News analysis

A master in the art of using external threat to settle scores

Turkey's European allies share grave doubts about Erdogan's regional military strategy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a press conference in Turkish occupied Nicosia, Cyprus on July 20, 2015.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a press conference in Turkish occupied Nicosia, Cyprus on July 20, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone ahead with a planned visit to China after getting an assurance from Nato that the US-led military alliance stands ready to protect his country's borders from attacks by ISIS in neighbouring Syria.

Yet despite the firm promise to "stand all together in solidarity with Turkey", as Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put it, many of Turkey's European allies share grave doubts about Mr Erdogan's regional military strategy.

The worry is that Turkey's growing involvement in the Syria war could suck the United States and the Europeans into a wider regional quagmire and that Ankara's real targets are the Kurds.

Until now, Turkey has kept out of the wars in its neighbourhood, largely because it feared the disintegration of Syria could give Kurdish ethnic minorities an opportunity to establish their own state and that, in turn, could offer a separatist temptation to Turkey's own Kurds, who account for at least a fifth of the country's population.


So although Turkey publicly claims to oppose ISIS, President Erdogan's critics accuse him of turning a blind eye to the threat posed by the terrorists.

Matters changed last week after a suicide bombing perpetrated by ISIS in the Turkish town of Suruc killed 32 civilians. Soon thereafter, Turkish jets started pounding ISIS targets, although the Turks quickly expanded their air strikes also against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish separatist group that is a significant player in Syria's civil war.

With the second-largest standing army in Nato after that of the US, Turkey does not need active alliance support; it only needs political backing, plus the opportunity of calling upon Nato forces, should fighting around Turkey's borders intensify. "What we're saying is that there could be a duty for Nato, and we ask Nato to be prepared for this," Mr Erdogan explained.

However, the diplomatic negotiations which took place this week at Nato's headquarters in Brussels as a result of the Turkish request for support were just a sideshow, for behind the scenes Turkey struck a separate military deal with the US, which will intensify the military operations of both countries.

Under the deal, the US will get to use Turkey's strategic Incirlik air base for operations against ISIS, while in return, the Obama administration has agreed to the establishment of a "safe zone" in northern Syria adjacent to the border with Turkey, where "moderate Syrian opposition forces" will be allowed to operate.

In theory, the arrangement benefits both sides. The Americans have long coveted the use of the Incirlik air base whose vast size and key strategic location makes any air operations throughout the Middle East far easier. And the Turks, who have long asked for the creation of a safe zone inside Syria in order to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, now appear to have got their wish.

However, the fear among other Nato member states is that Turkey is intent on using this deal not to fight against ISIS, but to suppress Kurdish nationalism. By getting US approval for the establishment of a buffer zone, the Turks are in effect ensuring that, even if a separatist Kurdish region is established inside Syria, the Kurds will not enjoy any territorial link with their ethnic brethren inside Turkey.

These fears appear to have been strengthened by Mr Erdogan's decision to rule out any dialogue with ethnic Kurd movements as "impossible", and by his threat that any Turkish lawmaker who may have "links to terrorist groups" may be stripped of their parliamentary immunity and prosecuted.

That is interpreted as a direct threat to the People's Democratic Party, a Kurdish-based political movement inside Turkey, which surprised observers by doing very well in the country's recent general election and may end up holding the balance of power in Turkey. By associating the party with external Kurdish separatism, Mr Erdogan is hoping to marginalise the movement.

Turkish warplanes yesterday also carried out intense air strikes on Kurdish rebel camps in northern Iraq. For the moment, Nato members have decided that unanimity with Turkey is their best approach, although several European countries led by Germany have called on Mr Erdogan's government not to abandon a dialogue with the Kurds, who have run a decades-long terrorist campaign against Turkey, which ultimately spilled into violence throughout Europe. The Europeans shudder at the possibility that this violence will now return.

But the snag is that, as long as Turkey enjoys US support, its government is unlikely to listen to what the Europeans are saying. And Mr Erdogan is a master in the art of using an external threat to settle scores with domestic opponents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'A master in the art of using external threat to settle scores'. Print Edition | Subscribe