Kurdistan(s).

Reaction of the political elite on the current state of affairs in the northern Syria suggests that Turkey is still in the grip of the Sevres syndrome. War in Syria and rapid expansion of the Syrian Kurds is represented as a direct result of the Western efforts to secure own interests. Turkey is getting ever more frustrated about fruitlessness of its efforts to defend its own interests and worries that Kurdish expansion in Syria may eventually result in the loss of the Turkish territory.

A feeling of isolation that is reinforced every time U.S. disregards Turkish legitimate worries coupled with the existing Sevres syndrome in the long run can push Turkey into conducting of more hazardous policy in northern Syria. This in turn may lead to the direct clash with Russian interests there and prompt a wider conflict between major stake-holders in the Syrian civil war.

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