Turkish gambit

Print edition : November 27, 2015

A view of the Syrian city of Kobani from a hilltop outside Suruc town, on the Turkey-Syria border, immediately after an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

A protester aims fireworks at the riot police during a demonstration on July 20 in Istanbul after a suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc near the Syrian border killed at least 31. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP

Families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Photo: REUTERS

Turkey’s decision to launch air attacks on the Kurdistan Workers Party’s bases is widely viewed as an extremely dangerous move that will further complicate the situation in the region.

The Turkish government's decision to suspend the peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which had been going on for two years, and launch air attacks on its bases inside the country and in neighbouring countries, adds yet another dimension to the complex nature of the struggle in Syria and in the wider region.

The decision, taken by the Turkish government in the last week of July, came after two security personnel were killed by the PKK. The Kurds in Turkey were angry after an alleged Islamic State (I.S.) suicide bomber blew himself up when student activists were holding a meeting in the border town of Suruc on July 20. The attack killed 32 young people and injured 100. The PKK’s armed wing had said in a statement that the killing of the two policemen was an act of revenge.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been tacitly supporting the extremist forces fighting against the Syrian government since the conflict began four years ago. The government in Ankara had also simultaneously announced its decision to launch military attacks against the I.S. and at the same time allow the United States Air Force to use the Incirlik air base situated 80 kilometres from the Syrian border for bombing raids.

The Barack Obama administration has been urging the Turkish government to allow the U.S. Air Force to use the base as it selectively targets the I.S. in Syria and Iraq. Earlier, because of Turkish intransigence, American planes had to operate from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and U.S. military bases in the region. With Incirlik now at the disposal of the American military, there will be a more rapid response. The capture of the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi by the I.S. had come as a shock to the U.S. Unlike Syria, Iraq is a military ally of the U.S. The I.S. had seized a lot of weaponry, including armoured vehicles and heavy artillery, when it captured the cities of Mosul and Ramadi.

Quid pro quo

As a quid pro quo for the sudden change in the Turkish government’s stance on the I.S., the Obama government had agreed to the targeting of the PKK and its allies, the Syrian Kurds. Although the U.S. continues to classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation, Washington has been militarily and logistically helping the Syrian Kurds under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) battling the I.S., Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups. The PYD is viewed 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.

Intervention by the U.S. Air Force 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 completely overrun by the I.S. during a siege that lasted 134 days. The role of American firepower was also decisive in the PYD’s capture of another Syrian border town, Tal Abad. The Turkish army had not raised a finger in the fight against the I.S. during the struggle for Kobani. In fact, Turkey has been protesting the American help to the Syrian Kurds.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq, for strategic reasons of their own, have been the U.S.’ staunchest allies in the fight against the I.S. and other jehadi groups. The U.S. now seems to have calculated that Turkey’s military support is more valuable in the long run. The Kurds, as always, were found expendable and thrown under the bus by the West. There are also signs that Kurdish unity is fraying. The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is run by a government which is deeply tied to Ankara and the West. There have been calls from senior government officials there for the PKK to vacate their 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. A Turkish air raid in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq resulted in the death of many civilians. In a countrywide sweep, around 1,300 people belonging to the PKK and left-wing parties have been arrested by the Turkish security services “on terror charges”. Only a few sympathisers of the I.S. and other jehadi groups have been arrested. The current Turkish government, as has been evident for some time, is not averse to doing business with other jehadi groups like the Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al Sham.

Patrick Cockburn, an expert on the region, wrote in The Independent, a British daily: “There is no doubt that the ability to move backwards and forwards along the 550-mile-long Syrian-Turkish border has been crucial to the growth of jehadi movements since 2011. The thousands of foreign volunteers who have flooded into 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 and the Jabhat al Nusra, playing a similar role as Pakistan does in support of a safe haven for the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. State Department confirmed in June this year that Turkey was the main conduit for more than 22,000 fighters who had 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 like Al Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham are slowly transforming themselves into moderate outfits.

Erdogan’s focus on the Kurds, according to Turkish analysts, opposition leaders and media commentators, is being mainly dictated by domestic political compulsions. In the general elections in June this year, the ruling AK Party had failed to get a parliamentary majority. The main gainer was the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has been advocating a peaceful solution to the 40-year-old conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK.

Washington and Ankara have also agreed to the creation of a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogulu has said that the “safe zone” will serve as a haven for so-called “moderate” fighters being trained by both countries. Fighters belonging to militias like the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), according to the Turkish/American 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 like the FSA to take on the government in Damascus. Another important objective of the Turkish government in creating a “safe zone” is to prevent the Syrian Kurds from occupying a contiguous area along the border with Turkey. “Turkey does not intend to target the I.S. with the safe zone,” said Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP. He also said Turkey was seriously worried about the prospects of the 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 clearly 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 either been 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, another small group of 60 fighters, called Division 30, trained and armed by the U.S., was neutralised by Al Nusra near Aleppo and its leader captured. The U.S.-trained mercenaries in captivity have since stated that their fight is only against the Syrian government. Division 30 issued a statement calling Al Nusra fighters “our brothers”. The U.S. has retaliated by launching air attacks against Al Nusra targets.

A senior American official told the media that any force attacking U.S.-trained fighters in Syria, jehadi or government, would be subjected to retaliation. The New York Times said that American 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 so-called “moderate” forces armed by the West and its allies. American machinations in Syria have already led to the death of more than 150,000 Syrians and deepened sectarian and ethnic fault lines in the region.