Turkey re-emerging as influential power in West Asia :A decisive year in fighting IS

The January 1 early morning gun attack on an Istanbul night club should tell two things to Sri Lankans unfamiliar with the country of Turkey: firstly that ‘terrorism’, specifically, Islamist terrorism, has become a significant problem in that west Asian country and, secondly, that Turkey is yet another mainly Islamic nation that does not enforce strict Islamic laws that supposedly frown on night clubs and nightlife.

Both facts are equally important as we watch our world begin 2017. Rapidly expanding Islamist terrorism has now permeated one of the world’s most prosperous and stable mainly Islamic, nations. At the same time, Turkey’s national cultural identity has become a major issue of national debate in the recent decade after current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP in Turkish) emerged as the new dominant political movement in the country.

Turkey bestrides a region that has hosted some of humanity’s earliest civilizations, with remnants of possibly the earliest urban settlements on Earth – over 7,000 years old – found. And its geographical location has rendered that land as the cross-roads between Asia, Africa and Europe with stream after stream of successive cultures transiting the area from Asia to Europe. Over the millennia, stone-age migrations became bronze age invasions and civilizations, while socio-religious identities evolved from the Hellenic-Mithraitic to early Apostolic Christian to Eastern Orthodox Christian to Muslim. Turkey’s current constitution, however, is strictly secular, an identity that is vigorously challenged by President Erdogan’s AKP which leads a movement that wants to reaffirm an Islamic social and cultural identity.

President Erdogan’s Islamism, however, is moderate and modernist and possibly praiseworthy in the face of the imminent threat of so-called ‘Islamic State’ religious extremism. This writer uses ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamism’ to distinguish between the actual religion of Islam and the religious content espoused for political purposes, the nature of which may be seen by many Muslims as deviating from genuine Islam. Turkey’s richly diverse cultural history will not allow any automatic transition to a new Islamism as wished by the AKP. Night clubs like the Reina Club, known for their flamboyance and glamour, are emblematic of the modern secularist culture that remains strong in Turkey, and dilutes attempts to dogmatize Islam in Turkey in ways that will undermine contemporary life.

Actually, this mix of secular modernity, plural cultural legacy and moderate Islamism may be Turkey’s strength as a bulwark against the sick disease of Islamist warlordism and social barbarity that ferments just across the border in the currently ‘stateless’ region across northern Syria and western Iraq.

Long before the IS began its naked terrorism, Turkey has suffered from internal ethnic conflict involving the marginalized ethnic minority, Kurds (pronounced not as ‘curd’ but with a ‘u’ sound as in Upali). Comprising up to 20 percent of Turkey’s population, the Kurds are mainly Sunni Muslim, but, possibly due to their minority status, have been largely mobilised under secular and Leftist political leaderships in endeavours for national freedom or, at least greater autonomy. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (in Kurdish: Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) is the biggest and best organized underground Kurdish nationalist movement that was originally Leftist-secessionist but has, today, moderated its stance and stands for local autonomy within current Turkish borders. Kurds in their own autonomous regions in neighbouring Syria, Iraq and Iran (there are also minorities in the Caucasian republics) are a source of support for Turkish Kurds.

To their credit, successive governments in Ankara (unlike our past Rajapaksa regime) have consistently addressed the internal Kurdish problem with a combination of serious political reform measures and civilian management alongside military counter-insurgency operations that have, on occasion, pursued Kurdish fighters into safe havens across the border into both Syria and Iraq.

It has been the current Erdogan regime’s attempts at dialogue with Kurdish leaderships that led to the PKK renouncing secessionism. Nevertheless, Turkey, for over a century, has had to deal with minority ethnic secessionism by both, the Armenian and Kurdish communities that straddle borders across many States in West Asia, and that has made Ankara very sensitive to any armed activity on its borders involving trans-border minorities.

The IS is very different. Initially, Turkey viewed the IS on the Syrian side of the border favourably since it served both, as a spoiler against Kurdish insurgency as well as undermined the longstanding Baathist regime in Syria. Ankara, at best, had lukewarm relations since Damascus was always in the Soviet camp while Ankara was firmly with NATO and the US.

Indeed, in the early stages, Turkey was known to have covertly provided support to the IS across its long border with Syria and allowed local Turkish business to illegally buy and transport crude oil pumped from IS controlled Iraqi oilfields. In fact, Turkish newspapers which exposed this practice were prosecuted by the Turkish authorities for leaking national intelligence material and one editor was jailed.

The outbreak – with US encouragement – of a political resistance, especially, by Sunni Muslims, to the secular Baathist regime in Damascus was seen by the Erdogan regime as an opportunity to unseat the Syrian regime and most of Ankara’s initial support for NATO operations against IS were actually a cover for support for the Syrian anti-government insurgents (and operations against the Syrian Kurdish groups who were known to support Kurds inside Turkey). This move by Turkey parallels the later move by Russia to enter the Syrian war ostensibly to fight IS, but actually, to counter the Syrian anti-government insurgency and reaffirm the longstanding Russian military presence in Syria (See my previous columns).

Today, the hugely complicated and almost overwhelming fallout from the Syrian and IS insurgencies – massive population flows into Turkey, IS infiltration – has compelled Ankara to change tactics and work with Russia to help dampen the fires of insurgency against Damascus and also to counter the IS.

Year 2017 is likely to be a decisive year in the war against the IS, although the fight against the undermining of Islam by fundamentalist tendencies is a much longer term problem, just as it is with several other world religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

Given its position in West Asia as one of the most powerful states in the region, Turkey will play a pivotal role. A defeat of IS and the possible stabilization of the situation in Syria will help strengthen the stature of the states in the region and could pave the way for peace in other parts of that region, notably Palestine.

This trajectory will also depend on the future approach of the United States under a Donald Trump administration. If a pragmatic Trump could restrain some of the neo-conservative and adventurist hawks in the Republican Party, then Washington is likely to be less interventionist and allow other actors (like Russia) who have more leverage in the region – since they are not seen as tied to Israel – to contribute peace-building in what was once called the Fertile Crescent. 

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