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Battle for Kobani: Turkey has good reasons for caution 9 octobre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Guardian (UK) 9 October 2014, p. 36


The eyes of the world have been focused for the last few days on a little Kurdish town in Syria which few had heard of until a week or so ago. The plight of Kobani, close to the Turkish border, and under siege by Islamic State forces as they try to establish control over ever-larger territory in Syria and Iraq, is being presented as a sort of morality tale. There is growing international pressure on Ankara to prevent yet another military advance by Islamic State (Isis) and a further humanitarian disaster in a region that has already undergone much suffering. Turkey, after all, has tanks and troops on the border just across from Kobani. If it reinforced the efforts of the US-led air campaign by action on the ground, Turkey could compensate for the limitations of that campaign. Surely, it is argued, Turkey would not wish Isis to take control of long sections of its border with Syria.

Turkish involvement would also be in line with its Nato membership, even if the alliance isn’t formally mobilised against Isis.

The Barack Obama administration is certainly pressing such arguments on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sending its special envoy for Syria, General John Allen, to Ankara to test Turkey’s proclaimed resolve to treat Isis as a major international security threat. Yet the government in Ankara has so far been biding its time. It is doing so in spite of a parliamentary vote last week allowing – but not committing Turkey to – military action inside Syria and Iraq. Turkey has instead made its fuller support conditional on a widening of the coalition’s strategy to include the aim of bringing to an end the Assad regime in Damascus. This is an objective that has all but vanished from western rhetoric.

Turkey is in a dilemma and it has probably never been under such strain as a regional actor. The caution demonstrated by Mr Erdoğan and his influential prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkish foreign policy over the last decade, springs in part from the failures and contradictions of that policy. Syria has after all been the tombstone of Turkey’s supposed « neo-Ottoman » diplomacy, which initially aimed at having « zero problems » with all its neighbours. Mr Erdoğan’s AKP party, with its pro-Sunni message, closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, has sided since the autumn of 2011 with the anti-Assad armed opposition. Turkey had hoped that the United States would prop up the rebels with heavier weapons, but Washington balked at more than a modest support.

On top of that, Turkish officials were baffled by Mr Obama’s turnaround in 2013 when the US president abandoned a plan to bomb Syrian military targets after the Assad regime used chemical weapons. They saw this as a lost opportunity to bring Mr Assad down. A mistrustful Turkey is thus in no hurry now to let the US push it into sending ground forces into Syria, even in a limited one-off operation to do with Kobani, without assurances on overall objectives and especially as no clear international mandate is available at the UN. Turkish restraint also arises from its own difficult internal political and ethnic balance. Helping the Kobani Kurds could empower pro-PKK factions at a moment when Ankara is negotiating a delicate peace agreement with that movement in Turkey itself. But not helping the Kobani Kurds may fuel more Kurdish unrest inside Turkey. It is a catch-22 situation which Mr Erdoğan has not resolved.

Joining the fight against Isis also risks a backlash, since that group, experts believe, has cells inside Turkey. The Ankara government recently secured the release of 46 of its diplomats held hostage in Iraq since June. The terms of this negotiation may well have included a quid pro quo.

Mr Erdoğan will want to make sure that whatever decision he takes serves him and his country politically. In the face of humanitarian disaster in Kobani, this may appear coldhearted to western opinion. But Mr Erdoğan is no different from any of the other regional actors, be they in Damascus, Tehran, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. All are consulting their own interests. We cannot blame Turkey, weighing momentous decisions, if it wants some clearer answers to the question of what the western endgame is in Syria and Iraq.


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