Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Dr. S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana. Questions and Dr. Kadayifci-Orellana’s answers are transcribed below.
Dr. S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana is the Interim Associate Director and Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s MA program in Conflict Resolution. Before going to Georgetown University, she served as a consultant for the Religion and Peacebuilding Program at the United States Institute of Peace and as an Assistant Professor in the field of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service at American University, Washington DC. She is also a founding member of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, where she served as the Associate Director. She is the author of Standing on an Isthmus: Islamic Narratives of War and Peace in the Palestinian Territories and co-authored and edited the volume Anthology on Islam and Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: Precept and Practice.
Ariel Reichard: How would you characterize Turkish policy toward the Syrian civil war? While in the beginning Turkey tended to support Assad, it now vehemently opposes his regime. While it views ISIS as the enemy, it refuses to support Kurdish fighters against it and denies them free access to the Syrian front. Do you see a way for Turkey out of its deadlock and indecisiveness? Do you envision any constructive role for Turkey in what is currently happening in Syria?
Answer: Turkish policy toward Syria cannot be comprehended without understanding the challenges the civil war there created for Turkey. After 2000, Turkish-Syrian relations blossomed and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Bashar al-Assad developed a personal friendship. But relationship soured after the 2011 uprising in Syria. Turkey’s attitude gradually moved from being that of a “big brother” advising Assad to implement democratic reforms to one of an ‘archenemy’ cutting diplomatic ties and championing political and armed intervention to remove Assad from power.
Turkey’s initial reaction to Syria was partly the result of overestimating Turkey’s influence over Assad. Erdoğan assumed his relationship with Assad would be sufficient to convince the Syrian leader to implement the recommended reforms. However, Syria perceived Turkey’s attitude as as a form of “Ottoman colonialism.” Turkey, in turn, saw Syria’s refusal to follow its advice as a sign of disrespect — and as undermining Turkey’s regional credibility and legitimacy. Soon after, in line with Western governments, Turkey started to support the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad and facilitated initiatives, meetings, trainings and military support to the Syrian opposition.
Turkey received more than one million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers. The influx of so many refugees has caused enormous problems for Turkey and at times created conflict between local populations and refugees, something that has influenced Turkish public opinion of the country’s Syria policy.
Another factor that influenced Turkey’s policy is the nature of the Syrian opposition. Exactly who the rebel groups are, what their objectives are, their positions and their relations with each other is still unclear. Turkey nevertheless supported the opposition was particularly sympathetic toward Islamic groups. ISIS benefited from this confusion. It is now widely accepted that many of the ISIS leaders have been treated in Turkey and many militants went to Syria from Turkey, but it is unclear if they were aware of the extremist agenda of ISIS or the extent of the threat.
There are now many sympathizers of ISIS in Turkey. Recent protests in support of ISIS not only shocked many Turks, but also reminded the government of the vulnerability of the domestic security situation. Many in Turkey, including government officials, fear the repercussions were it to join the anti-ISIS coalition.
Another complication for Turkey was the siege of the Kurdish town of Kobani by ISIS and the looming massacre of many innocent Kurdish citizens there. Kobani posed a unique challenge for Turkey because it was a stronghold of the PKK, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party of Turkey, and the PYD, the Democratic Union Party of Syria. Both are considered terrorist organizations by Turkey and many Western governments. Although Turkey has initiated a peace process to end the conflict with the Kurds domestically, it maintained that the PKK was a terrorist group. Turkish officials have even stated that the PKK is as evil as ISIS and that there should be no distinction between them.
Any Turkish effort to relieve the Kobani siege would have put Turkey on the side of the PKK and the PYD against ISIS. The AKP government needed to avoid that impression at any cost, especially with elections coming up in June 2015. If Erdogan is to expand his new presidential powers, he cannot afford to alienate nationalists who are fiercly anti-PKK. For that reason, he let Kurdish militias from northern Iraq enter Syria from Turkey.
Matt R. Batten-Carew: Do you believe that there are conditions under which Turkey would support the independence of the Kurdistan Regional Government from Iraq? If so, what might these conditions be?
Answer: The current turbulence and insecurity in the region could create conditions that would lead Turkey to support or at least not oppose Kurdish independence. In fact, in July, various Turkish officials made comments that signaled a more open attitude toward this possibility.
Although the official position of Turkey is to support a unified Iraq, Turkish officials recognize this may no longer be possible. First, Iraq has been drawn into a quagmire of ethnic, sectarian and religious conflict. Maintaining security and unity under these conditions was already difficult, but rise of ISIS has made the situation even worse. Iraqi government forces have been ineffective in preventing the advent of ISIS while its ethnic cleansing of Christians and Yazidis has further divided Iraqi society.
Iraqi Kurdistan continues to be the most stable region of the country. Kurdish groups have proven to be the most effective in battling ISIS. Their efforts to defend Kobani in Syria and their assistance to the Yazidis in Iraq have led them to be perceived as heroes in the region and shed new light on their quest for independence. It is quite likely that there will be more international support for an independent Kurdish state now. Turkish leaders seem to understand these changing attitudes and realize that they will have to adjust their policies.
Maintaining a strong relationship with Iraq’s Kurds serves the security, energy and economic interests of Turkey, especially if ISIS cannot be stopped. An independent Iraqi state would serve as a buffer between the Islamic State and Turkey. Also, Turkey cannot afford to alienate the Iraqi Kurds because of the strong economic ties they have developed over the last decade. Turkey, as an energy-dependent country, needs access to Kurdish oil and markets. In an effort to strengthen their relations, Turkey recently began exporting oil supplies from Iraqi Kurdistan to global markets, despite the concerns raised by the central government in Baghdad.
Finally, it seems that Turkey no longer fears that the Iraqi Kurds’ push for independence will lead to the creation of a greater Kurdistan, as Turkey recognizes that there is no unity among Kurds. Despite its many shortcomings, the Turkish government is also hopeful that the peace process at home will bear fruit and convince Kurds to stay part of Turkey.