Turkey has had a tough year in Syria. It is especially the rise of the Islamic State (IS) that has created huge challenges for Turkey. Almost 50 members of the Turkish consulate in Mosul were kidnapped and held hostage by the IS, just as Turkey faced growing calls to stop the flow of Western fighters joining the IS. Once the diplomats were released in September, Turkey began to face mounting pressure to join the military wing of the coalition US President Barack Obama put together to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS. Turkey’s reluctance to do so led to accusations of direct or implicit assistance to the IS. The criticism became particularly intense when the Turkish government showed stubborn reluctance to intervene against the IS onslaught on the Kurdish town of Kobane, just across the Turkish border with Syria.
This reluctance caused an explosion in tension between Turkey and its own Kurds, causing the deaths of more than 30 Kurdish demonstrators. This reluctance also provoked bitter international criticism, as well as calls for Turkey’s expulsion from Nato. However, in the closing days of 2014, these criticisms appear to be dying down. Visits by Western leaders, from US Vice President Joe Biden to British Prime Minister David Cameron, suggest an effort to find a pragmatic common ground against the IS. Nevertheless, 2015 promises to continue being challenging for Turkey.
First, there are still major differences between Turkey and the US-led coalition determined to destroy the IS. The US and EU appear to have succeeded in gaining Turkey’s cooperation in at least slowing down the flow of foreign fighters. Turkish security forces have also clamped down on oil smuggling by the IS. More recently, the US and Turkey have reached an agreement with respect to “training and equipping” fighters from the moderate Syrian opposition. There are reports that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s longstanding demand that a “no fly zone” in Syria along the Turkish border be created is receiving some international attention and support. However, the deep rift resulting from Erdogan’s insistence that the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad be prioritised over the fight against the IS continues to persist. Erdogan also bitterly criticises the West for its insensitivity towards the sufferings of Syrian masses and accuses them for being unprincipled in delaying measures to end Assad’s repression of his own people. These differences are likely to persist.
Second, Erdogan’s rift with the West comes at a time when Russian-Turkish relations are expanding. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Turkey early in December, promising lucrative access to the Russian market, especially in consumer goods, cheaper natural gas and rerouting the scrapped South Stream gas pipeline through Turkey. This cosy relationship is despite Putin’s staunch support for Assad. Turkey has also kept its criticism of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and transgressions in eastern Ukraine to a minimum. There is a large Tatar minority in Crimea with close ethnic, historical and religious ties to Turkey that would rather remain part of Ukraine, and “territorial integrity” has long been a sacrosanct principle of Turkish political culture. It is likely that the Turkish president will face difficulties in explaining the contradiction between the “principled” approach in Syria and the more pragmatic approach in the case of Russia.
Third, repairing relations with Kurds in Turkey and resuscitating the peace process is going to be challenging. The process, launched early in 2013, involved negotiations between the Turkish government and the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, to find a political solution to the Kurdish minority problem in Turkey. The negotiations aim to go beyond reforms extending cultural rights to Kurds, introduced in service of Turkey’s EU membership aspirations. Turkey resisted helping Kurdish fighters in Kobane partly on the ground that they were closely tied to the PKK, which it still considers a terrorist group. But the deal allowing Kurdish Regional Government security forces from northern Iraq to transit through Turkey to assist fighters in Kobane, accompanied with Ocalan’s continued commitment to the peace process, appears to have saved it from totally collapsing. But it will be difficult to see how this process could progress independently of the broader developments in Syria and the fate of the IS.
As long as the West remains reluctant to respond to Erdogan’s insistence that the fight against the IS be accompanied by efforts to replace Assad and Turkey, in turn, is unable to adopt a more pragmatic approach, it is likely the conflict in Syria will continue to strain Turkey’s relations with the West. If the IS is not defeated and Assad continues to inflict destruction on his people, Turkey is likely to find itself struggling with the political consequences of continued failure in Syria, having to manage an ever-growing number of refugees, and cope with the threat of Syria’s instability spilling into Turkey.
The writer is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the foreign policy programme at Brookings Institution, Washington DC