NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 26 AUGUST, 2016
Turkey has lately attracted global attention because of various reasons. These include the failed coup attempt on July 15/16; Turkey’s involvement in the conflict in Syria; the manner in which it is handling the issue of Syrian refugees; and the question whether it is moving away from Kemalism towards Islamism.
These issues are affecting the current situation in Syria, which is no more a regional matter. It has affected the situation in Europe, with more than a million, mainly Syrian, refugees entering the continent through Greece and Italy since the beginning of 2015. Also, the situation in Syria has drawn several major foreign powers directly into the conflict, including the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Many more countries are supporting the various Jihadi and extremist groups in Syria, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
First, is Turkey becoming more Islamist? It seems it is. It also appears that this was bound to happen, sooner or later, if genuine democracy struck roots in the country and was not subverted by the Generals, as in the past. President Erdogan is the agent of this change, but he alone is not responsible for it. It is the people of Turkey, who elected and re-elected him, who are responsible. If they did not agree with his Islamist policies, they could have voted him out of office. But they didn’t. For them, it was clear that Islam was the “soul” of Turkey, not Kemalism.
Erdogan’s policies are driven by two fundamental impulses, which are related to each other: Islamism vs. Kemalism; and Turkey’s non-acceptance of its present borders, drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War.
Ataturk was indeed a very bold man, who attempted a real “regime change,” not of the variety Turkey is seeking in Syria today. He abolished the institution of the Caliph; separated religion and state; abolished the monarchy; granted equal status to women; changed the script of the Turkish language; and even changed the traditional attire of the people. It was a radical cultural revolution imposed on the Turkish people by the country’s small urban elite, amounting to an almost complete break with the past. But the question is: did he go too far too soon?
In a sense, Ataturk took on Islam itself—a religion born almost 1400 years ago, which profoundly affected the history, geography, culture, and beliefs of humanity for more than a millennium. Countless wars were fought in its name, and much blood shed, so strong was the belief in its tenets. Could one charismatic Turk wipe the slate clean and write a new chapter for a people who had believed in this creed for a millennium?
The tide of history was against Ataturk. Even in Turkey, not everyone was converted to his ideas. Islam’s influence remained strong in the countryside, where women continued to dress traditionally and played the same role in the family that they had played for centuries. Marriages were still “arranged,” and “honour” was, and still is, important for women.
On the other hand, things changed significantly in the major urban areas, which were “secularized”. Women’s status changed a great deal, beginning with their attire. Deeply rooted religious practices were ignored or diluted. People did not fast during Ramadan. Not just that, they even drank and offered alcohol during the Holy Month. In retrospect, this was perhaps carrying things a bit too far.
There was, thus, considerable “cultural and religious tension” between the rural and urban areas all along, which was never satisfactorily resolved. The Turkish army took upon itself the responsibility of upholding Kemalism, removing elected politicians who, in its view, were straying towards Islamism. This continued till Erdogan came to power in 2003. And he has remained in power ever since.
Erdogan's emergence symbolized the triumph of Islamism over Kemalism. As mentioned above, this was inevitable. Kemalism is not even hundred years old yet, whereas Islam has existed in Turkey for more than a thousand years. It is an unequal contest: less than a century vs. one millennium. Of course, the pace of change could have been slower, if Islamism had not suddenly appeared as a significant force in world politics in 1979.
It was the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan in 1979 that heralded the rise of political Islam in recent times. Ironically, this Jihad was launched by a non-Islamic state—the US [and its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia]. The US used Islam to mobilize Muslim fighters from more than 40 countries to fight the ‘godless’ Soviet Union. But the Jihad did not end with the defeat of the Soviets. It produced many unintended consequences, including the birth of the Taliban and Al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden. 9/11 was one of its outcomes. The US played with fire and got its fingers burnt.
Since 1979, Islamism has grown and spread rapidly. The Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power accelerated its spread. Then the US invaded Iraq in 2003, which, among other things, unleashed the sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict, which rapidly escalated and went out of control. In due course, it led to the emergence of Daesh/ISIS and other Jihadi groups. That was followed by the regime-change adventures launched by the West, Gulf and Turkey in Libya and Syria in 2011. Turkey was, and still is, a crucial player in Syria.
It is common knowledge that Turkey is helping terrorist groups such as Daesh/ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham to dislodge Assad in Syria. But Erdogan’s backing of Islamist terrorist groups in Syria is also encouraging Islamic extremism in Turkey itself, at the cost of Kemalism—witness the recent bomb attacks in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities which have killed hundreds of innocent civilians. However, Erdogan is not deterred by them, yet; he continues to back Jihadi groups in Syria. The more he does so, the more Islamic extremism will grow in Turkey, as outfits such as Daesh/ISIS strike roots in the country.
One of the significant consequences of the recent failed coup in Turkey has been the steep decline in the influence of the Turkish army in national affairs, particularly in politics. As it was, the military’s role as the guardian of Kemalism had steadily diminished since 2003, when Erdogan came to power. He carried out several “purges” to weed out Kemalist officers from the armed forces.
In the beginning, the army tried to assert itself but gradually wilted under Erdogan’s pressure, due to his mass support amongst the people. If there were any doubts, they were removed by the recent coup, which was foiled directly by the Turkish people who came out on the streets in response to Erdogan’s call to oppose the coup. No Turkish General will now even think of plotting another coup, after what has happened in Turkey recently.
Coming to the second point, that Turkey has not yet fully accepted the borders drawn after the First World War. There are credible reports in the public domain quoting a senior Turkish official to this effect privately a few years ago. And he may have had good reasons to do so. After all, the borders were drawn arbitrarily, on the basis of the secret and perfidious Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between Britain and France, and the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. These borders have been the cause of numerous conflicts in the last hundred years, some of which are still going on, and will continue to go on well into the future.
Therefore, one of the objectives behind Turkey’s involvement in Syria was territorial expansion. Turkey wanted to grab as much territory as possible in Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire before its collapse. Turkish requests to the US/UK to set up “safe zones” in Syria were made in this context. These “safe-zones,” if set up, would eventually have been annexed by Turkey. Erdogan wants to expand Turkey’s borders and recreate an “Ottoman Empire” which would at least include northern Syria and northern Iraq, which contain the cities of Aleppo and Mosul.
The Turkish army invaded northern Syria on Aug. 24, ostensibly to evict Daesh/ISIS from the Syrian town of Jarablus. Turkey’s real objective, however, was to prevent the Syrian Kurds (YPG) from capturing Jarablus, thereby creating a Kurdish statelet contiguous to the southern border of Turkey. This statelet could have linked up with the PKK in Turkey and formed the core of a Kurdish state, which was not acceptable to Turkey. The invasion of Syria is aimed at nipping this plan in the bud. It has nothing to do with ISIS, which Turkey is still supporting with fighters and weapons.
Turkey is so paranoid about the possibility of a Kurdish state that it has announced that it will not only take Jarablus but also Manbij, and throw the Kurds back behind the East bank of the Euphrates river. Once again, the Kurds have been used [This time by the US ] and thrown to the wolves when no longer needed.
However, Turkey’s ultimate objective, as mentioned above, is to capture Aleppo and, in due course, annex the city. That is why it is still infiltrating large numbers of Jihadi fighters and weapons into the Aleppo area, which helped to reverse some of the important gains made by the Syrian army in the last few weeks. But it remains to be seen how energetically Turkey will pursue this objective, after the failed coup, and after a rapprochement of sorts with Russia and Iran.
Finally, Turkey’s handling of the refugee issue. Millions of Syrians have been forced to leave their homes due to the fighting between "rebels" of various stripes, most of them Jihadis supported by foreign powers mentioned above, and the Syrian army and its allies. The exodus of refugees from Syria has increased during the last one and a half years, as fighting has intensified in the country.
A large number of them have crossed the border into Turkey and sought refuge there. There are presently almost three million Syrian refugees on Turkish soil. Many of them see Turkey as a gateway to north European countries such as Germany and Sweden, which have relatively liberal refugee policies.
Till March 2016, Turkey allowed tens of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees to sail to Greece in small, rickety, boats. Several thousands of them drowned while doing so. The picture of a 3-year old Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015, made global headlines. In March 2016, however, the EU and Turkey reached a deal which significantly reduced the number of refugees sailing from Turkey to Greece.
The agreement, however, is in danger of unraveling. Turkey has told the EU that the deal will collapse if the EU does not permit visa-free entry to Turkish nationals in the Schengen area by October 2016. The EU has countered that the Turkish demand would not be considered unless Turkey reforms its anti-terrorism laws and meets other “benchmarks.” As things stand, it is likely that the agreement will break down soon; in that case, Europe might again face a refugee crisis. There is little doubt that the Syrian refugees have become pawns in a bigger geopolitical game.
To conclude, there will be significant consequences of Turkey’s actions detailed above. First, hobnobbing with terrorist groups will cause more internal instability and bloodshed in the country; in fact, this has already started happening. Second, Islamism will strengthen in the country, further eroding Kemal Ataturk’s legacy. Third, Turkey’s chances of becoming a member of the European Union will diminish, or even disappear completely. Finally, Erdogan’s dreams of building a new Ottoman Empire are highly unlikely to be realized. All-in-all, a rather grim scenario for the country in the foreseeable future.
(Cover photograph: Detained pro-coup soldiers in Turkey being forced to look at Erdogan’s photograph (Reddit)
(Niraj Srivastava is retired from the Indian Foreign Service. He has served in several Indian missions abroad including Syria, United States, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Canada (as Deputy Ambassador), Uganda ( as Ambassador), and Denmark (as Ambassador). He is presently self-employed as an Independent International Affairs Analyst based in New Delhi.)