June 17, 2015
A striking collapse of judgement in a leader who once mesmerized his electorate
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant this week suffered another defeat at the hands of Syrian Kurdish fighters who captured Tel Abyad, a town that Isis had held since last summer, when it declared its cross-border caliphate and convulsed the heart of the Middle East.
The striking victory by the Syrian Kurdish militia, affiliated with the Democratic Union party (PYD), brings with it two momentous changes. The Syrian Kurds can now link up territory they hold from the border of the self-ruling Kurdistan Regional Government(KRG)in northern Iraq, through Tel Abyad, on the Turkish-Syrian border, and on westwards to Kobani, recaptured from the jihadis this year after a long emblematic siege that cemented the collaboration between PYD forces on the ground and the US-led coalition against Isis.
But second, the capture of Tel Abyad severs the Isis supply line from the Turkish border to Raqqa, the de facto capital of the caliphate it calls Islamic State. This is — for now — a body blow to the jihadis, and a real advance for the coalition after the recent Isis capture of Palmyra in central Syria and Ramadi in western Iraq.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president still reeling from the general election that stripped his neo-Islamist ruling party of its majority, has a different take on Tel Abyad. It might be assumed that Turkey, a Nato ally of long standing, would welcome this clearing away from its borders of jihadi blackshirts—seen almost universally as a lethal security threat. Not a bit of it.
Mr Erdogan, after the election setback stunned him into unwonted silence, has refound his abrasive voice. The fall of Tel Abyad, he said, amounted to “a threat to our borders”—borders, that is, which have just been sealed against Isis, which has relied on Turkey as a jihadi pipeline. Far from celebrating the Isis defeat, the Erdogan camp is accusing the PYD of “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs and Turkmen, even though the Syrian Kurds fought alongside Arab rebels and Assyrian Christian militia.
Which side is President Erdogan on?
As he seems to see it, Tel Abyad, coming after Kobani, could lead to another self-governing Kurdish entity in Syria, alongside the KRG in Iraq and raising the spectre of a Greater Kurdistan, attractive to restive Kurds in southeast Turkey who also seek self-governing powers. The Syrian PYD, moreover, is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ party(PKK), which was locked in a bloody struggle with the Turkish state for 30 years, until a 2013 brokered ceasefire.
It is unclear whether Mr Erdogan really regards all this as an existential threat, or if he is reacting to the electoral breakthrough by the People’s Democratic party(HDP), the pro-Kurdish coalition that last week torpedoed his plan for a parliamentary supermajority that would have delivered him an executive presidency. Either way, it is the latest in a series of mega-errors that have undermined him. This sort of collapse in judgment afflicts most politicians after more than a decade in power. However, it is still striking in a leader who once mesmerised his electorate amid international plaudits.
The downward spiral began two years ago when he suppressed protests against his intrusive authoritarianism, alienating diverse slices of secular Turkey, some of which voted for the HDP. The kitsch, neo-Ottoman palace four times the size of Versailles that he built himself—at a time of economic slowdown and rising joblessness—tarnished his party’s message of social justice and helped lose it a fifth of its voters. But the way in which he has lost the Kurds is startling.
Two years ago, after opening talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader, Mr Erdogan set out a vision of one state and two nations, Turkish and Kurdish, which would gravitationally pull Iraqi and Syrian Kurds into a mutually prosperous commonwealth. It now looks as though his real purpose was to enlist Turkey’s Kurds for his personal political ambitions. He reacted viscerally each time their Syrian or Iraqi brethren advanced by themselves.
During last autumn’s Isis siege of Kobani, the president said the PYD resistance there was the same if not worse than the bloodthirsty jihadis threatening it with massacre, and appeared to exult in what he forecast was the imminent fall of the town, within sight of Turkish tanks. During the election he clearly thought he could use religious Kurds to see off the HDP, brandishing Kurdish translations of the Koran at rallies across southeast Turkey. But this was to confuse the piety of tribal Kurds with political Islam and his own lust for a super-presidency—a compound category error that misconstrues a conservative people who essentially want the rights the Turkish republic has systematically denied them. Yet in his opportunist and erratic way, Mr Erdogan has put his finger on something the rest of the world will at some point have to address.
This is a unique moment in the sun for Kurds after almost a century in which their demands have been ignored. In Turkey they have entered parliament in their own right for the first time, and in fine style after Selahattin Demirtas, a new face the country has welcomed, won support nationwide, including among secular Turks.
But will Ocalan and his PKK insurgents, who until now have held the whip hand in Kurdish politics, internalize this victory? Or will they focus on the sudden international popularity of Kurdish fighters thrashing the jihadis in Kobani and now Tel Abyad — and all in alliance with the US?
It is not just about the future of the Kurds. The ethno-sectarian fire melting borders and smashing up the crumbling states of the Levant into a patchwork of Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Alawi, will be another regional and international challenge every bit as difficult as beating Isis.