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Turkey is never going to rescue the Syrian crisis 14 octobre 2014

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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London Evening Standard (UK) Monday, October 13, 2014, p. 14

Norman Stone *

The US will now be allowed to use Turkish bases against IS. But Ankara’s choice is between war or revolt at home.

In the ordinary course of events, the Turks would have had some good centennials ahead. In 1915 they defeated the British at Gallipoli, and from 1920 to 1922 they stopped a determined effort by all and sundry to split their country up. At the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 Turkey was recognised with more or less her present borders, and that year a Westernlooking republic was proclaimed. The present government was looking forward to 2023, announcing, not implausibly, that Turkey’s economy would have become the 10th-largest in the world.

Its Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been acutely conscious that people generally regard Islam as backward: his university thesis considered this issue. His new Turkey would show otherwise. There are plans for an area north of Istanbul to house not just the greatest airport in Europe but a medical research complex and an institution for space research. But by the time we reach the centennial of 1923, there may not be reason for celebrations. Turkey might just have ceased to exist in her present borders. That is a possible outcome of the crisis to the south and east.

The arrival of the vicious Islamists of the so-called Islamic State (IS) on the 500-mile Syrian border means nothing but trouble, whatever the Turks now do. Back in 2011, the triumphalist then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a squarer of the Islam-democracy circle, wanted to do his bit for the Arab Spring: he denounced the Assad regime in Syria, gave assistance to opposition of all sorts, and for good measure denounced Israel as well. The basic miscalculation was that Bashar Assad would fall and that grateful Arabs everywhere would celebrate a return of Turkish influence.

But Assad has held on — and is now set to reclaim even Aleppo, the secondlargest city. As Syria fell apart, the Kurdish minority along the Turkish border set up an entity of its own, which has affinities with a Kurdish terrorist movement inside Turkey, the PKK, and in turn also has co-operative relations with Assad.

And with the disintegration of Iraq and Syria, various extreme Arab Islamists emerged, the latest being IS. It has been astonishingly successful, and is hostile to the Kurds: in approaching the Turkish border it has laid siege to the town of Kobane. So 200,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed into Turkish territory, there to join the 1.5 million other refugees from Syria (you can see them all over Istanbul).

Back in 2011, when Assad first came under pressure, he remarked that the West did not know what it was doing: if Syria was attacked, there would be an explosion all over the Middle East. He was right. It is true that both Syria and Iraq are artificial countries, spatchcocked together in 1919 to suit British and French colonial purposes, out of religious and national elements that do not cohere. But if they explode, then what? Turkey is in the front line in every sense. The big question underlying all of this is whether, out of it all, a Kurdistan will emerge. If it does, the likelihood is that Turkey will lose about a third of her present territory, with the sort of ethnic cleansing that affected the Balkans and Asia Minor a century ago: refugees accounted for half of the urban population of Turkey in the 1930s, and a quarter of the Greek population.

The Kurds were the great losers of the post-war settlements in 1919. Turkey claimed Kurdish northern Iraq; the British, looking partly for oil revenue and partly for a strategic frontier for their Iraqi protectorate, prevented this in 1926. But it would have made sense. Turks and Kurds were then very close, and sensible Kurds know that their best future is in Turkey.

Making a Kurdistan will be difficult, not least because there are seven separate Kurdish languages, written in various scripts. The most developed, Sorani in north-western Iraq, was standardised by the British, is spoken by educated people, and is not readily comprehensible in Turkey, where the Kirmanç and Zaza variants are spoken and, when written, use a Latin script. A Kurdistan, in other words, would have all the problems that Turkey faced in 1923 when she was set up.

Turkish governments made various mistakes in handling this. The Kurdish south-east remained poor and felt despised. The outcome was a terrorist movement, the PKK, whose activities held back investment and made the whole problem worse. Meanwhile, vast numbers of Kurds poured into western and southern Turkey, many to prosper (they account for one third of the present government party), others to fall into crime. There is now much tension between Kurds and Turks, and the present situation on the Syrian border is making things far worse.

Whatever the Turks now do will turn out badly. Are they to send tanks in to save Kobane? That means crossing an international border, and war: why should Turks die in that cause? But if they let the Kurds be slaughtered there will be a huge increase in support for the PKK.

To no effect, the Turkish parliament has voted to enable intervention. But President (as he now is) Erdogan has not forgotten his grievance against Assad, and has made intervention conditional upon the Syrian dictator’s overthrow. Given Russian and Iranian support, Assad will not be overthrown, and so the Turks bristle with arms on their border, unwilling to move. Meanwhile, the endless explosiveness of the whole area can only affect the Turkish economy badly (and everyone in Ankara now expects terrorist explosions too).

Back in 2011 the government should have remembered the adage of the Republic’s founder, Ataturk: peace abroad, peace at home. I confess that, back in 2003, I supported the invasion of Iraq. It was the biggest misjudgment I ever made, and all the Turks I know told me I was wrong. The Turkish government at the time had similar misgivings. It should have had such misgivings about Syria. Instead, some sort of megalomania has driven them into an almighty mess.

* Norman Stone is professor of international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara


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