President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey must feel like a chess grand master playing several games simultaneously. He has far more neighbours and different cultures to contend with than most leaders: eight in all. They are a mixed bag across more than 2600 kms of borders – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, an Azerbaijan enclave, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece. And across the Black Sea he has Russia. Now he has an unofficial neighbour: Daesh, also known as Islamic State. It has been active along Turkey’s frontier inside Syria and regards territory it has seized as part of its self-styled caliphate.
It poses a dilemma for President Erdogan. He has 1.5 million refugees on his hands, mainly from Syria as a result of barbaric actions by Daesh. The EU has offered him what some see as a generous bribe to deter the refugees from heading west to Europe. He has joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Daesh, but is his heart really in it even though he has blamed it for killing 100 people at a peace rally in Turkey in October? His air force by all accounts prefers to attack Kurdish targets. His critics say he tolerates Daesh as being good for business and helping deal with what he sees as his real enemy, the Kurds. But for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Daesh, it is the Kurds who have done more than any other force on the ground in repelling its advances.
David Graeber, a professor at the London School of Economics, thinks he has the answer to eliminate Daesh. Writing in the Guardian, he says:
‘All it would really take would be to unleash the largely Kurdish forces of the YPG (Democratic Union party) in Syria and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerrillas in Iraq and Turkey. But instead the YPG-controlled territory in Syria finds itself placed under a total embargo by Turkey and the PKK forces are under continual bombardment by the Turkish air force. Not only has Erdogan done almost everything he can to cripple the forces actually fighting (Daesh); there is considerable evidence that his government has been at least tacitly aiding (Daesh) itself’.
That aid concerns oil which Daesh has looted from Syria and Iraq and sells on the black market. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said it enters Turkey on ‘an industrial scale’. Russia a few days ago released satellite images they claim show columns of tanker trucks loading with oil at an installation controlled by Daesh in Syria, before crossing the border into Turkey.
Last year, a member of the Turkish parliamentary opposition, Ali Edibogluan, claimed Daesh had smuggled $800 million worth of oil into Turkey from Syria and Iraq. Now a former Iraqi MP, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, has backed up that claim, saying ‘Money and dollars generated by selling Iraqi and Syrian oil on the Turkish black market is like the oxygen supply to (Daesh) and its operation’.
But President Erdogan was indignant about such claims as well as a Russian one that he and his family were profiting from it. He said that, if there were proof Turkey was cooperating with Daesh, he would resign.
He presides over a powerful country which possibly has the most strategic location of any nation in the world with its Eurasia presence. His ruling party now has a parliamentary majority which may give him the temptation to broaden his own powers. Since 2011, he has encouraged the Islamisation of Turkey which for nearly a century prided itself on its secular outlook. But he knows he cannot push his luck too far when EU membership remains a goal.
It is a conundrum when Daesh is, according to Time, ‘a fibroid of territory enmeshed in a cat’s cradle of ethnic, tribal, religious and geopolitical strands so densely tangled as to defy solution’.
Just as Turkey has a foot in both Europe and Asia, President Erdogan will need all his political wiles to maintain a balance between being seen to be supporting the action against Daesh while stopping its influence spilling over into Turkey and yet maintaining business as usual.
Whatever happens, you can be certain that the restless Kurds, who make up 20% of Turkey’s population, will remain President Erdogan’s biggest concern, especially the PKK with its territorial ambitions.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.