TEL AVIV—As the Islamic State militant group has advanced across Iraq and Syria, traditional regional alliances, long shaped by Western powers, have been upended. Particularly consequential is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s struggle to reconcile his country’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) with its image as a leading protector of Sunni Islam.
The Turkish government’s reluctance to join the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State’s extremist Sunni fighters has isolated it from other Sunni Arab powers, such as Saudi Arabia, that have joined the coalition. Moreover, it has further alienated Turkey’s Iranian allies, already estranged by Erdogan’s obsession with toppling their man in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. And it appears to vindicate
European Union countries, such as France and Germany, that never trusted Turkey’s capacity to reconcile its Islamist vocation with its European aspirations.
Indeed, a key Nato member state has become the paladin of radical Islam throughout the Middle East, led by a president whose core political constituency is ingrained with anti-Western sentiment. Erdogan’s supporters dismiss Western campaigns against Islamist terrorism as a ploy to repress Sunnis. As one such supporter, Kenan Alpay, recently wrote, “Turkey cannot be a part of an international system that aims to dissolve all Islamic movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood to… the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
A couple of weeks later, Erdogan himself unleashed a furious anti-Western diatribe at Istanbul’s Marmara University. In his speech, he compared the West’s interference in the Middle East today with the British officer Lawrence of Arabia’s involvement in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, and blasted the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which has since defined the Middle East’s political map.
The similarities with the views of the Islamic State are glaring. In a video produced after the battle for the Mosul Dam in August, the group called for the “end of Sykes-Picot,” and proclaimed the need to redraw the Western-imposed political map of the Middle East.
Erdogan’s ambition to restore Turkey’s primacy in the Sunni world is driving him to collude with this challenge to the Western-devised regional order. Indeed, Turkey has been offering logistical support to the Islamic State, even as it has enabled the group’s murderous members to massacre thousands of civilian Kurds and Yazidis in the Syrian town of Kobani on Turkey’s doorstep.
This highlights another issue on which Turkey and the Islamic State converge: the Kurds.
Erdogan seems to hope that, by degrading Kurdish military strength and territorial control, the Islamic State will help him to achieve his central goal of diminishing the Kurdish nationalist movement, which has long been a thorn in Turkey’s side.
But, if anything, the war against the Islamic State has bolstered the Kurdish cause. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq have already established a quasi-independent state along the border with Turkey. And the Democratic Union Party—the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for the last three decades—is on its way toward establishing a Kurdish autonomous region along Turkey’s Syrian border. Together, these groups have emerged as the most effective force in the war against the Islamic State.
And there is more bad news for Erdogan. The perception that his true objective in supporting the Islamic State is to stem the rise of the Kurds, bolstered by his apparent indifference to the agony in Kobani, has jeopardized one of his major legacies: peace talks with the PKK.
Erdogan has even argued that, in Turkey’s view, the PKK and the Islamic State are the same—mirroring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Hamas and the Islamic State were branches of the same tree. With such desperate and unreasonable rhetoric, Erdogan is lending credence to accusations that the entire “peace process” was simply a ploy to persuade the Kurdish members of Turkey’s parliament to support the constitutional changes that allowed him to move from prime minister to president.
Erdogan now finds himself in a strategic quagmire. If his position on the Islamic State continues to waver, he will only alienate the Kurds further, which means that when the jihadists decide to encroach on Turkish territory, Turkey will have to confront them without a Kurdish alliance. But if he decides to support the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, he will undoubtedly enhance their national aspirations.
But stronger Kurdish nationalism might not be such a bad thing for Erdogan, who has been a vociferous advocate of the right of national self-determination beyond Turkey’s immediate vicinity, such as in the case of Palestine. Indeed, such a move could be a welcome sign of political and moral consistency, possibly even boosting Erdogan’s leverage in devising an arrangement with Turkey’s Kurds, including the PKK.
In any case, it is time for Erdogan to make a choice. He has already led Turkey into a thicket of clashes among its vital interests: its Western alliance, its regional aspirations, and the Kurdish question. Something will have to give—and soon.–Project Syndicate
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.”
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