Is Turkey Truly an Ally of the US anymore?
With Turkey's recent behavior as of the last few years, many across the world are becoming weary of the Government's policy trajectory and whether Turkey can still be trusted as a reliable ally. The recent coup d'etat attempt by the military, and the government's crackdown and mass arrests of its perpetrators and alleged supporters have begun to raise some eyebrows. It seems President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it his mission to garner as much power as possible and continue to demolish the secular institutions that were implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago.
Turkey's recent behavior during the Syrian Civil War, and its rapid Islamization have worried many to the point of re-considering Turkey's place as a NATO member and perhaps whether they remain an ally at all.
Ever since Erdogan became Prime Minister of Turkey in 2003, he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have slowly amassed power and taken baby steps to remove the secular political system that was put in place by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his followers. Erdogan and the AKP have also slowly gutted the Turkish military of the types of Generals that have been instrumental in overthrowing leaders that have tried to Islamize the political system of the country in the past decades. The military in Turkey was a bulwark against types who wanted to bring back an Ottoman style theocracy.
Other past leaders were more overt and impatient about their goals, making it obvious for the military to jump in and restore balance to the system. Erdogan has played it smart, and made small legislative changes in the country, ones that are not blatant enough for the military to take action. This includes lifting the long standing burqa ban in universities, calls by prominent members of his Government to remove all mentions of Turkey being a secular state from its constitution and the gradual centralization of power to the executive branch. In 2014, Erdogan, then Prime Minister, won the presidency, traditionally a ceremonial role that was the equivalent of the presidencies in other parliamentary systems.
However, Erdogan and his AKP had transferred the powers of the Prime Minister to the office of the President, and successive PMs have been obedient to the all powerful President. Erdogan has since made further steps to solidify his grip on power by using the oldest Machiavellian trick in the book: taking advantage of conflicts to create a false enemy in order to justify one's power, so that “security and stability” can be ensured. Erdogan has done so and continues to do so with with three particular events: The longstanding conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Syrian Civil War, and the recent military coup attempt this July.
War With the PKK
Since 1978, The PKK has waged a war against the government of Turkey in order to have independence in the southeast part of the country, which is mostly Kurdish. The Kurds are a completely separate ethnic group with a different language and cultural traditions. The PKK is an openly Communist revolutionary group, whose plan is to establish a separate nation in the southeastern part of Turkey whose government is based upon Marxist values. When the PKK began their armed revolt against Turkish rule, naturally the US backed their NATO ally, as the establishment of a Communist entity in a portion of Turkey could lead to the USSR expanding their influence in the region. Turkey played an important role in the containment of the Soviet Union, and the US could not let that be jeopardized by the possibility of their strongest ally in the region (other than Israel) becoming weakened by a fragmentation of their territorial integrity.
The conflict with the PKK went through phases of extreme violence and relative calm. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US considered the PKK less of a threat, but still kept them on their list of terrorist organizations in order to assure Turkey that they stood by them. In 2012, the Turkish Government and the PKK signed an armistice agreement after years of negotiations. The populace of Turkey was largely in favor of this armistice, as they were tired of the endless violence.
The fighting had largely stopped, and Turkey had become relatively stable. Following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, and ISIS's invasion of the Kurdish populated cantons of neighboring Syria, a large number of Kurds began to flee over the border into Turkey. This led the Turkish Government to worry about the large number of Kurds arriving in the country's southern provinces, especially since an armed Syrian Kurdish group, The People's Protection Units (YPG), were in a vicious armed conflict with ISIS in the city of Kobani at the time. This group has proven to be one of the few reliable allies to the US in the fight against ISIS. However since the YPG has ties with the PKK, the Turks have been extremely hostile towards them, and would rather jeopardize the gains against ISIS than allow the YPG to control territory along the Turkish border.
The Turkish distaste for the YPG has driven them to actually assist ISIS financially and militarily in order to weaken the Kurdish forces. Reports of ISIS smuggling oil across the border into Turkey to sell has profited both parties as well. The most astonishing report of Turkish assistance to ISIS is during the Battle of Kobani and its surrounding areas, Turkish ambulances were seen evacuating ISIS fighters across the border into Turkey to be treated in Turkish hospitals. The Government of Turkey's own self interest in quelling Kurdish advances against ISIS out of fear that the YPG could stage an attack on Turkey in the future has led to the strengthening of ISIS.
Following the Suruc suicide bombing by ISIS on July 20th, 2015, which killed 33 people and injured 104 mostly Kurdish, many began to suspect that Turkey had supported ISIS's attack. Riots in protest of Turkey's willingness to support ISIS over the YPG took place. The riots grew and led to an attack killing two Turkish police officers by elements of the PKK. The military wing of PKK claimed that the Police were collaborating with ISIS in the Suruc bombing, and declared the killings as a revenge attack against the Turkish Government. The Government of Turkey saw this as an opportunity to justify a restart of the conflict with the PKK, ending the two year respite of fighting. It announced Operation Martyr Yalcin, which cleverly called for strikes against both ISIS and the PKK to please their NATO allies. While Turkey bombed ISIS targets heavily, it stopped after one day, and continued its attacks on the PKK. The attacks included armed incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as armed raids against Kurdish communities in southeastern Turkey, with historical ties to the PKK.
The conflict is still raging to this day, with numerous casualties on both sides. While the PKK is an armed terror group, and their actions should be condemned, Erdogan's Government has used the conflict as a justification for an increase in its powers.
Syrian Civil War
Ever since the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey has taken a strong anti-Assad stance and has taken every opportunity to undermine the Syrian dictator's position. Erdogan has done so by arming armed opposition groups that are fighting against the regime. However, Turkey doesn't seem to mind that a large number of these groups are radical Islamic jihadists. Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia is openly funding Islamist groups such as Jaish al-Fatah and Ahrar al-Sham, whom work directly with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda's former branch in Syria (until 2016 when it broke off). Turkey has even admitted that their assistance to these groups would benefit Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but Erdogan’s Government doesn't seem to care, as their regional interests seem to outweigh defeating Islamic terrorism.
Within the last year, the Syrian-Kurdish YPG has been gaining ground and has managed to take back ground from ISIS. Their stand against ISIS in the battle of Kobani and the subsequent seizure of land in the northern border region of Syria has been an amazing feat. The YPG has proven not only to be a formidable fighting force against ISIS, but a reliable ally in a conflict which practically no other opposition group can be trusted, because of direct links to jihadists. The Syrian Kurds have proven to be a largely secular, stable ally, which currently has a form of detente with the Assad Regime.
The YPG is also unified, as the group has the sole goal of creating an independent, or at least autonomous Kurdish region within Syria along the entire stretch of its northern border with Turkey. Because of this, Turkey is doing everything in its power to ensure that the YPG, an ideological ally of the PKK, does not control that land. In its goal to prevent that, Turkey has shelled YPG positions in Syria. It furthered its action on August 24th, in which Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, aimed at preventing the YPG from connecting the eastern and western cantons controlled by the YPG along Turkey's southern border.
In this military operation, Turkey has sent planes, tanks, and ground forces into the northernmost border area between the two Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria and managed to quickly seize the last remaining border area from ISIS. In doing so however, it has emboldened the Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition, which has had a major role in seizing the border areas in order to ensure that the YPG does not control that area. Turkey timed its invasion after an ISIS attack in southern Turkey to justify its invasion as a push against the terror group. In reality, it was a push against the YPG, which eventually would have taken the area, as it had been slowly driving ISIS out of the northern regions.
The Turks and their Syrian opposition allies have been simultaneously fighting ISIS and the YPG. The US, openly supports the operation against ISIS, but not against the YPG and is now telling the its leadership that it must stay out of Turkey's way. We are only enabling Turkey's jingoistic ambitions by taking this position.
Another event that Erdogan has used to increase his power was the recent coup attempt this July. On the evening of July 15th, elements of the Turkish Armed Forces which called themselves the “Peace at Home Council” attempted to seize control of several key areas within the capital city, Ankara, as well as Istanbul and other major cities. Their stated goal was to re-establish the secular institutions of Turkey and prevent Erdogan from amassing power.
The coup was a massive failure, as forces loyal to Erdogan prevented the plotters from attaining their goals. However, the sequence of events over the 24 hour period prove that either the coup plotters were extremely sloppy and careless or the coup was staged in order to further justify the need for Erdogan to seize more power. A number of strange factors make this event seem like it was all too convenient for Erdogan.
In order to place blame on someone someone in order to warrant his own position, The Erdogan Government has made baseless claims that the coup was orchestrated by a Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who currently takes refuge in the US. Its conducting of mass arrests and incarcerations of about 32,000 people and the sacking of 100,000 individuals in the military, civil service, police, judiciary and universities shows that Erdogan has created another diversion to justify the centralization of power within the executive branch. As if the breaking of the two year long peace negotiations and continuation of the brutal war against the PKK and Kurdish population wasn't enough to give Erdogan enough popular support, the government took advantage of (or possibly orchestrated) a coup to create instability in the country when there wasn't any. This puts Erdogan in the position to be the “savior” and bring order to a chaotic situation, even though he was the one to create the chaos.
When our “ally” is supporting terrorist groups, undermining our other allies, and pursuing an Islamist agenda, there leaves little benefit for us to be in a mutual defense pact with Turkey. When Turkey was permitted to join NATO, it was at a time of great tension between the US and the Soviet Union.
Turkey proved to be a valuable asset at the time and has provided the largest military in NATO after the US. Its leadership had been secular, relatively stable and most importantly, anti-Soviet. However times have changed and so has the behavior and institutions of Turkey. When an alliance with a country is no longer an asset but a severe liability, it may be time to cut the chord. The words of George Washington come to mind when thinking of our current debacle with Turkey: "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world." Countries change. Their ambitions change. What may seem as a viable alliance at one point in history may prove to be damaging down the road.