The Observer view on Turkey and the Middle Eastern struggles for power


Excerpt from: The Guardian
Observer editorial

The prominent players in the region recognise that disparate agendas will result in destruction

If all goes to plan, Turkey will call new elections this week, opening the way for the ruling party to make another claim on majority power. Such a move, widely predicted by officials, would come two months after the last poll, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party lost much of its lustre. At home, the Kurds got under Erdogan’s guard, with the pro-Kurdish HDP party getting more than 10% of the national vote, crossing a threshold that made it both a force in national politics and a major irritant to the Turkish leader. Elsewhere in the region, the result has been even more profound.

Within a month, Turkey had reopened a front with the Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), with whom a truce had mostly held for more than two years. It also invited the US to use one of its air bases to launch attacks on the Islamic State terror group across the border in Syria – a move it had refused, despite two years of pleas from its ally.

At the same time, Turkish jets started bombing PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG that, under the cover of US jets, had done much of the ground fighting against Isis. And to cap it off, Turkey declared the Kurds to be an even bigger threat than Isis, whose rampage across the centre of the Arab world is now incontestably a huge threat to regional stability and a direct challenge to the global order.

At every corner, the Middle East is now more combustible than at any time in the past century, with Isis continuing to erode the authority of Iraq and Syria especially and the post-Ottoman state system more generally. Yet to Ankara, ground zero of the region’s disintegration remains its south-eastern mountains where the subversive Kurds are using the chaos to advance their own goals.

A look at who now holds ground inside Syria has affirmed Turkey’s worst fears. The YPG, which along with the Peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been the only credible fighting force against Isis, now controls a swath of land just south of the Turkish border, from the Iraqi frontier to the north-eastern edge of Aleppo.

The Kurdish militia also has a stronghold in Syria’s north-west. And it is in the gap between the two that Turkey is now insisting that a no-fly zone be established. The move is being sold as a safe haven for Syrian civilians and fighters. The reality is that it would prevent the Kurdish militias from linking up and, in the view of Ankara, changing the geopolitics of the border.

Where this leaves the alliance with the US, which, without the Kurds, could not fight a war with Isis, is one of many riddles of a tumultuous political time regionally. For now, Washington has taken up the offer to use the Incirlik air base, but is balking at a no-fly zone, while urging, with limited success, that the attacks on the various Kurdish interests be curtailed.

In Iraq, the US and Iran continue to dance, pretending that they’re not co-operating in the fight against Isis while US jets fly in support of Iranian-backed militias.

Elsewhere, new curiosities have emerged. Earlier this month, Russian officials flew to Riyadh for discussions with Saudi defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman. Syria’s spy chief, Ali Mamlouk, was widely reported to have been on the plane, a suggestion the Saudis haven’t denied and a move that would have been inconceivable in the past three years that war has ravaged Syria.

Add to that a reciprocal visit by the Saudis to Moscow, an Iranian delegation to Oman, the US-backed nuclear deal with Iran and Russian support for a UN tribunal to get to the bottom of the chemical weapons attack near Damascus two years ago, which has widely been blamed on the Assad regime. Diplomatically, there have been more stirrings in the past month than at any time in the past five years.

This doesn’t mean that an end to one of modern history’s greatest tragedies is in sight. Syria is in embers and its displaced and disenfranchised people’s suffering will endure for many years to come. It is difficult to see how any central authority can regain control of the country. And the same can increasingly be said for Iraq.

The remorseless quest by the region’s stakeholders for power and influence continues to fuel the Syrian war in particular. Common ground has been slow to emerge from entrenched vested interests. However, for the first time since the crisis began, there are signs that all the prominent players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US and Turkey – now recognise that prosecuting disparate agendas will eventually lead nowhere else but mutually assured destruction.

Russia’s surprise UN concession could ostensibly be read as having put Assad on notice that after having protected him with security council vetoes for so long, it could withdraw cover on the chemical weapons probe, a move that would cripple what remains of his authority.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all insisted that Assad’s demise would give them room to move and would also deny Isis momentum. Russia’s messaging in recent weeks is that this is up for discussion, as long as they can secure their own interests.

In the meantime, though, Turkey’s principal preoccupation seems to be neither Assad, nor Isis. Erdogan hopes a new poll, after weeks of fighting the Kurds, will draw the support of nationalists attracted by the anti-terror narrative and splinter the HDP. Only then, with a restored majority, would Erdogan turn his attention to a groundswell that could define the region’s very future. The danger is that the increasingly mercurial Turkish leader is in danger of pursuing his own political and national interests at the expense of the search for a wider regional settlement that could at last offer peace to the region.

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