America: A Tool for Turkish Domestic Policy

How the US is helping the ruling Islamist government solidify power.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally agreed to allow the US to use the NATO airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey for sorties against ISIL in Syria. This will cut flying time for American bombers from 3 hours from the Gulf to 15 minutes, but the two allies seem to be talking at cross purposes. 

According to US President Barack Obama, the agreement they are working on is carefully bound around closing off the Turkish border to foreign fighters entering Syria, but Turkey regards it as carte blanche for a showdown with Kurds on both sides of the border. A senior US military official, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, has been more forthright: “It’s clear that ISIL was a hook. Turkey wanted to move against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], but it needed a hook.”

Three years ago, Turkey failed to secure the UN Security Council’s support for the creation of a safe zone for refugees and a no-fly zone along the Syrian border and has since lobbied for U.S. backing, but after the bomb attack in the Kurdish border town of Suruc on July 20 a solution has been found.   

There is apparent agreement between the US and Turkey to create what both parties call “an ISIL-free zone” across the border in northern Syria, which will drive a wedge about 68 miles long and 40 miles deep between the Kurdish autonomous cantons of Kobane and Jazira to the east and Afrin to the west of the projected zone.   

The US State Department insists that this will not be a “safe zone,” but Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continues to push for a no-fly zone in this “safe area.” Furthermore, Turkey claims it has reached an understanding with the US that the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its military wing, the YPG (People’s Defense Units), will not cross to the west of the Euphrates. 

The idea is that joint anti-ISIL operations will clear this zone ready for occupation by “moderate” Syrian opposition forces, but here there is also a difference of opinion on the definition of “moderate.” The first test of a joint “train and equip” program did not end well, as most of a team of 54 fighters sent to Syria in July were killed, wounded or captured by the al-Nusra Front.   

The most effective force in the region is Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which includes the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group. Backed by Turkey, Qatar and the Saudis, this coalition is unlikely to gain US support. Besides, al-Nusra has decided to withdraw from the region in criticism of the Turkey-US plan, which it said was aimed to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria rather than fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A Reliable Ally

The Suruc bombing was blamed on ISIL, but whoever arranged it, it allowed Turkey’s interim AKP (Justice and Development Party) government to make common cause with the US and brand itself as a reliable ally in the war on terror. Prime Minister Davutoglu declared: “Turkey and AK Party governments have never had any direct or indirect connection with any terrorist organization and never tolerated any terrorist group,” but facts state otherwise.  

A report last November from the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes that the primary routes for the arms smuggled to ISIL and the al-Nusra Front run through Turkey. A US State Department briefing at the beginning of June also stated that nearly all of more than 22,000 foreign fighters who have poured into Syria to join extremist organizations, mainly ISIL, have come through Turkey.        

There are numerous reports in the Western and also Turkish press implicating Turkey and in particular Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in the organized supply of weapons and fighters to jihadist groups in Syria. In one instance, in January last year Syria-bound trucks belonging to MIT were stopped by the local gendarmerie, but the public prosecutors and the gendarmerie commander involved have themselves been arrested and prosecuted for “attempting to topple or incapacitate the government” and “exposing information regarding the security and political activities of the state.”

The violent response of the PKK to the Suruc bombing has also provided justification for the Turkish government to launch attacks on PKK targets in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey under the guise of a “synchronized war on terror.” It is indicative that there have been three strikes on ISIL positions in Syria but 300 against the PKK. 

In a tape of a national security meeting leaked on YouTube in March last year, the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary observed: “Our national security has become the tool of vulgar, cheap domestic policy.” This is apparently what has happened, and in return for access to Incirlik airbase the US is now serving Turkish domestic interests. 

President Erdogan’s AKP government lost its overall majority in the June election because the Kurdish-based HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) overcame the 10 percent electoral threshold and gained 80 out of the Turkish parliament’s 550 seats. 

Attempts to form a coalition government have predictably collapsed and now Erdogan can call for a new election, probably in November. His hope is that the AKP will once again gain an overall majority sufficient to push through a new constitution, which will give him full executive power.

To do this Erdogan will have to discredit the HDP in the eyes of the electorate, which he is well on the way to doing with his claim that the Kurdish party is an extension of the PKK. In return, the HDP has warned: “It is a plan to set the country on fire in order for the government to secure a single-party government in a snap election, while creating an impression it is conducting a comprehensive fight against terrorism.”