Much of the world’s attention has been focused recently on the relatively insignificant town of Kobane. Kobane is hardly worth getting upset about; Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus are all far more central to the events in Syria. And yet here we are, all watching the street-to-street fighting in a place we’d probably not even considering getting a falafal in if we were touring the area.
Rather, it’s the symbolism involved that’s really what’s at stake. On the one hand, losing this city to the Islamic State would be just another blow to Obama’s war; worse, the Americans have thrown in their lot with the Kurdish fighters, bombing Islamic State troops trying to save the city.
But beyond America’s concerns are also the tantalizing prospect of a Turkish invasion to save the city. That hasn’t happened. And for Kobane, it may not. But geopolitical forces are at work that are pushing Turkey into Syria – and if Kobane isn’t the tripwire, something else is likely to be.
Beautiful Anatolia is a fine place for an empire
The Anatolian plateau has a lot of advantages for anyone who has ever united it. From the ancient Hittites who tangled with Egypt over Syria and Palestine to the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines who drew vast sums of cash and troops from the region, Anatolia enjoys mild winters, a good growing season, just enough water for agriculture, and plenty of hills and mountains to make invasion difficult but not make unity impossible. Toss in its considerable mineral wealth and access to both the Black and Mediterranean Seas and you’ve got a fine starting point for a regional power.
Regardless of who is in charge, Anatolia has always been a key piece of an empire. Its loss crippled the Byzantines; its gain helped propel Alexander the Great’s campaign all the way to Babylon; and for the Turks who replaced the Byzantines, it has always been the heart of their state. Remember that the Turks as an ethnic group are from quite far away, having originated somewhere near Mongolia and moving their way across Central Asia until settling in the ruins of the Byzantine Empire.
And so the Ottoman Empire followed the natural patterns of those before it
When the Ottomans started a-conquerin’, they followed the roads of all those who had based themselves from Anatolia; south and east into the open plains and riverlands of Mesopotamia and Syria and further afield to Egypt; west, more slowly, into Europe, across the hard fighting terrain of Greece and the Balkans; northeast until reaching the Armenian frontier, where further advance was too expensive to consider, especially once Russia pushed south.
When the empire was gutted at the end of World War I, the rump Turkish state remained in the empire’s most profitable and potentially powerful region. For the 20th century, the Turks wisely avoided conflict, having fallen so far behind Western powers to know they couldn’t go toe-to-toe with them, and staying out of the Second World War. The advent of Kurdish and Turkish communists forced Istanbul into NATO; better to deal with the distant Americans than to be another piece of the far closer, and therefore more meddlesome, Soviet empire.
During the Cold War, the natural power patterns of Anatolia were frozen for fear of nuclear war. Turkey could not do what made sense and push for influence and position in Syria, Iraq, and the Balkans; all those were Soviet allies or clients. It could also not push very hard against its traditional enemy, Greece, for mastery of the Aegean – though that didn’t stop the two from nearly going to war several times, nor did it stop Turkey from invading Cyprus in 1974 to prevent a union between Greece and the island. In the bipolar world of the 20th century, the Turks had to choose a side and stick with it in order to survive.
But the Cold War is over, Russia’s frontiers are pushed back, and the Middle East is a free for all once more
The stabilizing effect of the Cold War has vanished; now many powers are competing for the same turf. Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine and Europe to be of much danger in the Middle East anymore; only American interests matter, but the U.S. has generated so much chaos that those interests have become very narrow (and mostly revolves around killing a few Islamic militants there and again and keeping oil supplies safe).
Thus a power based on Anatolia may expand once more. Of course, the rules have changed.
Rule #1 – Don’t occupy territory because that sucks and is hard
Rather than building a traditional empire, Turkey will seek influence and indirect control of its neighbors. As a Sunni power, but not militantly so, it can offer an alternative to Iran’s vision for the region. Thus in Syria it seeks a moderate Sunni government to rule; it would hope the same for Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. How that group rules is irrelevant so long as it trades with Turkey and gets it preference for security matters, so democracy vs. dictators is really not part of the conversation as far as Ankara is concerned. Most importantly, Turkey won’t seek to grab Syrian or Iraqi land but rather find leaders who can do that on its behalf. Occupying the dense cities of the 21st century is expensive and ineffective, and even the U.S. couldn’t completely pacify relatively weak Iraq.
Rule #2 – Don’t pick fights others will fight for you
A key reason Turkey won’t go into Syria without NATO bombing Assad is because Turkey doesn’t actually have a beef with the Islamic State (right now). If America will war with IS on its own, what’s the point in expending treasure and blood when Turkey will gain very little from the whole affair? Turkey benefits if Assad, an Alawite and part of a vanished Middle Eastern order that Turkey wants buried, is out of the picture. That means no tanks in Kobane unless America hits Damascus.
Rule #3 – Keep the Kurds in check
The Kurds remain a deeply troublesome threat that Turkey can’t ignore. These people would like nothing more than to sever a rather huge chunk of territory off Turkey’s eastern flank. A day may come where it might make sense for Ankara to go along with such an idea, but that day is far off. Right now, Turkey seeks to keep the frontiers as intact as possible and use its growing economic and military clout to change the chaotic security situation in the Middle East to its favor. So letting the Islamic State bleed the Kurds a bit helps.
Rule #4 – Strike when its easy and hold back when its not
It was very easy to organize the rebellion against Assad from a Turkish perspective; all they had to do was provide a few guns and a few open checkpoints. Now they’re being asked to do what’s hard – to invade another country, one that’s still pretty well-armed, to fight in a civil war where nobody has a clue about how best to end the violence. The Turkish military has already fought a long insurgency against the Kurds; it has no appetite for starting a new one against Syrians.
Rather, the Turks must wait for events to change. If America weakens the Islamic State and a power vacuum emerges, Turkey will seek to fill it with its chosen factions. If the Islamic States survives and even prospers, Turkey will do a deal with it in exchange for a quiet frontier, awaiting the day IS fucks itself up through its wretched economic and social programs, creating another vacuum Turkey can move into.
Turkey’s position as a NATO ally gives it a useful shield in the form of the American military, whose interests will always first be threatened more severely than Turkey’s. Turkey can play the long game; over time, the weaker geopolitical positions of whatever emerges in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq will give it exploitable opportunities.
Of course, that all requires a compliant Saudi Arabia and a weakened Iran
Iran is the only power in the region capable of competing with Turkey – and, worse, has the desire to do just that. Thankfully, America fears Iranian influence even more than Ankara, and so once more Turkey can let the Americans take the driver’s seat – and all the accompanying risks – in regards to sorting Iran. Once upon a time Iran and Turkey helped form a wall against the Soviet Union – a deal with Iran could bring it back into the American-led world order. That being said, such a situation would not end the competition between Turkey and Iran over the Middle East; rather, it would heighten it as suddenly Turkey couldn’t rely on America to do its dirty work.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia must remain as it always has been; a quiet, useful ally, turning on the oil spigot when asked and shutting up otherwise. But Saudi Arabia has entered a period of its own insecurity and its increasingly acting unilaterally to save itself. That’s not precisely ideal for Turkey and something that will eventually cause them to come to loggerheads. Saudi Arabia has no power to dominate the Greater Middle East the way that Iran and Turkey do, but it can easily be a spoiler. And if it does go under, it will generate such chaos that neither power will be able to control the fire.
The old roads are opening; it’d be rather dumb if the Turks didn’t take them again
Turkey will have a shot in the 21st century of regaining a lot of its stature. Its leaders know that the Middle East, when left alone, is always dominated by someone either out of Persia or Anatolia. Better to be a Turk-led Middle East should the U.S. tire of trying to reorder the place. The old roads of conquest may have gathered some dust, but sweep aside the sand and the highway to Babylon is just as tempting now as it was 2,000 years ago. In a nuclear-armed world, it’s best to be cautious; and so Turkey will be. But a cautious creep seems inevitable.