Turkey Opinion: Putin’s “Iron Fist” Will Not Work for Erdogan

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Faisal Al Yafai writes for The National:


Another terror attack has devastated Turkey. Although it is not yet clear who carried out the attack, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility and the footage of the gunman entering the nightclub certainly suggests he had some military training.

Turkey has paid a significant and continuing price for its involvement in and geographical proximity to the Syrian civil war. No country can accept regular attacks as a “new normal”, but Turkey, with its history of attacks by Kurdish separatists, is particularly unwilling to contemplate such a fate.

In the coming weeks, the Turkish President will look for ways to end this ISIS menace – and he will find, in Vladimir Putin, a willing mentor.

See Syria Analysis: How Turkey Joined Russia — and Left Saudi Arabia Behind

Russia and Turkish relations are getting warmer. Together, they have brokered a ceasefire for Syria that accepts Bashar Al Assad’s position as head of state. But their growing closeness is also hinged on something else.

The Caucasus Dimension

Often overlooked, there is one region that is pulling Turkey, Russia and Iran together. Not Syria, but the northern Caucasus. The southern regional states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia border all three countries, but the north is part of Russian territory – and home to restive provinces that have violently resisted Moscow’s rule.

This volatile region is wedged between the three countries and it is what happens in that region that has focused the mind of Moscow on the Syrian civil war.

Too often western politicians and media have assumed that Russia is conducting its politics with an eye on rivalling Nato. In fact, in this case, Syria’s civil war and the rise of ISIS is practically a domestic matter.

There are thousands of Chechens fighting with ISIS – perhaps as many as 4,000 – and by all accounts they are formidable fighters. Abu Omar Al Shishani, who served as “minister for war” and was one of ISIL’s highest-ranking fighters until his death last summer, was, as his nom de guerre suggests, a Chechen. Indeed, he once explicitly threatened to return to Russia and exact “revenge”.

Mr Putin knows, therefore, that the stability of Russia is intimately tied to the stability of Syria. ISIS fighters have their eyes on the Caucasus. From a political perspective, having one of your enemies fighting a war against another enemy is a policy challenge. Interfere, and you risk provoking the fighters against you. Leave them to fight it out and they may emerge victorious and come after you. Mr Putin appears to have chosen the former option, for very personal reasons.

Russia’s battles with separatist states throughout the Caucasus region has been long. But for Mr Putin, these insurgencies have defined his career. As prime minister and then as president, Mr Putin oversaw the second Chechen war, a series of brutal, scorched-earth battles that eventually pacified the region. More than any other policy of his first term in office, these battles endeared him to large parts of the electorate as a man who could maintain law and order.

It Worked in Chechnya, But in Turkey?

When Turkey searches for an answer to the increased attacks against it, it will find Mr Putin has long experience in putting down an insurgency in a complicated region. But his techniques are more limited: confined mainly to an iron fist. How well that will work in such an interconnected region is yet to be seen.

Because Turkey too has fought a long-running insurgency, this time against the Kurds. But unlike Mr Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approach to it was more carrot-and-stick – a technique that appeared to finally bear fruit in 2013, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) announced the end of its armed struggle. Talks broke down and it has since resumed its attacks against the Turkish state but there is little doubt it was the combination of incentives and military action that finally brought the PKK to the table.

Mr Putin offered no such carrot in Chechnya. And herein lies the problem. It is not that Turkey can offer ISIL any version of a deal – anyone who has tracked the militant group knows there can be no negotiation with them.

Rather it is that if a scorched-earth policy against ISIS works, Mr Erdoğan may be tempted to employ the same approach to the Kurdish insurgency – and to other political challenges. But the two scenarios, though both parties have used terrorism, need to be dealt with in different ways. There is still something to talk to the Kurdish rebels about.

More broadly, the challenges Turkey faces cannot all be solved by scorched-earth politics. Mr al-Assad used this approach in Syria and, while it did result in him recapturing Aleppo, it has created many opponents to his rule, some very formidable. Mr Erdogan, already authoritarian minded, clearly finds the certainty of the iron fist compelling. But while a military-first approach to ISIS is the right response, in other political challenges it cannot be the only approach. At times of enormous political stress, Turkey must choose carefully whose advice it heeds.

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