So Vladimir Putin’s airstrike greatly damages the ISIS positions in Syria. Obviously therefore if the US had really been bombing ISIS it would have destroyed it long ago. But rather than welcome this significant victory in its “war on terrorism” the US tells us that the Russians will have casualties and shouldn’t be there doing what the US has always said it wants the rest of the world to help it do.
Then, most conveniently, terrorist bombs go off in Ankara. Of course they do. Everyone knows Turkey is Muslim, everyone knows it has had problems with Kurdish terrorism, so ISIS, the vehicle for achieving a State of Greater Kurdistan, must be alive and well and beyond the ability of Russia or anyone else to stop it. Assuming the bombs were really planted by terrorists, without external sponsorship, and they just happened to go off at a time the US is still trying to convince us that ISIS is unbeatable.
We don’t know the full facts about any of this. But what is obvious is that a longstanding US ally, Turkey, is being caught in the middle. Turkey was only ever a US ally for geographical reasons, as its politics and practices are everything the US says it opposes. Now it in the unenviable position of being told it is an ally, to prevent it making other friends, but treated as the enemy within.
Maybe this was bound to happen to the secular Muslim state one day. But the US hasn’t even had the decency to let it down gently. It has plunged it into a fight for its very survival which it would never have had to face had it not been such a staunch US ally, attracting to itself all the opprobrium that status carries with it in this region. Once again we are seeing exactly why we have a unipolar world, rather than one with two warring ideologies: with the Guardian of Democracy as your friend, you don’t need enemies.
The genesis of today’s crisis was the second US invasion of Iraq. Turkey refused to open its territory for the invading Americans. This was understandable; such an action would have further inflamed Turkey’s national minorities, including the Kurds, who had long resorted to violence and militancy with the stated aim of trying to break up Turkey. It would also have aroused the more religious part of the population, which is seeking to restore the country to its Ottoman era position as leader of the Islamic world, with laws to match, when the modern Turkish state has been built on exactly the opposite principles.
But Turkey knew what the US reaction would be. It has seen it too often before. On several occasions the military have intervened in Turkish politics, with overt US assistance, and overthrown elected civilian governments. It has done this because civilian politics has been so confrontational that the country has been destabilised. Of course the local politicians want to take credit for this to show their independence, but when you see who sponsored those politicians, and the promises they were given, it is clear who really wanted to destabilise Turkey.
This pattern is repeating itself today. Turkey’s current civilian politics is not of the same ilk as it was in the days of Suleiman Demirel and Bulent Ecevit, when politicians refused to shake hands in public for fear of alienating their own supporters. As Demirel and Ecevit ended up serving jail sentences for doing as they were told, this should be a good thing. But Turkey’s leaders are being manipulated in the same way, for the same ends, and clearly by the same people, as Turkey’s security arrangements have left the US as the only party with strings necessary to do it.
Many Turks now consider that their Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and his inner circle of government want to reestablish the Ottoman Empire bit by bit. What does this charge actually mean? It means that a growing Turkey, becoming ever stronger economically and having ever greater influence in regional affairs, is considered a bad thing. By whom? Do Turks disapprove of such things happening? Or is it that other powers consider Turkey fine provided it stays in its place, and twist every advance Turkey makes into an attack on everyone else?
Previous destabilisation of Turkey has been achieved by exploiting existing divisions in the country to create situations where significant numbers feel they are so excluded they have no choice but to overthrow the state. This was the very justification given by the Founding Fathers for declaring the US independent of the UK.
Military takeovers do not resolve any of the problems of the excluded as they simply bring in new layers of exclusion and create a common enemy, vulnerable to overthrow at any time, like the Soviet Communist Party. But we never hear about the instability of Turkey during periods of military rule because destroying democracy is usually the desired Western outcome. The country is only ever unstable enough to bring in the military, and terrorist bombings, real or imagined, create just the right degree of instability for the same scenario to be played out once again.
Knowing your enemy
The main Turkish opposition party is the HDP. Its leader Selahattin Demirtas told CNN in an interview after the bombings, “it seems that the people who are behind these attacks have been able to move freely in carrying out such attacks; they haven’t met many difficulties – so I would say it looks like an ISIS-linked attack, but we are of the opinion that there are those within the state who supported the attack.”
This may be true – although Davutoglu was very quick to blame ISIS for it, without offering credible evidence, which sounds like a desperate attempt to play by the rules after the game has been played to get back into it. But the credibility of this statement being broadcast in an interview is somewhat damaged by CNN equating the Kurdish minority with the Turkish opposition, as if all Turks are on one side and all Kurds, for which we read terrorists, on the other.
The Turkish nation is an artificial construct of many nationalities, but it was founded on the basis of the “common Turkish identity” Ataturk invoked. Consequently, although Kurds make upwards of 40 percent of the population the vast majority of them uphold this Turkish identity and the vales which go with it. They also support the territorial integrity of the state, though not as currently configured.
If the HDP is the voice of the Kurdish community, and the Turkish government is turning a blind eye to the presence of ISIS in Turkey, this implies two things. Either the present crisis will lead to the Kurds taking over and making Turkey a terror state, like Iran is supposed to be, or the government is powerless to stop terrorists anyway. Either way, the country is unstable and will get worse.
Therefore the military once again needs to ride in to save the day. By the merest coincidence, Turkey will then follow US diktat in full once again – which means, in effect, allowing ISIS to do what it wants under the cover of fighting it, exactly what the Turkish opposition is accusing the government of already doing.
Democracy Now, a national radio programme, reported that 128 people died when the near-simultaneous explosions ripped through a pro-peace rally in Ankara. More than 245 others were injured.
The bombs went off just as Kurdish groups, trade unions and leftist organisations were preparing to march against the resumption of fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants, PKK. This in turn was taking place just three weeks before Turkey’s snap parliamentary elections.
In June the ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority and the HDP secured seats in Parliament for the first time. Since then, hostilities between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants have sharply escalated, the one supposedly leading to the other, although the separatist Kurdish militants couldn’t care less what goes on in a Turkish parliament they do not recognise or accept.
Between a hard place and a harder place
If the military do take over Turkey again and make the country the forward operating base for the US covert support of ISIS it will have to get more involved in the fighting in Syria. If Kurdish/ISIS militancy causes the overthrow of the civilian government the new government cannot stand by and let the same force remain active and threatening on its doorstep.
This will of course only make any genuine domestic instability worse, as the Kurds will be blamed en masse for everything ISIS does and other minority or excluded groups will feel they will be the next targets. This will have one of two consequences – ever firmer military rule, at the expense of involvement in Syria, or the breakup of the Turkish state and the concept of one.
Either outcome would suit the US. If the military can’t or won’t support the US effort in Syria because they are too busy dealing with the same problem at home they and their country will lose all credibility and commitments made to them will become worthless. If Turkey breaks up its constituent parts will take a long time to establish themselves as credible units and members of any alliance. Either way ISIS will remain associated with the Kurds and remain seemingly invincible, giving the US every excuse to fund an array of other groups to pretend to fight its better funded and CIA-backed ISIS allies.
The US is trying to maintain that the victims of the Russian airstrikes are not ISIS but “moderate US-sanctioned fighters”, a term often used for groups described as terrorists by the same US not long afterwards. The implication is that Russia is simply targeting opponents of Assad, and this makes ISIS alright really because it falls into the same camp. Therefore the US is tacitly admitting that ISIS is serving US purposes. Therefore the US is not opposing it in Syria or anywhere else.
This has been more overtly stated by US Senator John McCain, the notorious gun runner whose admitted campaign donors supply most of the weapons used by “terrorist groups” in any of the world’s conflicts, not long after McCain has visited those places publicly supporting the terrorists. He has just publicly admitted that the Free Syrian Army is a CIA-run operation, something most close observers have known for a long time.
The US has never made a secret of its desire to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Now that Russia has intervened militarily on Assad’s behalf, it will be even more committed to achieving this goal. But it is also claiming to be engaged in a war on ISIS, which is also fighting against Assad in Syria. Therefore it has to square this circle by saying that ISIS is unbeatable.
If the Russians are doing more to damage ISIS in one day than the US has done in five years this makes the US look both weak and blatantly deceitful. It can’t have this, so it has to promote the horrors of ISIS at every opportunity. By linking the Ankara bombings, whoever carried them out, with Kurds and no one else it is trying to create the view that a defeat for ISIS in Syria would just make it even more terrible elsewhere, so Russia should leave it alone.
At present, Turkey could package the bomb attack as a threat to its national security on a massive scale and try to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter. This would oblige all NATO members to genuinely fight ISIS under the doctrine of collective defence. The US is determined to prevent this. So a little thing like destroying an ally is a small price to pay, so it thinks, for continuing to pursue policies which aren’t even working.
Turkey can’t hope to stop the US doing what it wants with so much at stake. So whatever the outcome in Syria, the Russian airstrike may have dealt a fatal blow to Turkey rather than ISIS: not because of anything the Russians have done, but because the US has to get its retaliation in first.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.