Turkey, Kurds and the Islamic State: A Strange Triangle

Among the paradoxes of the Middle East today is Turkey’s relationship with Iraqi Kurds and the “public secret” of its relationship with Islamic State which has seized territories in Syria and Iraq and has announced the de facto establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. How could Turkey’s collaboration with the Kurds – whom it used to see as a threat – be explained, and what does it have to gain from Islamic State?

That Turkey (along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Western powers) has funded and supported Islamic State (IS) is a fact, though neither Turkey nor Qatar admit it. Is it possible that Turkey uses IS against the Kurdish separatist movement in Iraq, Syria and beyond? Such scenario is not supported by the evidence at hand. If for example Turkey wanted to deter the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan then it would not have ignored provisions of the Iraqi constitution and the central Iraqi government of Baghdad, among others, to sign economic and energy agreements with Kurdish Regional Government. Rather, it would have done the opposite: to try and isolate Kurdistan by cooperating with Baghdad. That would be similar to how Turkey acted when it cooperated with Baghdad in the middle to late 2000s while trying to deal with Kurdish guerillas who found safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan and other locations on Turkey’s southern borders. Moreover, we should not forget that the emergence of IS accelerated Kurdistan’s process of independence instead of the opposite – both in Iraq and Syria.

If that is the situation on the ground, then whey had Turkey supported IS? The primary goals was to empower the Islamist element against Syria’s president Assad – that is where the root of Iraq’s current situation is located. Thereby it tried to overthrow the Assad regime and establish a pro-Islamic government in the “new” Syria that would follow – similar to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Although a secondary goal might have been the aversion of gradual autonomy of Syria’s Kurds (which has started), if we take into account the example of Iraqi Kurdistan we can see that Turkey is no longer bothered with such a development as it used to.

What is happening in West-IS relations, resembles the case of the USA-Bin Laden relationship. That is, just as the Americans supported Bin Laden in the 1970s and 80s for their own purposes and he then turned against them, Turkey and the West faces the same problem with IS. Islamic State itself stated repeatedly that Turkey is not a real Islamic country and that they would have to “liberate Istanbul” if it continued on that same path. Therefore, it is important that IS’s ideology is taken into account. Despite the fact that IS is willing to cooperate with everyone to achieve their goals, in the end they will even turn against those who helped them if they do not meet their standards.

The question that remains to be answered is, why Turkey seems to not feel threatened anymore by the Kurds? There are three main reasons for that. First, Kurds have huge energy reserves which are vital from the Turkish market. Second, Kurds, and Iraqi Kurdistan more specifically, are a pole of security in the region and, given the broader geopolitical and diplomatic isolation of Ankara, they constitute a alternative way out. Third, AKP’s ideology, which is Islamic and very different from the one of Kemalists, does not contain the same fears and insecurities as the previous establishment.

AKP’s worldview has an Ottoman-Islamic understanding of the geopolitical and geocultural space of the Middle East and beyond, according to which Turkey should be the hegemon. Emphasis is no longer given so much to the ethnic homogeneity of the Turkish state, but to the Islamic identity which transcends any other ethnic identity; yet, there is an effort for other ethnic and religious identities to be brought under AKP’s domestic and external hegemony. Within this framework, the Kurdish ethnicity and its tendencies for autonomy is not perceived as that big of a threat as the ideological approach of the Turkish nation-state has changed on a political level.

Similarly, it should be mentioned that Ankara’s efforts for the resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey are unprecedented, even though they have to do with petty politics and electoral gains as well. Lastly, a distinction should be made between the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey and that of other countries (e.g. Iraq and Syria). While Turkey would be open to greater autonomy (or even independence) for Iraqi Kurdistan that does not mean that it will apply the same standards for Turkey’s Kurds, although domestic and regional dynamics might eventually force Ankara to do just that.

A version of this article was first published in Athens Views.

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