Turkey’s Geopolitical Gyrations

The Obama administration is joining with Turkey in airstrikes against Islamic State targets in northern Syria a shift from President Erdogan’s past tolerance and even support for Islamic terrorists inside Syria but a more complex geopolitical game is afoot, writes ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

Turkish policies towards the Middle East have been in wild oscillation over the past weeks, even months. Ankara has now finally and begrudgingly initiated military action against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in cooperation with the United States. But it has also initiated air attacks against its former Kurdish negotiating partners. Just what is going on? There may not be any coherent strategy, but the following seem to me to represent the key issues driving policy.

–At the top of the list is President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan and his quest for political survival. After the rebuff to the ruling AK Party (or AKP) in the June elections that caused it to lose its majority in parliament, ErdoÄŸan is now desperately trying to recover, find a reliable partner for a coalition government and, in its absence, to force new elections next month in the hopes of recouping his majority.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Given the growing impression of growing loss of coherency at the top levels of the Turkish government, it is something of a gamble that the AKP could achieve a better electoral outcome next month. Indeed the AKP may well emerge yet weaker.

That said, the AKP’s best chance for a coalition partner is the nationalist MHP which opposes negotiations with the PKK (the armed Kurdish nationalist movement) or any cooperation with the PKK’s ally in Syria, the YDP.

A decade ago the AKP initiated encouraging and historic negotiations with the PKK; observers had every good reason to hope for a major breakthrough on this ethnic issue that has plagued Turkey almost since its birth (as a modern state in the 1920s). But domestic politics have intervened and ErdoÄŸan has now irresponsibly turned his back on these negotiations, even beginning military operations against the PKK again, probably putting an end for some time to any hope of reconciliation.

Such aggressive steps delight the nationalists in the MHP, now a key potential coalition partner. In sum, short-term and short-sighted AKP electoral politics are destroying aspirations for vital national reconciliation.

ErdoÄŸan has another good reason as well to sabotage his own early pioneering efforts at Kurdish reconciliation: with the improving political environment of a few years ago, for the first time a Kurdish party, the Peoples’s Democratic Party, is now reaching for national status as a true liberal party beyond simple Kurdish nationalism. It was that party that took away crucial votes from the AKP in the last elections and ErdoÄŸan has blood in his eye.

The Syrian Mess

–The second key factor is Ankara’s disastrous Syrian imbroglio. ErdoÄŸan’s decision, indeed current obsession, with overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria starting in 2011, represented an abrupt reverse of a decade of warm and brotherly relations with Syria.

No AKP foreign policy failure can equal the Syrian disaster: it has intensified the butchery in Syria’s savage internal conflict, damaged vital relations with Iraq and Iran, helped unleash a flood of millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey, created domestic unrest, damaged the economy, and pushed ErdoÄŸan into a distasteful embrace with Saudi Arabia against Assad.

In doing so, ErdoÄŸan has been forced to turn an ever blinder eye to the extremism of Islamist forces operating against Assad in Syria, including ISIS itself. While having little real sympathy for ISIS, ErdoÄŸan has nonetheless tolerated it. In the end he preferred strengthening ISIS against Damascus than deepening Turkish ties with the Kurds, Turkey’s natural regional partners for the future.

This Turkish policy has greatly embittered most Kurds against Turkey, especially in Syria. Erdogan’s Kurdish ties are now everywhere at risk: in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Only the event of a serious terrorist ISIS attack a few weeks ago on Turkish soil (targeting mostly Kurds), forced ErdoÄŸan to reconsider this relationship.

As a result ErdoÄŸan has reluctantly bowed to U.S. pressure to take a tougher position against ISIS. There is actually little love in Turkey at all for ISIS except among a very small minority of radical fundamentalists. Here too now, ErdoÄŸan still seems to lack a conceptual compass on these strategic issues.

Dealing with Iran

–A third driver is the nuclear deal with Iran. This momentous agreement will be changing the face of Middle Eastern geopolitics. It has raised the stakes for Ankara, making it clear that it can now ill afford to ignore Iran. Yet this should not be a serious problem for Turkey: the first decade of AKP rule saw good working relations with Tehran, and Turkey has basically avoided ideologically championing Middle Eastern Sunnis in any sectarian struggle.

This is where ErdoÄŸan’s unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia against Syria had begun to push him in a dangerous sectarian direction that contradicts nearly all of Turkey’s national interests, including ties with Iran. Ankara’s recent air operations against ISIS shows some signs now of pulling back from this egregious strategic error, even as Riyadh itself has come to fear feeding ISIS any further.

In short, primarily for domestic political reasons, but also due to foreign pressures from the U.S., Iran and Iraq, Ankara is now wavering in its strategic directions. It would be wise if it joins Iran, Russia, China, Oman, and probably now the U.S., in seeking a political solution in Damascus that will lead to Assad’s eventual resignation but not a toppling of the present regime.

But the implications of Obama’s agreement with Ankara to establish a buffer zone in Syria along the Turkish border is disturbing; it now may drag the U.S. deeper into local ground wars and coordination with bad Turkish policies. The fact is, an Assad regime for the moment is a far better option than continuing civil war and the continuing growth of extremist jihadi forces of ISIS and al-Qa’ida who are ideally positioned to eventually eliminate moderate Islamic opposition forces against Assad.

A potential Turkish coalition government that combines the AKP (with its plurality) and a left-of-center Republican Peoples Party and the new liberal Kurdish Party would seem to offer the healthiest mixture to oversee Turkish foreign policy in these exceptionally troubled and complex times. ErdoÄŸan’s vaulting ambitions and increasing loss of judgment and statesmanship will best be neutralized in such a coalition.

Despite the emotionalism around the Kurdish issue, a new generation of a Turkish electorate is unlikely to opt for a politician who seeks greater confrontation in the region, especially as a tool for his own ambitions.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

12 comments for “Turkey’s Geopolitical Gyrations

  1. ripster
    August 4, 2015 at 16:37

    Turkeys track record is abysmal to say the least and to expect anything more from them is fruitless. Yes they support Islamic State(Erdogans daughter a nurse)works at a hospital that treats wounded IS members in Turkey. Yes Turkey bombs Kurds and has been doing it since 1975. Turkey has eliminated close to 45000 Kurds in Turkey since then. Turkey has an abysmal record on freedoms we take for granted. There are more journalists in prison then any other country on earth including China and North Korea. Tuyrkey perpetrated the first genocide of the 20 th century against the Armenians. Christians are almost extinct in Turkey, regardless of the fact that Turkey has more Christian churches then any other place on earth. Turkey continues to persecute Christians through ethnic cleansing in occupied Cyprus, which it invaded in 1974 and still occupies to this date. Don’t be surprised with what Turkey is capable of…

  2. John
    July 31, 2015 at 04:49

    enlightening article about the author and his links to the Boston Marathon bombers, by William Engdahl:


  3. Aman
    July 29, 2015 at 21:09

    What would be an interesting story from Mr. Fullur, that he should have some direct knowledge of if not involvement, would be how and why the CIA cooperates with promoting Israel’s agenda while having adopted some of their underhanded and dishonorable methods as well — all at the expense of US citizens, US lives, US tax money and “our” democracy. It would be interesting to know why he thinks these realities exist.

    It would also be very interesting to know what he thinks of the US government and operatives within the CIA, working to effectively impose corporate and military industrial fascism in the US at the expense of freedom and democracy itself.

    If corporations and foreign countries can enlist the CIA to subjugate the American public, then it seems obvious the CIA is not working for the best interests of the American public.

    If I’ve been misinformed, there must be someone reading this that can offer a credible explanation.

  4. Berry Friesen
    July 29, 2015 at 11:13

    Oh yes, Mr. Graham Fuller has given us some helpful observations on the Turkish political situation.

    But his purpose in writing has much more to do with other agendas–obscure Turkish sponsorship of the Islamic State and distort the coordinating role the USA plays in all of this.

    Robert Parry, why are you giving disinformation a platform?

  5. notsofast...
    July 29, 2015 at 10:53

    actually, with the exception of a couple of poi.ts the article is very accurate in my opinion;
    – erdogan is indeed fighting for not only his presidency but also yo avoid prosecution; no matter how far fetched a bargaining position, MHP went into negotiations saying ‘only if AKP politicians are prosecuted on corruption charges’;which brings me to tbe next point
    – even if AKP decides to enter a coalition insted of rerun elections, such a coition with MHP is now probably likely without the fear of prosecution mentioned before because Erdogan is busy decimating the Kurdish political wing and PKK which will please MHP no end.
    – the biggest ommision is that erdogan desperately needed a way to justify his turnaround on the issue of airspace and airbases … after this war mongering charade no one questions whether he did the right thing or not.

    keep up the excellent analysis and writing.

  6. notsofast...
    July 29, 2015 at 10:53

    actually, with the exception of a couple of poi.ts the article is very accurate in my opinion;
    – erdogan is indeed fighting for not only his presidency but also yo avoid prosecution; no matter how far fetched a bargaining position, MHP went into negotiations saying ‘only if AKP politicians are prosecuted on corruption charges’;which brings me to tbe next point
    – even if AKP decides to enter a coalition insted of rerun elections, such a coition with MHP is now probably likely without the fear of prosecution mentioned before because Erdogan is busy decimating the Kurdish political wing and PKK which will please MHP no end.
    – the biggest ommision is that erdogan desperately needed a way to justify his turnaround on the issue of airspace and airbases … after this war mongering charade no one questions whether he did the right thing or not.

    keep up the excellent analysis and writing.

  7. Thomas Howard
    July 28, 2015 at 23:18

    The author shared the very same address with Congress of Chechen International Organizations.

    The author is father in-law to “Uncle Ruslan” Tsarni.

    The author is the author of the memo leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.

    CIA should be enough to discredit a word written by him.

  8. Zachary Smith
    July 28, 2015 at 18:37

    I’m quite sure Mr. Fuller knows a lot more about the situation in Turkey than myself, but it’s also my view that he misses the point of what Erdogan is trying to do.

    From all accounts the Turkish attacks on ISIS are nominal, if they exist at all. He’s after a larger prize.

    Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have agreed on the necessity to enforce a safe zone and a no-fly zone in Syria despite the absence of such an agreement with the US administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan has said.


    Since ISIS isn’t noted for its air force, the “no fly” business can only be aimed at the current Syrian government. And the “safe zone” is to make the area safe for ISIS.

    The attacks on the Kurds are equally important. Erdogan wants a supermajority in Turkey so he can turn himself into a Sultan, and that nation into a dictatorship run solely by himself. The Kurds did well enough in the last election to prevent this, and now he has set out to provoke them into doing something that will give him cover for shutting them out of the next election. Then it’s “Sultan Erdogan”.

    Probably he’s in cahoots with Israel on this, and in turn they’re pushing Obama into helping out. At a guess, Turkey and Israel plan to divvy up Syria.

    Lord, but if Obama wasn’t such a clueless wuss….

    Or a nasty but stealthy neocon.

    I’ve not got a clue which it actually is.

    • F. G. Sanford
      July 28, 2015 at 18:59

      I can’t bring myself to read this article, but so far, the comments are OUTSTANDING!

      • Mortimer
        July 30, 2015 at 21:45

        American presidents have no business chastising others. The country with the world’s largest prison state, military and history of aggressions is on shaky ground when giving anyone else advice. In the neighboring country of Somalia the United States regularly sends drones intended to kill al-Shabaab fighters but they deliver collateral damage to other people too. The blowback has killed many Kenyans, who are targeted by al-Shabaab because of their country’s role as an American puppet.

        Because hypocritical Americans have made gay rights the new measurement of societal well being all over the world, the president took the opportunity to castigate Kenyans about that too. Of course homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, America’s partner in crime. Yet there is no record of public shaming for any Saudi prince or king on that or any other issue. Their sensibilities are deemed too delicate for tongue lashing. It must be pointed out that Saudis take lashing quite literally.

        Those countries that are considered important are never called to account about American concerns du jour. They can even be praised no matter how awful their behavior. The president regularly genuflects to Israel, a country which violates every norm of international law, including the Geneva Conventions prohibitions against collective punishment. In Gaza civilians of every age and gender are massacred and Israel maintains the right to continue the bloodshed, and always with American financial and military support.

        The recipients of American hypocritical condemnation are many. While Obama was brow beating Africans, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad was telling the world about his nation’s suffering at the hands of the United States. More than 200,000 of his citizens are dead, and up to 9 million are refugees because the United States claims the right to decide who should control that country.

        “They [the Western countries] call it terrorism when it hits them, and [they call it revolution, freedom, democracy and human rights when it hits us.” For four years the United States and allies like Saudi Arabia have waged a terror campaign against Syria. The Islamic State, ISIS, is also part of the terror mix, but it wouldn’t even exist without the United States. Now ISIS is used as a subterfuge in the effort to finish off Assad and what is left of his country.

        “…The recipients of American hypocritical condemnation are many….”
        In Obama’s finger wagging about the treatment of Kenyan women he made a point that he would do well to remember about himself and the United States. “Every country has traditions that are unique. Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future.”

        If those words were applied to his country all the jails would be emptied, the banks would be nationalized, and the United States military would start closing up foreign military bases and heading for home. There would be no need for Africom because imperialism would be off the table. Saudi princes would have to look elsewhere to destabilize other nations. Israel would have to free Palestine and Iran could enrich all the uranium it wanted. There would be no income inequality based on race and brutal police would be prosecuted.

        Margaret Kimberley maintains a frequently updated blog at

        • Mark
          August 2, 2015 at 02:02

          Mortimer, You are either mistakenly or intentionally leaving Israel out of the equation concerning US invasion and Regime changes in the Middle-East post 9/11.

          Israel deserves no less than half the credit for these illegal invasions as planned in 1996 by Zionists, dual citizen Zionists, and pro-Zionist Christians. These links are all Eye openers and when added together there are undeniable conclusions to be drawn:




          Depending on a few other undetermined details Israel may be closer to 90% than 50% responsible, but as it stands with all we know for facts — Israel deserves no less than 50% of the blame for these Illegal war crimes being committed by the US and the sycophant coalition. Just look how Netanyahu is over here telling us to bomb Iran and take out Assad on Israel’s behalf not America’s.

    • zman
      July 29, 2015 at 10:46

      I have to agree with you as to Erdogans actions. Recently, I was discussing Turkeys’ eventual ‘retaliation’ for the bombing in Turkey with my brother. We agreed that it would be interesting what the outcome would be…as in, who would actually be attacked. It was supposed to be IS, but in reports after the attacks, it was the Kurds defending the area that came under attack…which is what I expected(Turkey is investigating to see what went wrong,LOL). It seems as though when they attack IS, it seems that there is always some sort of ‘accidental’ collateral damage or wrong target. How…’interesting’. As for Mr. Fullers assumption that Riyadh is pulling back from IS, this must be a very new occurrence. Their foray into Yemen, is a study in conundrums. For years, the Houthis have been fighting AQAP. Now, SA is attacking the Houthi ‘rebels’ and abetting IS attacks against them, how is this SA pulling back? All these reporters seem to be going on the assumption that all these countries are actually pursuing the destruction of IS. I just don’t see it. The one thing I have yet to figure out is why IS, being a fundamentalist Sunni organization and presumably an anti-Israeli entity, has never attacked Israeli interests, but have slaughtered how many Muslims? All I see is the US dropping them matériel (accidentally, of course…hack,cough), Israel lending medical and logistical support, Saudi, Jordan and Turkey being used as conduits for arms (including the gas Damascus was accused of using) from Libya…which is another can of worms obfuscated for public propaganda. Were it not for the wise gamesmanship of Putin, I am afraid of where we would be now…Then there is the other ‘front’…Ukraine.

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