The bombing that murdered 28 Turkish soldiers on Wednesday in Ankara shows how deeply Turkey has slid into the vortex of the mayhem raging below its borders in Syria and Iraq. Five years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government hoped to serve as a model for its Arab Muslim neighbours and shape them along its own neo-Islamist lines. Now Turkey exhibits similar ethno-sectarian rifts to the failed states to its south. Its influence in Syria is nil, and it is in danger of losing control over its territory. President Erdogan, raging against Russia and Syria, and the US and its allies among Kurdish militia advancing across northern Syria, urgently needs a reality check.
A former cabinet colleague of Mr Erdogan’s told a newspaper this week he tried to warn him against taking sides in Syria in 2011, as the uprising against the Assads turned into civil war. The then prime minister retorted that it would be over in six months. There is no evidence he is better at taking advice now he is president — with unbridled power that has polarised Turkey. The stakes are much higher.
Syria has disintegrated into de facto partition, with Isis jihadis controlling half its territory and a third of Iraq. As Mr Erdogan sought to bring down Bashar al-Assad, his former protégé, he allowed Turkey to be used as a pipeline for jihadi volunteers entering the Syrian fray. While they set up networks inside Turkey, Russia stormed into Syria last September to prop up and expand the Assad rump state. President Vladimir Putin is eradicating everything between the regime and Isis, cutting Turkey’s supply corridor to its favoured Islamist rebels, and driving a new wave of refugees into Turkey — and eventually Europe.
Turkey, a Nato member, now threatens to send troops into Syria, which could drag the Atlantic alliance into conflict with Russia. Mr Erdogan is already at daggers drawn with Mr Putin, a former admirer, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet it said was inside its airspace last year. President Putin said he would learn to “regret this more than once”. Syria is shaping up as an Afghanistan on the Mediterranean — and it is leaking into Turkey which could start resembling Pakistan.
Far fetched? The latest Ankara bombing follows a string of atrocities, the worst of which was the Isis suicide attack on a Kurdish and leftwing peace rally in the capital in October that killed more than 100 activists. The government made the improbable claim that it was a conspiracy of leftist and Kurdish terrorists, in league with jihadis. Turkish journalists had already identified the Isis cell responsible after it bombed a Kurdish cultural centre on the Syrian border in July. This event, after the ruling party lost its majority in June, rekindled a 30-year war with insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Mr Erdogan had worked to end that. But for electoral gain he turned ultranationalist and started bombing not Isis but the PKK, which fell into his trap by killing policemen and soldiers.
A polarised country restored his majority in November, since when he has rained fire on the PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish fighters consolidating territory to the south.
Ankara fears that these advances, moving west across northern Syria as Russia drives out non-Isis Sunni rebels, will stoke Kurdish separatism in Turkey. President Obama needs to convince Mr Erdogan this is necessary to prevent Isis — the far greater threat — from filling the vacuum. That can only work if the US can rein in the ambitions of its Kurdish allies — and try to devise a new entente between Ankara and the Kurds. Hard, but less so than the alternatives.
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