Turkey & Syria

Playing with fire

Print edition : September 04, 2015

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria, on July 22 to monitor the movements of Islamic State fighters. Photo: REUTERS

Six U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Aviano Air Base, Italy, are seen at the Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, after being deployed on August 9. Photo: REUTERS/US AIR FORCE

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking to the media in Istanbul on July 24. Photo: AP

Turkey openly enters the fray as the U.S.’ ally in its indirect fight against the Syrian government by convincing the West that jehadists groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are becoming moderate and by creating “safe zones” along the border as a haven for “moderate” fighters such as the Free Syrian Army.

THE RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN government’s decision to suspend its two-year-long peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and launch air attacks on its bases inside Turkey and in neighbouring countries adds yet another dimension to the complex nature of the struggle in Syria and the wider region. The decision taken in the last week of July came after the PKK forces killed two security personnel. The Kurds in Turkey were angry after an alleged Islamic State (I.S.) suicide bomber blew himself up during a meeting of student activists in the border town of Suruc on July 20, killing 32 young people and injuring 100 others. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government led by Erdogan had been tacitly supporting the extremist forces fighting against the Syrian government since the conflict began four years ago. The PKK’s armed wing said in a statement that the killing of the two policemen was an act of revenge. The Erdogan government also announced its decisions to launch military attacks against the I.S. and allow the United States Air Force to use the Incirlik airbase, situated 80 kilometres from the Syrian border, for launching bombing raids.

The U.S. has been urging Turkey to allow its air force to use the base to selectively target the I.S. in Syria and Iraq. In view of Turkey’s refusal to accept the demand, U.S. planes had to operate from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and its military bases in the region. With the Incirlik airbase now at the disposal of the U.S. military, there is likely to be a more rapid response. The U.S. was shocked when I.S. forces captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi and took tonnes of weaponry, including armoured vehicles and heavy artillery. Unlike Syria, Iraq is a military ally of the U.S.

As a quid pro quo for the change in Turkey’s stance on the I.S., the Barack Obama government acquiesced in the targeting of the PKK and its allies, the Syrian Kurds. Although the U.S. continues to classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation, it has been militarily and logistically helping Syrian Kurds, who under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are battling the I.S., Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups. The PYD is seen as the Syrian branch of the Turkish PKK. Until the 1990s, the PKK was an avowedly Marxist party. It can now be classified as a centre-Left party.

The U.S. Air Force’s intervention was crucial in the Kurdish-led fight for the Syrian town of Kobani. The town, dominated by Syrian Kurds, was on the verge of being overrun by the I.S. during a siege that lasted 134 days. U.S. firepower was decisive in the capture of another Syrian border town, Tal Abad, by the PYD. The Turkish Army did not interfere in the fight against the I.S. during the struggle for Kobani. In fact, Turkey has expressed its displeasure to the U.S. for helping the Syrian Kurds.

Kurds expendable

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq, for their own strategic reasons, have been the U.S.’ staunchest allies in the fight against the I.S. and other jehadist groups. The U.S. now seems to have calculated that Turkey’s military support is more valuable in the long run. As recent history has shown, the West has always found the Kurds expendable and thrown them under the bus. There are also signs that Kurdish unity is fraying. The government administering the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is deeply tied to Turkey and the West. Senior government officials have demanded that the PKK vacate its military bases on the mountains of northern Iraq.

According to reports, so far the Turkish Air Force has conducted only limited bombing raids against I.S. targets while concentrating its massive firepower against the Kurds. Many civilians were killed in a Turkish air raid in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq. In a countrywide sweep, Turkish security services have arrested around 1,300 people belonging to the PKK and left-wing parties “on terror charges”. In contrast, only a few sympathisers of the I.S. and other jehadi groups have been arrested. The current government, as has been evident for some time, is not averse to doing business with other jehadi groups such as the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham.

“There is no doubt that the ability to move backwards and forwards along the 885-kilometre-long Syria-Turkey border has been crucial to the growth of jehadi movements since 2011. The thousands of foreign volunteers who have flooded Syria have almost all come from Turkey. Even those unable to speak Turkish or Arabic have had little difficulty making their way across. In many respects, Turkey has provided a safe sanctuary for ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and the Jabhat al-Nusra, playing a similar role as Pakistan does in support of a safe haven for the Taliban in Afghanistan,” wrote Patrick Cockburn, an expert on the region, in the British daily newspaper The Independent. The U.S. State Department confirmed in June that Turkey was the main conduit for more than 22,000 fighters who have flocked mainly to the I.S. There are ongoing efforts by Turkey and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to convince the West that groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are slowly transforming themselves into moderate outfits.

According to Turkish analysts, opposition leaders and media commentators, Erdogan’s focus on the Kurds is mainly dictated by domestic political compulsions. In the general elections held in June, the AKP lost its majority in Parliament for the first time since it came to power in 2002. The main gainer in the election was the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has been advocating a peaceful solution to the 40-year-old conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK. It got 13 per cent of the votes.

With indications that snap parliamentary elections are going to be held soon, with the AKP failing to seriously look for coalition partners to form a government, it is being calculated that a polarisation along ethnic lines would be to the benefit of the ruling party. Erdogan and his close associates seem to be planning a crackdown on the HDP. There have been calls from some politicians to ban the HDP. Erdogan said in the last week of July that politicians linked to “terrorist groups” should be stripped of their parliamentary immunity.

Safe zones along the border

The U.S. and Turkey have agreed to the creation of a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogulu said that the “safe zone” would serve as a haven for the so-called “moderate” fighters being trained by both the countries. Fighters belonging to militias such as the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), according to the Turkish-U.S. game plan, are supposed to move into the “safe zone” after “it is freed from the I.S.”. Erdogan and his advisers would like the international community to believe that the “safe zone” they hope to create would act as a springboard for “moderate” groups such as the FSA to take on the government in Syria. Another important objective behind creating a “safe zone” is to prevent the Syrian Kurds from occupying a contiguous area along the border with Turkey. According to Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP, “Turkey does not intend to target the I.S. with the safe zone.” He said the Turkish state was seriously worried about the prospects of Kurds creating “an autonomous state in Syria”.

Many observers of the region view the latest gambit of Erdogan and the West as an extremely dangerous step. As is evident to the rest of the world, the fight against the Syrian government is now being spearheaded by the I.S., al-Nusra and other Taqfiri and Salafist groups. Militias trained and armed by the West have been either crushed by the jehadi groups or have joined them. Last year, al-Nusra wiped out two U.S.-supported groups, the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Harakat Hazm. In the last week of July, al-Nusra neutralised another small U.S.-trained and armed group of 60 fighters, called Division 30, near Aleppo and captured its leader. The mercenaries, in captivity, have stated that their fight is only against the Syrian government. Division 30 issued a statement calling al-Nusra fighters “our brothers”. The U.S., however, retaliated by launching air attacks against al-Nusra targets.

A senior U.S. official told the media that any force, be it jehadi or government, attacking U.S.-trained fighters in Syria would be subjected to retaliation. The New York Times said that U.S. officials were surprised by the latest developments on the Syrian front. According to the paper, they expected al-Nusra to coordinate its activities with Division 30. Indirectly, the Obama administration is authorising air strikes against the Syrian Army, which is facing an onslaught by jehadi as well as the so-called “moderate” forces armed by the West and its allies. U.S. machinations in Syria have already resulted in the death of more than 150,000 Syrians and deepened sectarian and ethnic fault lines in the region.

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