Both in terms of domestic tranquility and international strategic positioning, Ankara’s decision to watch the destruction of Syrian Kurds in Kobani constitutes a massive defeat for Turkey.
Erdogan has a point in callously bargaining with the lives of Syrian Kurds in order to get a more serious NATO effort against Assad (who is also calmly sitting on the sidelines watching the barbarism of ISIS). A well considered, realistic, tightly coordinated U.S.-Turkish (-Iranian) political strategy to settle the Syrian civil war is a great idea. Sadly, Erdogan’s timing is deplorable, seemingly calculated to make a good point at precisely the moment when it cannot possibly be acted on. The immediate need this week was not to remake the world but to save Kobani. Kobani lost, Erdogan’s goal of settling the Syrian civil war becomes vastly more difficult.
The immediate results of Erdogan’s betrayal of the Kurds with whom he was in the process of negotiating a settlement include:
Straining relations with the U.S.;
Reigniting an internal war with the Kurds, who have now been told in no uncertain terms that Ankara will never treat them as Turkish citizens;
Empowering ISIS and allowing it to install its power directly on the Turkish border;
Permanently sullying his previously impressive moral stature.
Erdogan, possessing the freedom of action that comes with superior force and the time to make a careful decision, calculated carefully, and handed his country a massive defeat.
Did Erdogan knowingly accept this loss in return for some offsetting strategic gain? His adversary Assad has gained time to consolidate his position in southern Syria, while further benefiting from the new rift between Ankara and Washington that will make all the more difficult any smooth Turkish-U.S. coordinated strategy to resolve the Syrian civil war. Erdogan has also demonstrated by proclaiming last-second opposition to ISIS capture of Kobani, but then doing nothing to back up his words, the precise degree to which Ankara can be trusted, which will surely give Tehran, among others, reason for pause. It seems more than likely that his behavior will negatively impact Turkey’s efforts to join the EEC. And how, exactly, are Iraqi Kurds to continue their flourishing economic relationship with a Turkey that has just tossed to the dogs their brothers in Syria? Turkey did, however, gain one apparent new friend on its borders: the Islamic State. We shall see how that works out for Turkish society as black flags wave within sight of Turkish soldiers and Salafi imams proclaim their faith from Turkish mosques.
The intentional sacrifice of Kobani in order to undermine the Kurds also has a deeply troubling broader consequence that Erdogan probably did not consider. For a decade Westerners, who have long since forgotten the cultural superiority of moderate Moorish Granada, have been asking themselves if a Muslim society could be tolerant and democratic. The thoughtful answer to this question, counteracting the behavior of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, has been the moderate Islamic regime of none other than Erdogan, who has campaigned against Turkey’s traditional military dictatorship in favor of democracy and has opened historic negotiations with Turkey’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority. In the wake of his sell-out of Kobani, it takes great optimism to imagine that Turkey will continue its painstaking crawl toward civil liberties and justice for all its citizens. Thus, the question of how contemporary Islam might fit in with the fundamental principles of democratic rights, individual freedoms, civil liberties, and equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of sectarian distinctions has been reopened, sadly, by the one Mideastern leader who appeared to have offered a positive answer.
And, with protest riots, police brutality, and curfews in Kurdish regions of Turkey already appearing while the last defenders of Kobani still fight in front of their homes, Erdogan’s chickens from the sacrifice of Kobani are already flying home to roost.