Turkey is navigating its complex relations with its neighbors amid the threat of the Islamic State and the rise of Iran. World Policy Journal spoke with Vehbi Baysan, political commentator and assistant rofessor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, about the country’s foreign policy challenges.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Where does Turkey stand in terms of the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Does this development help or hurt Turkey’s foreign policy objectives?
VEHBI BAYSAN: Turkey has long been accused of being in the Sunni camp, which means it would be on Saudi Arabia’s side against a Shiite regime such as Iran. This has been a big issue domestically as well, because Turkey has around 10-15 million Alevis, who are from the Shiite sect. Turkey in fact was very cautious and has condemned the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia. Turkey is sharing the growing concern in the Sunni world that Iran will have greater influence in the Middle East, in the Gulf, and in North Africa. This is a major concern because there are large Shiite populations in the Gulf states.
The Sunni regime [in Saudi Arabia] most of the time has treated the Shiite population like second-class citizens, although they are indigenous people of this country. They feel that Iran would act as a regional power and give support to Shiite communities. This, in effect, would jeopardize the Sunni regimes in these areas. But beyond that, oil prices are actually declining. They went all the way down to $30 per barrel. That is damaging the Saudi Arabian economy, and currently the Saudis have a deficit of over $100 billion. That is a great concern. What happened is that thanks to the U.S., to the nuclear agreement, Iran is coming back to the international market with high quality oil—though the oil prices are causing damage to Iran’s economy as well. One theory is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are creating this tension between themselves to draw attention away from their own domestic criticism.
WPJ: Turkey’s relationship with Iraq has been fraught lately, especially with the Iraqi government’s anger about the presence of Turkish troops in the country. What purpose did those troops serve in Iraq? How will Turkey adjust its policy towards Iraq now that the Iraqi government appears to be hostile to Turkey’s actions?
VB: Well, for many years, Turkish special forces, army, and police units have frequently gone into Iraq by invitation of the Iraqi government to train local police or other skilled forces. Turkey wants to be involved in the region because the Islamic State is a great danger to the Northern Iraqi Kurdish population. The Islamic State was very quick to capture the second biggest city in Iraq, Mosul. After being under bombardment by coalition forces, they went to Kobane, in Northern Syria. A month or two later, when everyone was talking about the Islamic State being finished, they went and captured Ramadi, a geographically important city.
Turkey has a presence in Iraq, not with the intention of occupying any land, but to be involved in the action and to be influential. Shooting down the Russian warplane on or near the Syrian–Turkish border created enormous diplomatic problems between Turkey and Russia. Afterward, the Iraq government asked the Turkish troops to leave because they were not there by invitation, and they didn’t want them to remain. There were a lot of arguments about this in Turkey concerning why the Iraqi government was doing this now, whether the request had come from Iran, or whether actually the message had been carried from Russia. In effect, indirectly Russia is now seeking revenge against Turkey. In past years, the presence of Turkey’s special forces training Iraqis was never a big issue or problem. But now, [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi has asked Turkey to leave as if the Turkish forces were occupying Iraq, causing a lot of embarrassment for the government and a growing internal criticism in Turkey. People ask, “What are these [forces] doing there? We should be out.” At the moment [the Turkish government] is taking its time and adjusting its Iraq policies accordingly. The criticism from the Iraqi government, if we can call it that, comes indirectly by way of Iran and by Russia. But another important thing there is that Turks at the moment are not as active as before because Russia is currently very dominant in Syrian politics. They installed their 100 missiles near Latakia, which is not far from the Turkish border, and threaten Turkish war planes that if they enter Syrian territory, they will be shot down. So in that way Turkey’s policies in Syria have suffered the most damage, and they actually want to compensate in Iraq.
WPJ: Turkey’s policy toward the Kurdish populations in northern Syria and Iraq has long been a source of tension with the U.S. and other NATO allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Do you think that this external pressure will force Turkey to change its policies, and what would be the domestic reaction to a change of policies in Turkey?
VB: What we should stress is that the Kurdish issue is taboo in Turkey. Since the 1980s, over 45,000 people have been killed [in the conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK]. The establishment of the Northern Iraqi Kurdish administration caused a lot of concern in Turkey, though the government later normalized trade with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another unexpected thing happened in Syria following the so-called Arab Spring. A mostly Kurdish population merged under the leadership of Salih Muslim and the PYD [Democratic Union Party]. The PYD became so strong in the region that they declared autonomy in some territories. Now you have a good example [of autonomy] in the Northern Iraqi Kurdish administration, as well as in Syria. This means that Kurds in Turkey would do everything possible and merge with Syrian ones or Iraqi ones. That means, in effect, dividing Turkish territory or taking a large chunk of it. That is a national taboo.
To make things worse for Turkey, the international community sees Kurdish guerilla forces as a very useful tool in the fight against what is probably the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, the Islamic State. So they often criticize Turkey for bombing Kurdish targets. Even today, Turkish air forces bombed a PKK guerilla camp in northern Iraq. The world cannot understand why such a useful tool is wasted by Turkey. But Turkish public opinion is that the West is doing everything possible to establish Kurdish autonomy, and in the near future that will cause a separation in Turkey.
Turkey was even internationally accused of supporting the Islamic State, but in fact they missed the point that the nightmare scenario is the establishment of a Kurdish autonomic region. Priority one is the Kurdish issue, not the Islamic state. Therefore, [the Turkish government] sounded as if it were openly supporting the Islamic State. So, Turkey’s foreign policy will be based on preventing any kind of Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Of course, time will show whether or not the Turkish policy will succeed. We know for a fact it failed in Northern Iraq when the Kurds established their own autonomy.
WPJ: Does the threat of terrorist attacks, such as the suicide bombing in Istanbul on Tuesday, pressure Turkey to change its foreign policy in Syria or Iraq?
VB: Definitely. Now they want to shift their policy to fighting against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Remember, though, that in the eastern part of Turkey there is almost a war going on with the Kurdish PKK, and a lot of people have been killed daily, including the police and the army. The Turkish government wants to shift its policy and fight against the Islamic State, but at the moment they have much bigger problems to grapple with in border towns such as Suruç and Şırnak where there have been curfews in the last two months. Turkish forces are struggling to win that area. They have to be very careful to avoid civilian casualties, but the terror side has no army or police concerns. So it’s a very, very difficult task. I think the regional policies will definitely be the international community focusing on the fight against the Islamic State, but now that the Kurdish fighters are fighting in the eastern part of the country, this delays or prevents that policy being enacted.
WPJ: Turkey has been coordinating its migration policies with Germany and other EU countries recently. Do you think that Turkey will be able to translate this increase in cooperation into progress in the EU accession process that has been going on for a long time now? Should this be a foreign policy priority, with so much else that is happening on Turkey’s southern borders with Iraq and Syria?
VB: For a long time, almost more than a century, Turkey has wanted to be part of the European community. Actually, the accession process has been a long one and a difficult one. As a citizen of Turkey, it doesn’t really matter whether Turkey joins the EU or not. The improvements that Turkey will make on the way to accession, in the legal system, food policy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, you name it, are much more important than actually joining the EU. We all predicted that with the war in Syria the migrants wouldn’t actually stop in Turkey—they would make their way to the EU because of all of the benefits they would receive there. But it seems, to our shock and surprise, that the EU leaders will not at all prepared. As a solution, they come to Turkey with a proposal to help Turkey with accession and to give 3 billion euros if Turkey keeps the migrants in its territory. This is a very difficult task, as Turkey has hundreds of miles of shores that cannot all be protected or controlled.
The priority of Turkish policy will be domestically to speed up the reforms on the way to EU accession, but also to do its best to keep as many of the immigrants as possible in Turkey. I don’t have much hope on the latter point. One of the world’s most brutal wars on our 850-kilometer border with Syria is also showing its effects and its influence. Terrorists can now use Turkey as their own ground and can do terror acts anywhere they want. That was the clear message of the Sultanahmet bombing on Tuesday.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo courtesy of Vehbi Baysan]