Turkey and Iran occupy very distinct positions in the Mideast political environment, suggesting there is little likelihood of any rapprochement, much less of a moderate one, which would require a significant Iranian shift.
If the emergence of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis now appears to be not just an historic potential shift toward Mideast stability but also a logical outgrowth of certain current trends, how might it occur and how far along such a path have these two vastly different rivals moved to date? With harsh suppression of peaceful democratic protest and continuing discrimination against its Kurdish minority, Turkey can be viewed as a moderate state only in the chaotic context of the Mideast. Iran’s extremely harsh domestic political environment dominated by a military swallowing the civilian economy and a repressive clerical governing elite sits even further away from the idealized concept of a modernizing, secular, inclusive state symbolized by the green quadrant.
Relatively inclusive and attempting, under Erdogan, if sometimes not too convincingly, to find some resolution to its sectarian conflict with long abused Turkish Kurds, Turkey nonetheless still has a long way to go before building a truly inclusive polity. To put this point in context, however, one could say the same of, for example, the U.S., with its continuing racial discrimination against blacks and growing economic discrimination against both middle and lower classes. Iran may be less exclusionist in sectarian terms but is considerably more so in terms of its treatment of political dissent. Here, the key distinction is not the nature of the discrimination but its harshness.
In terms of the choice between the economy and ideology (unstated in the model, and simply assumed to be the obvious alternative for the purposes of this analysis), Iran and Turkey seem to be widely different, with Turkey much more focused on the pursuit of economic development as a national goal. Iran’s long-standing determination to give priority to its right to nuclear technology at the expense of the wrecking of its economy by U.S.-led economic warfare is the most obvious piece of evidence. Particularly noteworthy was Turkey’s effort to find a compromise over the uranium refining issue, surely with the hope of implementing in return a joint hydrocarbon venture involving serving as the middleman between Iran and Europe, upon which Iran seemed in the end needlessly to throw cold water. Turkey risked its alliance structure for economic gain; Iran suffered economic embargo, risked nuclear attack, and lost a golden opportunity simultaneously to consolidate its strategic position and gain economic advantages in order to make its point about having the right to an independent political position (i.e., the right to nuclear technology and the right to articulate a hostile verbal opposition to Israel). Examination solely of current positions offers strong evidence that the emergence of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis based on the combination of the pursuit of economic development and an inclusionist domestic polity is a long shot indeed.
But what of trends? The next post in this series will examine recent behavior.
Part 1. A Stumble in Ukraine Open’s the Door for Iran Scenario
Part 2. Emergence of Iran Scenario
Part 3. Turkish-Iranian Moderate Rapprochement Scenario
Turkish leader Erdogan made a name for himself by offering Turkey a genuine reform movement incorporating moderate Islamic reform, democratization of a heavily militarized state, and a good neighbor policy in the war-torn Mideast. But most of all, he moved toward a state policy, after decades of repression, of justice for Turkey’s Kurds. He stood up to Israel’s abuse of Palestinians, resisted U.S. military moves into the region, and advocated a nuclear compromise with Iran. In the wake of the Syrian civil war, the explosion of ISIS jihadi barbarism, and the strides of Iraqi Kurds toward independence from a hostile (be it Sunni-run or Shi’i-run) Baghdad, Erdogan’s claim to an honored place in history has now reached a turning point, and–perhaps no surprise–it is the morally-charged Kurdish issue that threatens to wreck everything Erdogan has claimed to stand for.
Turkey stands at a tipping point: either it makes a commitment to justice for Syrian Kurds, with all that implies for fair treatment of Turkish Kurds and acceptance of a greater political role for Kurds throughout the Mideast, or the delicate democratization of Turkey under Erdogan collapses under the dual weight of Turkish discrimination against its own Kurds and Turkish complacency in ISIS barbarism. Erdogan surely understands all too well the implications of defending the security of Syrian Kurds and the right of Turkish Kurds to help them. Recognizing Kurdish rights on the border implies recognizing the right of Turkish Kurds to be full citizens of Turkey, implies the right of Iraqi Kurds to political participation in Iraq or independence, implies the legitimacy of Kurdish militia units since they will inevitably be central to any serious effort to defend Syrian Kurds, and implies that Turkey will finally take a clear stand against the ISIS. A fateful and historic tipping point indeed.
Turkish police violence against Turkish Kurds desperate to cross the border or in some way contact and provide aid to the new flood of Syrian Kurdish refugees in combination with Ankara’s policy of looking the other way while jihadis use Turkish territory to expand their power offers a picture of moral turpitude too blatant for anyone to miss. Erdogan’s claim to being a great leader in a region desperately in need of great leadership will live or die on this issue, and–with some 100,000 new Syrian Kurdish refugees pouring across the Turkish border this week, now is the time for Erdogan to stand up and earn the reputation he has sought so long.
Here, on the Syrian-Turkish border, in the face of yet another ISIS campaign of massacre, is Erdogan’s opportunity to make fundamental changes in Turkey’s reputation and its domestic social system by standing up for the Kurds. But, no, he lets his police bully them. Does Erdogan imagine that fence-sitting will shock and awe al-Baghdadi?
The Turkish military now guards a border with nothing but chaos on the other side: no state exists, only barbarism, and if Turkey does not fill that vacuum of governance with a security blanket for its residents (those who have not already fled), then ISIS will create a state, and that state will by cultural osmosis flow north, radicalizing Turkey itself. That process is already being implemented: ISIS has put in place a highly successful process of recruiting Turkish youths into its military and those who survive the war will not have forgotten the land from which they came. The traditionally dictatorial Turkish military will reemerge, and Turkish civil war between a secular military and a radicalized Islamic movement will emerge, aided and abetted by the gasoline that al-Baghdadi will pour on the flames.
And what if that prognosis is somehow avoided? Even then, Turkey will lose, descending into renewed sectarian conflict,with a heavy military hand in the background: the perfect recipe for extinguishing the green shoots of Turkish democracy. Turkish democracy, however imperfect it may still be, represents an invaluable hope for the chaotic Mideast, a huge region containing no other significant sign of non-sectarian governance except little Tunisia. Salafi radicals committed to violent jihad–even against other Muslims, even against other Sunnis, and certainly against all established Mideast states–seek revolution. No place in their vision exists for a semi-secular, Westernized society like that of modern Turkey. The tipping point now piercing the soles of Erdogan’s shoes is critical for the next century of Mideast history.
Turkish political analyst Ceylan Ozbudak is quite right that mindless counter-violence, as desired by various well-known war parties, is not the solution to the Sunni fundamentalist cultural/political challenge, but that does not mean that Turkey should use force against desperate Kurds when 100,000 of their relatives are being threatened with extermination by an ISIS blitzkrieg. It is precisely the unwillingness of powerful Turkey to take a firm stand in favor of security and justice for civilian populations that leaves open the door to ISIS violence. Ozbudak points out:
Turkey is seeking a way to dismantle ISIS without killing people, without using weapons as much as possible, other than for self-defense. Turkey is seeking a way to de-radicalize the people who happened to join ISIS after heated debates of Muslim grievances. Turkey is seeking to launch a worldwide ideological struggle to counter the narrative of ISIS. [Al-Arabiya net.]
Well and good. A peaceful strategy to marginalize ISIS is almost certainly the proper long-term approach. The strategy Ozbudak claims Ankara is following is a great strategy, but the issue this week is the genocide of Syrian Kurds. Strategy is long-term; tactics are short-term. Even if Ankara is sincerely committed to the strategy she describes, something by no means clear, an immediate tactical response to ISIS violence is required: when one’s beautiful glass beach house is threatened by a hurricane, the essential tactical response is not love and kisses but nails to board up the place.
What an opportunity for the peace teams described by Oregon professor Tom Hastings to make a difference! But, of course, as he points out, governments “almost never” appreciate the action of peace teams (just recall the behavior of Wisconsin toward…its own police!!! when they demonstrated peacefully for civil rights), and one can easily imagine the response of Turkish police to anyone advocating mutual understanding between Turkish border guards and impassioned Kurds trying to save their families from jihadi barbarians.
Erdogan in the U.S. has both warned of the necessity of establishing a comprehensive plan for regional stability and announced support for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS bombing campaign. [Mideast Eye.] Strategically, if Erdogan can convince Obama to focus on regional stability before the U.S. bombing campaign accelerates out-of-control, Erdogan will be making a real contribution. Tactically, Erdogan needs to demonstrate immediately that he has a plan for stability in the small region of Syrian Kurdistan along his threatened southern border.
Ankara already appears to be laying the groundwork for precisely that, both by launching military planning and leaking to the media its interest in moving troops across the Turkish-Syrian border into the state-less Kurdish region that has now collapsed into open war. According to Today’s Zaman on 9/24:
According to information obtained from military sources, the Turkish military updated its current operation plans on Syria. Sources say if a buffer zone, covering parts of Iraq and Syria, is established, the Turkish military wants to be part of the operation by sending in ground troops.
- Will Turkey combat ISIS recruiting within Turkey?
- Will Turkey facilitate the provision of support to Syrian Kurds by Turkish Kurds, accepting the inevitable consolidation of regional Kurdish relations?
- Will Turkey offer arms to the Syrian Kurds?
- Will Turkey move to terminate ISIS oil sales inside Turkey?
Cognitive limitations that better education could avert are to blame for our difficulty in foreseeing that something like the Islamic State would follow naturally from the thoughtless Mideast policies of the major state actors, both in and outside of the region.
People, including policymakers, tend to have tunnel vision, which is great for spying lurking tigers but disastrous for forecasting tipping points resulting from the chance interaction of multiple causal dynamics, and that is why the explosive force of the ISIS insurgency was a surprise. Several causal dynamics combined this summer to drive the sudden success of ISIS: the steady growth in ISIS military influence in Syria over the previous year, the on-going post-U.S. invasion frustration of marginalized Iraqi Sunnis being discriminated against by Baghdad, and the very complex self-organizing rivalry among jihadi factions.
Three distinct trends happened to intersect this summer: ISIS battlefield success suddenly resonated with relatively secular but very frustrated Iraqi Sunnis at a moment when al-Baghdadi had developed an effective strategy combining rapid military attacks with efficient state building. The result of the chance intersection of these three separate driving forces was a tipping point in Mideast influence away from traditional states toward the ISIS insurgency. It would be hard enough for most people to project three separate lines starting from distinct points and moving at different rates moving toward a tipping point, but to foresee the sudden success of ISIS, one would have had to have in mind a trend line curving up (battlefield success), a steady but already very high line (Sunni anger), and a complex-adaptive self-organizational process of constant experimentation to discover more effective jihadi tactics over the past two decades from Al-Qua’ida to al-Zarqawi to al-Baghdadi. That’s tricky, especially when the steady level of Sunni anger was essentially off everyone’s radar in the West and almost no one in government even thinks in terms of complex systems in the first place.
To spell out just a bit more the technical issues here from a cognitive perspective, this discussion involves both system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. The former is very familiar – one or more smooth, but not necessarily, straight trendlines (e.g., the exponential growth of bacteria in potato salad at a picnic plus rising temperature as the day warms). The latter–beyond our mathematical comprehension and ignored by most educational curricula—concerns developments so complicated and uncontrolled that they really cannot be visualized or forecast with precision. Thus, the outcome of dozens of jihadi factions all doing their own thing cannot be predicted. What can be predicted is that if such a complex-adaptive process of experimenting endlessly with one tactic after another is allowed to function endlessly, eventually we will all get a nasty surprise. In other words, it was extremely irresponsible of policymakers to walk away from the very well known problem of Baghdad’s political discrimination against Sunnis. It was also very dangerous to sweep under the rug a fourth causal dynamic—the rising tendency of Ankara to look the other way at if not actively sponsor jihadis in Syria with so little thought about what might happen if those “pet jihads” actually succeeded in dethroning Assad. It appears that Ankara and other regimes failed to think through exactly how state-sponsored jihadis might act once in power.
All those causal dynamics–once kicked into gear by tossing around military aid, invading countries without taking responsibility for fixing what one smashes, discriminating against ethnic minorities, cultivating fundamentalist educational systems—don’t just stop functioning because some outside actor stops looking. Chickens come home to roost; forest fires keep burning…unless they run out of fuel. An insurgency fire can also run out of fuel, but to make that happen requires understanding where the insurgency got its fuel in the first place.
System dynamics and complex-adaptive systems are two distinct ways of analyzing complicated phenomena. These methods are normally employed by different researchers and considered alternative ways of representing processes. In reality, however, they merge: there is no reason to expect that in a real situation, an interesting or frightening tipping point in behavior will occur as the result only of 1) the interaction of mathematically expressible smooth curves (i.e., the growth rates, delays, feedback loops of system dynamics) or 2) unanticipated emergent behavior at one level (e.g., group) generated by behavior at another level (e.g., individual) in a system of semi-independent, co-evolving substructures displaying self-organization. Real tipping points, the stuff of history, are created by a very confusing combination of causal dynamics displaying features artificially separated by the methodological disciplines of system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. Not only are the two hardly ever applied to world affairs, they are hardly ever even considered together in a theoretical context.