As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) prepares to open a summit this week in Wales, at least two international issues will be front and center in the effort to craft strategic vision for the alliance in the years ahead. Russian aggression and intervention in Ukraine and the battle against the onslaught of the Islamic State in northern Iraq present two very unique, separate, and challenging problems for the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance.
These issues make for a particularly interesting (and important) meeting this week for NATO leaders. In particular, the war in Syria and Northern Iraq will be of great consequence to alliance leaders in the effort to plan strategy for tackling regional issues.
The entangling alliances that threaten to pull regional powers into the quickly intensifying war in Northern Iraq are an interesting problem for NATO. The Kurdish military elements and militias comprising the tip of the spear in the battle against IS present an interesting and potentially far-reaching strategic problem for NATO.
Turkey, a member-state of the Atlantic Alliance and a rising power in the region, represents NATO’s most direct investment in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Should the Kurds eventually surmount the nearly impossible odds laid out before them in their battle against IS, the consequences could inspire bristling in Ankara.
The direct participation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the conflict places the Turkish government in a precarious position. Working against the PKK as they support Kurdish regulars against the onrushing IS incursion into Iraq would ostensibly place Ankara in direct opposition to American policy in pursuing a rollback of IS out of areas such as Mosul. This would also place two NATO states at odds with one another on an issue of vital international concern.
The Kurdish movement for an independent state and staunch Turkish opposition to such an establishment has been a hot button issue in the region for decades. However, pressure from other NATO member governments and the strategic value in eroding the growing power of IS may serve to create at least a temporary, if only tacit, alliance between the two. Turkish government leaders apparently have recognized the value in at least temporarily appearing to reach out to PKK leaders:
The goal of an independent state no longer seems to be an issue. Now it is about increased autonomy and rights for Kurds in their settlement areas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced as he took office, that the peace process with the Kurdish minorities would be taken up again.
On Monday, September 1, the Turkish government and the PKK leadership began such discussions.
The image of the Kurds in Turkey is slowly changing. “We have to recognize that the Kurdish candidate has achieved a remarkable result in the presidential election,” German SPD politician Rolf Mützenich said. Selahattin Demirtaş received nearly 10 percent of the vote in the election. He is committed to non-violence and believes he can negotiate with the Turkish government for more rights for the Kurdish people. (Deutsche Welles, August 30)
The apprehension of the Turkish government and the concerns of policymakers in Ankara is burgeoned by statements of many Kurds who believe that the long struggle for an independent state may be at a point many have fought to arrive at for decades:
“In a way, we have to thank the Islamic State. They’ve united us, reviving the great Kurdish cause,” said Seyid Narin, a municipal mayor in Diyarbakir, long the center of the Kurdish resistance and separatist movement in southeast Turkey. Ten months ago he lost a son who was fighting in Syria — a second one is now in northern Iraq with the PKK.
“Our struggle is reborn,” he said. (Bohn, NBC News, August 28)
While Ankara remains particularly mindful that any support for Kurdish efforts to beat back the surging IS could potentially blow back in the form of international legitimacy for the creation of an independent Kurdish state, strategists will also be wary of the concerns of fellow NATO member-state leaders in whose interests the stabilization of the resource-rich area of Northern Iraq is just as important. Historically, Turkey has pursued acceptance as a member of the European community often at the expense of their regional hegemonic prospects in the Middle East.
Turkey plays an important role in ensuring the safe transport of natural resources originating in the Caspian Sea and destined for European markets as well as acting as a pillar of geostrategic importance in the security structure of the Atlantic Alliance. Accordingly for NATO decision-makers, Ankara is a member whose concerns and demands are not so easily dismissed.
Turkey is valuable for its geographical location and, consequently, its ability to influence policy from the Levant to the Caspian Sea. Also important to note is Turkey’s intrinsic value to Europe as a potential balancer against a future recalcitrant Iran, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia and its strategic positioning for containing an imperialistic Russian state. Consequently, Turkey’s importance as a member of the alliance has never been higher.
The vacillating nature of the sometimes cooperative, oftentimes competitive dynamic of regional security aspirants Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is a difficult environment in which to prognosticate short and long term interests, events, and alliances. The tectonic-like shifts of the alignment structure of alliances in the region over the course of the past 15 months is a canary in the coal mine for what could be a dramatically widened and potentially equally intensifying of the battle for regional hegemonic status in the Middle East.
The issues concerning the battle against IS and the potential fall-out in the way of a reborn effort for international recognition of an independent Kurdish state make Turkey a centerpiece of NATO strategy throughout the Middle East in the coming years.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Vice.com)