Erdoğan’s game plan as Turkey enters war

Turkey’s relentless military campaign against Kurds and her pseudo fight against the Islamic State has certainly opened up many new questions regarding the future of the Middle East.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey on Aug. 1

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, on Aug. 1

With Saudi-US bi-lateral relations experiencing some stress due to the yet-in-the-making Iran deal, Turkey has resurfaced as a potential U.S. ally, capable of not only virtually replacing the House of Saud, but also on the way to becoming the latest Mid-Eastern behemoth.

The Middle East, as it stands, is a gold-mine that every regional and global player wants to dig in. Turkey is no exception to it and, as such, has her own designs to implement and critical objectives to achieve out of current conflict.

While the idea of Turkish regional hegemony — a sort of re-enactment of Ottoman Empire — is a long-cherished Turkish State ideal, its current involvement in the multi-front conflict has much to do with eliminating the most immediate threat to the materialization of that dream: Kurds.

Without mincing any words, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to assert, “It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood.”

Let’s break down Turkey’s anti-Kurd military strategy to grasp its larger implications. First of all, it is quite evident, and an important point to note, that Turkey’s participation in the so-called campaign against the ISIS was never meant to really involve Ankara against the ISIS. At least this is what Turkey’s political and military leadership had in mind when the decision to deploy military was taken recently.

The main condition Turkey had followed then, and is still following, was the creation, with the help of the U.S., of an ISIS- and Kurdish-free zone — a way to end the territorial connection between Turkish and Syrian Kurds — in Syria on the Turkish border.

This particular objective stems from the fact that the Turkish government — unlike the U.S. — does not distinguish between the PKK and its Syrian counterpart the YPG, the militant arm of the Syrian Kurdish political party, the PYD.

Aside from breaking territorial links between PKK and YPG, this so-called “free-zone” was also meant to allow Turkey to further raise, train and weaponize proxy groups that it has been using against Assad’s regime in Syria.

Turkey’s strategic objective, therefore, does not involve elimination of the ISIS. It has two specific targets: Kurds and Assad. Both of these targets are deeply linked with the materialization of Turkish ideal of unchallenged regional supremacy.

According to the understanding reached between the U.S. and Turkey, the U.S. was to play its role in helping to establish such a zone, and in return, it was to be allowed to launch military operations against the Islamic State from Incirlik Air Base and other bases in Turkey “within a certain framework,” according to Erdoğan.

Terms of this “framework” certainly included ‘American silence’ against Turkey’s sinister campaign against the PKK.

That Turkey’s prime motivation was never the ISIS is also quite evident from the air strikes it has so far launched. There is hardly any ISIS stranglehold in Syria or Iraq that might have seen off Turkish jets.

On the other hand, Kurds have been the primary targets. As a matter of fact, it was the very Kurdish success against the ISIS that has turned out to be Turkey’s primary motivation for targeting them, forcing Erdoğan to say that Turkey “will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria.”

As such, since the very beginning of this campaign, Turkey has been more actively targeting Kurdish insurgents with the PKK than the Islamic State. In Turkey’s recent round-up of 1,300 people it identified as terrorism suspects, 137 were only “allegedly” linked to the Islamic State and 847 were “certainly linked” to the PKK.

At the same time, Turkey has also been consistently bombing PKK positions in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, claiming that the militants “could attack” Turkish areas from across the border. The Turkish air strikes, effectively ending a two-year cease-fire with the PKK, have set off fresh rounds of protests and clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurds throughout Turkey.

On Monday, four Turkish police officers were killed in a roadside bombing in the south-eastern Sirnak province while a Turkish soldier was killed in a rocket attack on a military helicopter. Meanwhile, in Istanbul a senior police officer in charge of the city`s bomb disposal department was killed in clashes that followed a pre-dawn suicide bombing.

Some very recent developments also clearly signify how Kurd-centric Turkey’s entire strategy is. For instance, Syrian Turkmen military and political officials, who are close to Turkey, have been moving to form a unified army in northern Syria capable of confronting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group.

“Turkmen fighting groups in Syria have taken the decision to offer greater support to each other and work to create a Turkmen army if conditions permit,” Syrian Turkmen Assembly chief Abdel Rahman Mustafa was reported to have said.

The Turkmen official’s comments came as the Syrian Turkmen Assembly held a meeting in southern Turkey’s Gaziantep that brought together Turkmen representatives from Aleppo, Tal Abyad, Jarabulus, Latakia, Idlib, Raqqa and the Golan.

According to some sources, Turkmen from Tal Abyad, as also Arab Sunnis, consider the ISIS a “much lesser evil compared with the Kurdish militants.” “We won’t accept the Kurds because this isn’t their land. It has always been the Arabs’ land. We will stand against them until the very end,” said a 60-year-old Turkman Seyh Deham Haseki.

Turkish officials, on the other hand, seek to promote the Turkmen not merely to protect their identity but rather as a useful wedge to prevent any permanent solution to Kurdish problem.

Essentially, through these Turkmen, Turkey aims to foment a controversy regarding the idea of the establishment of Kurdish homeland. These Turkmen’s internal division along sectarian line notwithstanding, Turkey has been quick to bring them into focus to not only justify its resolve to deny Kurds an independent state, but also use these people as a new proxy group against them.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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