By now, it is obvious that the problems of the Middle East have touched nearly every country in the world. Perhaps none have felt this pain more so than Turkey. Standing at the crossroads between the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has long hoped to bridge the proverbial divide between "East" and "West." Now, more than ever, its foreign and domestic politics appear to be doing the same with often contradictory results. We (the United States and Europe) often lament the problems caused to us by chaos in the Middle East. From immigration concerns to terrorist attacks, it is tempting to focus solely upon our own pain. To be fair, as this week's events in Brussels show, this pain is real and should not be ignored. But these types of attacks (and a far worse migrant crisis than Europe has known) are pushing Turkey to its limits.
So what are the Turks doing to make the situation better? Like all "good" American allies in the region, Turkey is both helping and hurting the efforts to remove Assad and combat ISIS. The Middle East right now is basically a giant and tragic game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, with Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, America, and Russia all trying to gobble up as much territory and influence as possible. This week, we'll take a look at what Turkey is doing to further its own interests in the quest for geopolitical marbles.
1) Fighting ISIS (While also fighting those who are fighting isis)
At first this may seem contradictory. That's because it is. Turkey has a long history of working with the United States (and an even longer history of hatred towards Russia), so Turkey is generally supporting American aims to destroy ISIS strongholds. Naturally, Turkey has a direct interest in getting rid of a crazed and murderous regime right next to its borders. As such, Turkey recently authorized American forces to use its airbase at Incirlik to conduct airstrikes against ISIS. Turkey also provides intelligence support to American advisors which they turn around and use to help find and eliminate critical ISIS operatives.
But at the same time, the Turks are fighting a protracted battle against Kurdish separatists. The Kurds have had a pretty rough time since their land was carved up across at least four countries like a drunk trying to slice a pizza. The Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) is a terrorist group trying to break away from Turkey to create a separate nation. Syria's Kurds, the YPG do not engage in terror to the same extent, but instead help the United States fight ISIS. Turkey mostly ignores this distinction. Turkey obviously doesn't want to give up territory to the Kurds (it kinda makes them look bad) so they continue to launch occasional attacks to help keep them from consolidating power. The problem is that the Kurds are also one of the only real effective fighting forces currently taking on ISIS. This makes them a strong ally of the United States and so American forces increasingly recruit the YPG to fight battles against ISIS. This puts Turkey is in the precarious position of both fighting ISIS and also fighting the people who fight ISIS.
2) Getting Terrorized by both ISIS & The Kurds
Turkey also gets to contend with more bombings and terrorist attacks than it can count. Last week's dual bombings in Ankara (the capital) and Istanbul (was Constantinople) show just how precarious Turkey's situation is. They are being attacked by ISIS for their role in the Syrian conflict and attacked by the PKK for reasons already discussed. Since the conflict in Syria began nearly five years ago, Turkey has lost hundreds of people to terrorist attacks by either ISIS or extremist Kurds. The debate over the American and European response to terrorism is very active right now (obviously), but Turkey is dealing with an existential crisis over these attacks.
The Kurds in Syria have also used the chaos of recent events to attempt to declare an independent state known as Rojava. As expected, Turkey did the political equivalent of saying "nu-uh" and ignored this declaration. Even the working relationship between the Kurds and the United States wasn't enough to get serious backing for Rojava from America. But before we get all worried that Rojava would become a terrorist haven if it ever gains independence, it is important to remember that their aims are strictly about regional politics. They don't care about creating a global caliphate or attacking all non-believers. Not many people are signing up online to fight for a free and independent Kurdistan after all. Partially because of its own policies, Turkey remains the central target of violence from extremist Kurds.
3) Taking In Millions of Refugees (And Preventing Millions More From Going To Europe)
While Europe has spent the better part of two years complaining about the refugee problem, Turkey has suffered through it on a much larger scale. Over the past five years, Turkey has taken in almost two million refugees from Syria, Iraq, and all over the region. For the most part, Turkey has been treating these refugees more like temporary guests rather than permanent new residents. But as more and more of Syria is laid to waste, the chances of refugees returning to Syria are increasingly unlikely.
Most of Europe seems content to blame Turkey for its not doing enough to prevent the continent's migration crisis. Last week, this was seemingly resolved with an "agreement" that helps coordinate the flow of refugees from Turkey into Europe. In short, the agreement states that Europe will return all refugees crossing from Turkey into Greece (by sea) in exchange for Europe taking in 72,000 vetted and cleared refugees from Turkey. The Turks also get six billion Euros to help offset the cost of helping refugees and "serious consideration" of Turkey's membership in the European Union (something Turkey has wanted for a long time). Because of this, Turkey has been accused of selling out the refugees for money and European goodwill. In truth, Turkey's actions seem to be a lot more about self-preservation than refugee support. Not to mention the fact that Europe has the means to take care for many of these people entering its borders. This isn't to say that completely unrestricted migration doesn't cause all sorts of real problems for both Turkish and European governments. But closing off Europe entirely to refugees will only further destabilize the region.
Whether this deal helps coordinate Europe's migration crisis or simply abandons tens of thousands of people has yet to be fully determined. But there is no doubt that it will also mean more refugees will travel through other areas (especially through Libya and the longer journey through the Mediterranean) to get to Europe. This journey is far more dangerous and difficult, increasing the likelihood of more refugee deaths. With any luck, the war could start to wind down and cause the crisis to abate. But until then, Turkey continues to play both sides of a very destructive coin. Often with disastrous results.