Turkey Finds that Trouble Knows No Bounds
Turkey Finds that Trouble Knows No Bounds
Eastern Mediterranean Gas: Accelerating Peace? (Online event, 5 June 2023)
Eastern Mediterranean Gas: Accelerating Peace? (Online event, 5 June 2023)
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Turkey Finds that Trouble Knows No Bounds

As instability undermines the Arab states established in the post-First World War map of the Middle East, a now vigorous Turkey, heir of the Ottoman Empire that was the main loser from that 20th century order, is taking a new look at the region.

‘Those borders are all false’, sniffed one of Turkey’s former top diplomats over dinner in February. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, says that Syria’s growing troubles since 2011 now amount to ‘an internal affair’ for Turkey, while in private officials talk breezily of Syria as ‘our former province’.

In the capital Ankara, a senior security official agreed that tumult in Syria over the past two years had vaporized much of the Cold War frontier of barbed wire and watch-towers. ‘The borders have become meaningless,’ he said.

In short, a major change is under way after decades in which Turkish policy was predicated on making the best of what it found in the Middle East.

This is not just a reaction to the catastrophic collapse of Syria into a failed state. In northern Iraq, Turkey is now moving firmly to cement a privileged energy, trade and security relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government. ‘We warned the United States for 10 years, “you’re going to break up Iraq”. For this whole time we paid the price [of trying to hold Iraq together]’, the senior security official said. ‘Finally we saw the situation now that America is leaving, and said, “well, let’s turn this to our advantage”.’

Nobody in power in Ankara is talking of new annexations. But Turkey’s more opportunistic approach is rooted in the centuries during which it controlled most countries of what is the Sunni Muslim Arab world today, and a lingering grievance about how that empire was dismantled after the First World War ended in 1918.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu often says that uprisings in the Arab world can be seen as ‘closing a century of parenthesis’ – shorthand for rebuilding links between former Ottoman lands, even though he denies the policy is ‘neo-Ottoman’.

Prime Minister Erdogan has also floated the idea of a Turkey-centered ‘lira zone’ using the Turkish currency, as a regional alternative to the eurozone. Another security offi cial explained: ‘Turkey wants to be surrounded by a zone of stability, to integrate with its neighbours. This [lira zone] might be applicable to northern Iraq today, but it would be southern Iraq coming next. The same thing would work in Syria.’

Erdogan and Davutoglu enjoy some popular legitimacy for their efforts – even though polls show only a third of Turks support their Syria policy, possibly due to a competing desire to distance Turkey from the Arab world – since it builds on the struggle by both the late Ottoman and early Turkish republican parliaments to preserve what both called a National Pact.

According to this national historical narrative, Turkish-speaking areas of the former Ottoman Empire would become part of the Turkish nation, and Arab majority areas would have the option to join by referendum. (Kurds were not mentioned, apparently included by default because they are mostly Sunni Muslim too.) This pact had no official borders, but ‘National Pact’ maps published by Turkish nationalists typically include northern Iraq and northern Syria, which even today have small but significant Turkish-speaking populations.

This National Pact was a core goal of the successful Turkish war of liberation to drive out the post-First World War occupation of Anatolia by the armies of Greece, Britain, France and Italy.

However, at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Kemal Ataturk and his young republic were forced to accept the border with Syria drawn by Britain and France, and in 1926 to acquiesce in Britain’s takeover of Mosul and northern Iraq. Ankara never gave up, however. In 1939, Turkey’s demands, and France’s desire to keep Turkey neutral in the run-up to the Second World War, opened the door for Turkey to annex what had been the Syrian province of Alexandretta, now known as Hatay.

While Syria and Turkey were in opposite camps of the Cold War, the 900km frontier hardened. Many families split by the line could meet only on feast days, sometimes reduced to throwing presents over the high border fences.

But in the 2000s, dynamics began changing again, with Damascus needing new international partners and Turkey wanting to expand its markets. By now, Turkey’s economy had far outstripped Syria’s, and, like northern Iraq in the 1990s, northern Syria began drifting into Turkey’s commercial sphere of influence.

This process accelerated during the breakdown of Syrian central government after March 2011, and with the rise of armed opposition militias, many of which have lines of finance, travel and supply through Turkey.

Some 450,000 Syrians have also flooded into Turkey, 200,000 of them in unusually well supplied refugee camps, the rest in towns and villages, particularly on the Turkish side of the increasingly permeable frontier. Turkish airports near the border are now filled with Syrians coming and going. When the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo wanted to hold a local council election, they came to the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Increasingly, too, foreign governments and international aid organizations are accessing northern Syria over the Turkish border. Turkey’s sense that it has an historic responsibility for Syria is one factor for its generous response – which has cost the country more than $1 billion, while the international community has only contributed about $100 million. Another unspoken reason why Turkey has done so much to help is that most of those who come across are Sunni Muslims, Turkey’s majority faith.

It is in this apparent sectarian bias that the biggest risk for Turkey lies. Whereas Ankara in 2008 was perceived as a strong, neutral regional actor with full access to varied governments such as those of Israel, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia – not to mention its European Union accession negotiations and long-standing relationship with the United States – it is now increasingly associated not just with a perceived ambition to be a regional Sunni hegemon, but as the ally of one pro-Muslim Brotherhood faction within the Sunni Arab world.

There are growing signs of rivalry between Turkey and Shia Muslim Iran, the The aftermath of a car bomb explosion in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, a few miles from the Syrian border other main state bordering the Arab world, especially over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Domestically, this has also led to strains with the 10 per cent heterodox Alevi communities in Turkey, especially the Arab Alevis in the Syria border provinces who are closely related to Syria’s Alawites.

Nevertheless, for now the sectarian danger still seems under control, and may be more apparent than real. Iran and Turkey have centuries of experience in managing their conflicts of interest. And timely Turkish measures have lessened tensions in Hatay province, the main area of friction between Alevis and Syrian Sunni refugees and off-duty opposition militiamen.

Turkey’s lean forward into northern Syria and Iraq also raises questions for Turkey relating to the 25 million to 30 million Kurds of the Middle East. Since the 1920s, the Kurds have been split between four countries and blurring the border between three of them now could create a critical mass for an independent Kurdistan. The danger to Turkey – home to half of the Kurds – of potential secession currently seems low, however.

Iraqi and Turkish Kurds speak significantly different dialects of Kurdish, are substantially different in society, history and culture, and indeed both look more to the regional centre of Istanbul than they do to each other.

Also, Turkey is mitigating this risk with this year’s ambitious and promising effort to end its three-decade-old Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency. Success here will also help it in northern Syria, where a PKK sister party controls important parts of the Turkish border.

Turkey’s general progress with the Iraqi Kurds since 1991 is also not without some security hazards. Turkey is partly guaranteeing a Kurdistan Regional Government that has a substantial territorial dispute on its southern edge, the ‘trigger line’ with Arab Iraq, and Prime Minister Erdogan currently has a bad relationship with Baghdad, including angry exchanges with the Shia Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

It is also unclear where Iraq’s Sunnis are heading in the dangerous, latest round of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in Iraq, and how far forward Turkey will position itself on the side of Arab Sunnis.

Turkey has hosted the fugitive Sunni Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, and Prime Minister Erdogan has suggested that the majority Sunni Arab city of Mosul be granted autonomy within Iraq ‘sooner or later’ – despite Baghdad’s objections.

Turkey is thus on a new, unpredictable journey as it extends its sphere of influence into Syria and Iraq. It will not be an easy ride. The UN says the number of Syrian refugees could double by the end of the year.

Border security is being undermined by stray bullets, occasional mortar shells, attempted kidnappings, car bombs, Syrian air strikes near crossing points, and riots by Syrians trying to get into Turkey. The senior Turkish security official believes his country can re-harden its border at any time.

But so far Turkey’s Syrian overspill is increasingly a kind of osmosis in both directions, exposing the country directly to whatever northern Syria becomes.

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