Realpolitik in the Middle East

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Encyclopedia Brittanica defines realpolitik as "politics based on practical objectives rather than on ideals. … A pragmatic, no-nonsense view and a disregard for ethical considerations. In diplomacy it is often associated with relentless, though realistic, pursuit of the national interest."

The current political triangle made up of Turkey, the Islamic State and the Kurds in the Middle East is a textbook example of realpolitik in its rawest form. After almost four years of turning a blind eye to the flow of IS fighters and supplies across the southern Turkish border into northern Syria, Turkey finally declared an all-out campaign against IS, including the allowing of U.S. fighter jets to fly out of the Incirlik Air base in bombing raids against IS.

But all is not as it seems.

The Turkish about-face on IS seemingly came after more than 30 pro-Kurdish activists, volunteering at a Syrian refugee resettlement center, were killed in a bomb blast in the Turkish town of Suruc, believed to be carried out by an affiliate of IS. For Turkey, this was an unacceptable breach of its sovereignty. In addition, anything short of a severe response by Turkey would have further stoked increasing suspicion in Western capitals about Turkey's tolerance of IS.

The Kurds were not buying what the Turks were selling, however. They accused the Turkish government of aiding IS, something the Turkish government denies, and therefore responsible for the deaths. Kurdish retaliation began at the end of July when an armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) killed two Turkish police officers in retaliation for the death of the pro-Kurdish activists.

The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Turkey, has fought a 30-year long insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish rights with tens of thousands killed in the conflict, although there had been a two-year ceasefire in effect. Now, it seems a new round of conflict has begun.

The conflict escalated on August 10 with PKK attacks in Turkey killing four Turkish policemen and one Turkish soldier. More ominously, an extreme left Kurdish group attacked the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, demonstrating the danger to the U.S. of allying itself with Turkish attacks against the Kurds.

The new violence brings to a head the confluence of the collapse of the Syrian state, the rise of IS, the push by the Kurds to establish a future state, the desire of Turkey to quash any Kurdish aspirations for statehood, and the continuing incoherence of U.S. policy on these issues. This does not bode well for success in the regional war against IS.

Turkey's declaration of war against IS is proving to be a thinly disguised cover by the government of Turkish President Erdogan to achieve two related objectives. As Turkey resumes military operations against the PKK, analysts see a calculated strategy for Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to regain its parliamentary majority in new elections. Having already delayed the formation of a coalition government, analysts say, Erdogan is now buttressing his party's chances of winning new elections by appealing to Turkish nationalists opposed to self-determination for the Kurdish minority.

Parallel to the military operations against the Kurds has been an effort to undermine the political side of the Kurdish movement by associating it with the violence of the PKK, which has not shied from returning to the fighting.

"The overall assumption is that President Erdogan wants to create the conditions so the result of June 7 can be overturned, so that he can run the country from the presidency," said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former lawmaker from Erdogan's party and the executive director of the Center for Strategic Communication, a research organization in Ankara.

"He is going for early elections," said Henri J. Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on Turkey. "In any society, when there is a crisis, people rally under the flag, even if they don't support the leader. In this instance, Mr. Erdogan is playing the nationalism card for his own benefit."

Turkish leaders laid the foundation for their joint PKK/IS offensive by publicly equating the Kurds as a terrorist threat equal to IS. "There is no difference between PKK and Daesh [IS]," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

In fact, for the Turks, the Kurds are still regarded as a more mortal threat than IS, as the prospects of a Kurdish state on Turkey's borders can only strengthen calls within Turkey for greater rights and even autonomy in Turkey's heavily Kurdish regions.

The initial phases of Turkey's "campaign against terrorism" seems to have borne out this analysis. In Turkey, the number of PKK militants detained has outnumbered IS affiliates more than 6 to 1. According to TIME magazine, "between July 23 and July 26, 75 Turkish jets flew 155 sorties against 400 or so PKK targets," compared to just three IS targets hit.

The United States has defended Turkey's right to strike the PKK but denied a connection between the strikes and the deal allowing the U.S. to use Turkey's Incirlik air base to hit IS in Syria. Matters are further complicated by the fact that although the U.S. classifies the PKK as a terrorist group, in Syria it provides air support to the Syrian Kurdish fighters (the YDP), who are closely aligned with the PKK.

The YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia (from the Kurdish initials for People's Protection Units), captured global attention in January with its tough stand against an Islamic State assault on the Syrian town of Kobani, which borders Turkey. Turkish tanks and troops looked on as IS fighters besieged the town over several weeks, with observers predicting its imminent fall. One key assault even appeared to have come from across the Turkish border, suggesting that Erdogan was quite content to see the Kurds routed. Turkey eventually allowed a handful of Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce the stragglers in Kobani. As the YPG held out, the U.S. began assisting with airstrikes.

The successes of the YPG have been striking. In recent months, they have managed to force Islamic State fighters from 2,000 square miles of territory in northern Syria. Administrative autonomy has been established in the three Kurdish cantons.

In fact, a look at the map clearly shows that the proposed Turkish safe or buffer zone in northwestern Syria exactly covers the remaining 60-mile territory that the YPG has yet to clear IS from, and in fact cuts that territory in half, preventing it from being contiguous and therefore acting as a buffer against Kurdish nationalist aspirations.

The Kurds, who number roughly 30 million and are spread out over Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, have been described as the world's largest ethnic group without a homeland.

Whatever the impact in Syria of Turkey joining the war against IS, the new offensive has reignited the Turkish-Kurd civil war in Turkey. The U.S. and NATO members who supported Turkey's actions will likely overlook this so long as Turkey cooperates just enough to bring the end of the self-declared caliphate closer and closes the Turkish-Syrian border that has been so easy to cross for IS foreign volunteers. 

For the U.S., the dilemma is that its most effective ally against IS in Syria so far has not been Turkey but the YPG and its political arm, the PYD, the ruling political party of the 2.2 million Syrian Kurds, who are concentrated in three enclaves just south of the Turkish border. The PYD and YPG are, however, the Syrian branch of the PKK. While allying itself with the Kurds in Syria, the U.S. denounces their mother organization, the PKK, as "terrorists."

This is a peculiarly Machiavellian form of realpolitik since members of the YPG often gained military experience fighting in the PKK against the Turks, explaining why they have had more success against IS than other groups.

The danger is that while this new situation with the Kurds and Turkey plays out, the focus will shift away from the most dangerous threat in the Middle East, IS, and it will be IS that benefits from the newly shifting and contradictory alliances.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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