By Osman Can
Washington’s road map for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out last week could shift the regional balance of power and possibly create a new status quo. From a Turkish perspective, the plan creates certain opportunities but entails some serious risks. There is plenty of speculation circulating about the origins of ISIS and the U.S. and other allied powers have left Turkey alone during the Syrian civil war and failed to deliver on their promises. Washington’s reluctance to act against the Assad regime in spite of grave transgressions that should have triggered some response from the U.S., including a full-blown chemical attack against civilians, added to the Syrian government’s power and weakened the moderate opposition’s pro-democracy agenda. In this sense, the way the Syrian civil war played out has proven the Turkish authorities are right.
Turkey taking a correct stance in the first place, however, tends to encourage analysts to point their fingers at Ankara rather than make up for past mistakes. Let us elaborate – in Syria, ISIS militants formed an alliance with Bashar Assad, whom Turkey has staunchly opposed since the civil war started. At the same time, the organization has repeatedly targeted the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a Turkish ally in the region, and placed the country’s territorial integrity at risk by weakening the central government. In this sense, ISIS has followed a course of action that contradicts Turkey’s foreign policy and actions.
ISIS militants also adopted an independent political agenda. Currently, the group continues to hold 49 Turkish nationals who served at the country’s consular office in Mosul hostage and uses them to threaten and blackmail Ankara. That is why Turkey has assumed a reluctant position with regard to President Obama’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition and offered limited contribution to the mission. Still, Western media outlets and certain politicians seem quite eager to blame Ankara, which entails serious risks for regional stability and the country’s role in the Middle East. The decision to arm certain groups in the area to fight ISIS, too, emerges as a source of additional risks.
Over the last few years, Turkey has been making progress toward normalization as the ethno-centric, ultra-centralized and exclusionary Kemalist regime rapidly lost importance. The Kurdish peace process arguably represents one of the most important steps within this broader agenda. Efforts to establish an all-encompassing and pluralistic constitutional order on the basis of a new social contract, in addition to the PKK’s disarmament, still continue. Considering that the coalition will seek to arm various groups in the region, proponents of the Obama plan might like to present the expansion of the PKK’s military arsenal or, minimally, preventing the organization’s disarmament as a legitimate course of action to fight the ISIS threat. The obvious effect of such a move would be to derail the Kurdish reconciliation process in Turkey.
Turkey has been seriously suffering from regional developments in recent years. This discrepancy, in turn, entails different priorities for the Turkish authorities and Western governments. Similarly, the PKK was never a serious problem for the West and therefore could possibly appear to be a valuable instrument to neutralize a radical organization such as ISIS. And they might choose to concentrate on this side of the story to completely ignore Turkey’s position. Provocative headlines such as “Our Non-Ally in Ankara” suggest that this might indeed be the case. For the people of the Middle East, however, peace represents a vital need as opposed to a pragmatic goal. The same goes for the successful completion of the Kurdish reconciliation process and a new constitutional order.