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Turkey Conflict with Kurds
Was approving air strikes against the PKK America's worst error in the Middle East since the Iraq War?
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Kurdish guerrillas have killed two Turkish soldiers in an ambush in south-east Turkey as fighting resumes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, ending a two-year-old ceasefire. The attack came after Turkish aircraft heavily bombed bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.

In a sign that the PKK has resumed military operations against the government, a Turkish army vehicle on a road near Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city, was hit by bomb blasts followed by rifle fire, according to the army. A further four soldiers were wounded in the attack.

The attack came in response to a heavy air raid by Turkish aircraft on PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq on Saturday – ostensibly part of a new Turkish offensive against terrorist groups, said also to be aimed at Isis.

But it came as the US was accused by Kurds of tolerating a renewed Turkish government assault on its Kurdish minority as the price for permission for US aircraft to use Turkey’s Incirlik air base against Isis jihadists for the first time.

“The Americans are not very clever in calculating this sort of thing,” said Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi Kurdish commentator and former chief of staff to the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani. “Maybe they calculate that with Turkey involved on their side, they don’t need the Kurds.”

The US denies giving the go-ahead for Turkish attacks on the PKK in return for American use of Turkish air bases, or of any link with Turkish action against Isis fighters and volunteers, who were previously able to move fairly freely across Turkey’s 550-mile border with Syria.

But whatever America was hoping for, initial signs are that the Turkish government may be more interested in moving against the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq than it is in attacking Isis. Ankara has previously said that it considers both the PKK and Isis to be “terrorists”.

Meanwhile, Turkish police have stepped up suppression of all types of dissent – using water cannon against everybody from activists to members of the heterodox Shia Alevi sect, who number several million and claim they are discriminated against. Over the weekend, 1,000 people who demonstrated in Ankara for peace were detained, their wrists held together by what were said to be especially tight and painful plastic handcuffs.

The result is that the US may find it has helped to destabilise Turkey by involving it in the war in both Iraq and Syria, yet without coming much closer to defeating Isis in either country. If so, America will have committed its biggest mistake in the Middle East since it invaded Iraq in 2003, believing it could overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace him with a pro-American government.

On Sunday night, the Turkish foreign ministry announced that it had called an extraordinary council meeting of Nato, of which Turkey is a member, on Tuesday to discuss its operations against both the PKK and Isis, “in view of the seriousness of the situation after the heinous terrorist attacks in recent days”. It said Turkey would inform allies of the measures it was taking following last week’s Isis suicide bombing near Turkey’s border with Syria that left 32 people dead, and an Isis attack on Turkish forces that killed a soldier.

The move to involve the alliance in discussion of the threat to Turkey came under Article 4 of Nato’s founding Washington Treaty, which allows countries whose security is threatened to consult with the other 27 members.

Turkey has become increasingly unstable and violent over the past two years as President Recep Tayiip Erdogan has tried to consolidate his grip on power, even as his AKP party lost its parliamentary majority in last month’s general election.

A possible interpretation of the Turkish government assault on Isis, PKK and other opposition groups is that Mr Erdogan intends to win the new election expected by many later this year if no governing coalition with other parties can be formed in the meantime. He would then try to win a majority on the back of a wave of anti-Kurdish and anti-terrorist nationalism, fuelled by revulsion against attacks by the PKK and Isis.

America’s problem is that its most effective ally against Isis in Syria so far has been the PYD, the ruling political party of the 2.2 million Syrian Kurds, who are concentrated in three enclaves just south of the Turkish border. The PYD and its paramilitary forces, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, are the Syrian branch of the PKK. Helped since last year by US air support, they have repelled Isis from its siege of the city of Kobani and have won a series of further victories against the jihadist group. including the capture of an important border crossing at Tal Abyad.

While allying itself with the Kurds in Syria, the US denounces their mother organisation, the PKK, as “terrorists”. The White House spokesman, Ben Rhodes, said: “The US, of course, recognises the PKK specifically as a terrorist organisation. And, so, again Turkey has a right to take action related to terrorist targets.”

He did not add that the US had been supplying Turkish intelligence with information about PKK bases in Iraq since 2007.

This is a peculiarly Machiavellian form of realpolitik since members of the YPG often gained military experience fighting in the PKK against the Turks, explaining why they have had more success against Isis than other groups. In fact, Isis may benefit from the US switch in alliances because some PYD fighters in Syria will now return to fighting the Turkish army.

Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Syrian Kurdish leader living abroad, believes that when it comes to the fight against Isis, “on balance the involvement of Turkey may be more important than that of the Kurds for the Americans”.


But how far Turkey will really engage against Isis in Syria is unclear. It says it wants to declare a buffer zone, cleared of Isis fighters, west of Kobani, but at the same time the Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, said at the weekend that Turkey was “not thinking” of committing ground troops.

Turkey is arresting Isis activists, many of whom, Turkish opposition parties note, were previously living untroubled by the Turkish security forces. Halis Bayancuk, the reputed Isis leader in Turkey, has been arrested just as he was a year ago – on which occasion he was soon released, and the police who detained him sent to prison instead. The shift by America towards Turkey and against the Kurds may have further ramifications for the balance of power in the region.

The US will undoubtedly be able to strengthen its air offensive against Isis, enabled to keep more planes in the skies above the self-declared caliphate because the Incirlik base is only 60 miles from the Syrian border. On the other hand, about 400 US air strikes were unable to prevent Isis capturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, on 17 May.

There may be other repercussions from the new Turkish-American alignment. One reason for the Turkish action was that Ankara did not like the way the Syrian Kurds were becoming a favourite US ally. They were also concerned that the US-Iran nuclear deal with Iran risked making Tehran more important than Ankara in Washington’s calculations.

It is likely that America will tolerate Turkish action against the PKK in Qanduk and Turkey but block any Turkish army moves to push into the Kurdish enclave in north-east Syria. But the PKK may, meanwhile, seek support from Iran and from the Syrian government in Damascus, with which it formerly had close relations.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Kurds, Turkey 
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  1. The U.S.’s track record in dealing with the Kurds is absolutely shameful. And this isn’t going to be a popular move for Obama.

  2. gdpbull says:

    Turkey should be kicked out of NATO.

    • Replies: @gjk
  3. Sonic says:

    Even to hint at a notion that Erdogon may be doing this for political reasons, and in order win or sway an election…truly shows how immoral and blood-thirsty democracy can be. It is a sham, and politicians more times than not, appeal to the worst desires and inclinations within us in order to get elected and gain power. Perhaps, this is the nature of power in general (and applies to dictatorships and tyrannies as well).

    If the US sells out the Kurds – it would just be an act consistent with its history. The Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein after fighting off the Iranian Revolution on behalf of the Gulf States and the West, the Afghan Resistance after it successfully defeated the Soviet Occupation, Mubarak after doing so much dirty work on behalf of Israel and the West, Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear ambitions, and so forth. Iran should take note of this as they sell their new agreement with the US. Of course, America never openly stated that it wanted to help create an independent Kurdistan. But many among the Kurds have had this impression and have been fighting with this goal in mind.

    I am not saying the US will fully abandon the secular Kurdish groups…but their ambition for an independent Kurdistan has now taken a major hit. So how long will they act as the ground force for the US and Coalition air force? In my opinion (and I could be wrong), the Kurdish militias will continue to take back Kurdish territory from ISIS, but will not be part of any invasion of Raqqah or Mosul. They have to now dial back their offensive operations in order to wage a guerilla war in southern Turkey.

    For ISIS, despite the loss of the border region with Turkey and all the supply routes that this provides, Turkey’s full entry into the conflict is a major win. Also, what can the US do from Turkish air bases that it hasn’t already done aside from destroy more infrastructure and kill more civilians? So long as ISIS acts as a guerrilla fighting group rather than a state/caliphate…surviving aerial bombardment is their strength. After so many strategic errors, the bombing in Suruc seems to be a major strategic victory for ISIS.

    Or, things will settle down and go back to the way they were before and all of what we’re witnessing right now will roll back after Turkish elections this year and American elections next year. War is unpredictable and so we can only analyze it as it happens or with regards to what has already happened. I don’t think the Kurds are completely united behind an independent state, and they should know clearly that attempts to create such a state will cause open war with Turkey right now, and eventually, whoever is in power in Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran (even if Shia militias are working side by side with Kurdish militias for now against ISIS). This is no different with ISIS who knew that their state-building project would bring upon it a coalition of many nations intent on keeping intact the international order as it has been since the end of World War 2. It just happened sooner rather than later for them.

    and Allah knows best.

  4. Big Bill says:

    What in heaven’s name are we wasting money and blood on over there?

  5. gjk says:

    You know, I don’t use the term very often (if at all) you are probably a true “bigot”.

    How much are you willing to bet that this joker is seething over the fact that Turkey is part of an organization that entitles it to US protection? LOL.

    Can you provide us a reason why NATO should part ways with this county other than “They’re muzzies and I’m a victim of atomic wedgies”?

    • Replies: @Bianca
  6. Bianca says:

    My feeling is that Turkey is looking for a way to get out of NATO. It has been nothing but trouble. NATO and chaos in Libya, NATO countries meddling in Egypt, and supporting a military coup against elected president (how many has that happened in Turkey, with elected officials being later executed), mess in Iraq (I, II, and now II and IV), and dangerous mess on its border with Syria. Turkey was forced to join anti-Assad push to prevent US and Saudi Arabia taking hold of the country, and then stirring up problems in Iraq and all the Kurdish areas. Now, Saudi Arabia is losing it strength, as it is distracted by problems in Yemen and on-going security of Bahrain. Egypt needs more money, and having brought them to power, is actually vulnerable to their demands. Turkey may have picked the time right — with US being left alone on the battlefield — time for deal making. One, and the most important — no Kurdish independence in the region. None in Iraq, or in Syria. None. Only one of them seceding — would be the base of operations for the rest of the region. Turkey sees that as an Albanian factor in Balkans, with the same destructive potential on the sovereignty od states and regional stability. Kurds of Iraq — may want to be less reliant on US and UK sweet talk, and get back to talking to Bagdad. Turkey needs to solve the huge refugee problem, and so does Europe. if a free zone can be created for refugee settlement that would allow Turkey to manage borders and reduce the potential for seriously inflamed situation in ‘refugee areas. Refugees come from Iraq as well — running from ISIS. So, if Turkey can get them dislodged from Mosul and central Iraq, many people can go home. This is not hard as it look — ISIS is like any other army, needs to be fed, transported, armed, and in need of communications gear. All of those are vulnerabilities. That nobody actually went after then seriously — makes me wonder what that is all about. So, if Turkey’s hands get tied — like not allowing them to select targets, etc. we will know. Think about it — when ISIS went on Palmyra, it had to cross hundred or so kilometers over open, desert like land. Open. Visible from space. Yet, they went unmolested, destroyed some antiquities, did some ritual head chopping, took photos and that was that.

    By now, intelligence on ISIS is immense. It is just time to act on it. And break up all of their communication capabilities, their money flows, their white Toyotas, food and arms supplies.

    If Turkey’s hands get tied by NATO or US in any way, it can get out. US is already thinking ahead, and Kerry is talking to Russia about ISIS, and the involvement of Iran. Before Turkey does it, when all else fails. TWO things Turkey will compromise on. One, independent or “autonomous” Kurdistan in Iraq, or Syria. To accomplish this — it must help Bagdad to break out, and free Ramadi. It must dislodge ISIS from Mosul. Two, millions of refugees slushing around Iraqi/Syria/Turkey borders. That means crushing ISIS in Syria region on Turkish/Iraqi border. While they say they will not use ground forces, somebody will have to. There are only two ways it can be done — by Turkish, Syrian or Iraqi forces. Or all. The idea that somebody will find “moderate” rebels somewhere in Syria — as US claims, is not going to work. Even if Turkey agrees with it — it will not work, and refugees will not be able to go back. Then, either Iraq will have to use troops or Turkey. Or they will bet Assad out of the pen — and allow him to participate.

    All is possible, and everything can go wrong. But parameters have changed. Turkey must act for own security, Kurds must give up autonomy, Turkey must hit ISIS to help Bagdad, Turkey must hit ISIS in Syria to defend its border and house refugees, and Saudi Arabia and Gulf states are getting ready to bolt from the Syria mess. US being left alone — needs solution, and the only takers are Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It is not time to be picky: let Iraq fight — with Shia forces if that is all they can do. Let Iran get involved to help Bagdad, and let Turkey get its priorities. But it is not in the nature of neocons to get out while the going is good — they will come up with some scheme to stir up more problems, and saw more chaos. So, fasten you seat belts, and watch.

  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It’s beyond obvious that Isis is a Zionist front funded by the Sauds, Israel and the U.S. ISIS is anything but “Islamic”.

    The U.S. Media narrative is to portray ISIS as evil terrorist. But isn’t it funny how this so called “Islamic” militant group has not made a single threat towards Israel? Isn’t it strange that Israel has been giving them medical aid? Isnt it strange that ISIS leaders and John McCain have been photographed together holding talks?

    Since it would look bad if the U.S. Did the killings that the Zionist agenda needs, they have Isis, the hired thugs to do their dirty work under the guise of “terrorist” to fool the American people through controled media.

    • Replies: @Sonic
  8. Sonic says:

    No conspiracy theories please. One familiar with Islam can go back and read about the Khawarij sect. That will help explain ISIS (along with the fact that it is composed of ex-baathists). The GIA in Algeria is another good example in order to understand ISIS. Neither were secret zionist fronts.

    This was all set in motion by the decision to begin Gulf War 2, and Paul Bremer’s handling of the post-war occupation followed by handing over (out of necessity for the occupation forces) Baghdad and Iraq to very sectarian Shia groups. In Syria, the people have been under the rule of the Alawite minority for decades and have been waiting for an opportunity to rid themselves of this brutal, secular-baathist dictatorship. There were attempts in the 80s to do this, but the Arab Spring rejuvenated the resistance and now the dominoes have fallen! There isn’t a zionist “front” here or there…just different groups with different ideologies clashing and fighting for the sake of power, control, oil wealth, religion, ideology, etc.

    Iran and Hezbullah have been very anti-Zionist – yet, what has really come of that? Hezbullah has now lost far more men fighting Sunni Mujahideen and Syrian Rebels as compared to fighting Israel. And Iran, after assisting the US in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has now signed a comprehensive agreement with the US (though conservative factions in both countries oppose it). These things going on are not in anyone’s control, let alone the strings of a secret cabal of powerful puppet-masters, bankers, secret society members, or whatever. Rather, decisions are made (usually for political reasons like what Turkey is now doing), plans are drawn, the dice is rolled, gambles are made, and then outcomes occur (and sometimes, those outcomes are not what was expected).

    {And [remember, O Muhammad], when those who disbelieved plotted against you to restrain you or kill you or evict you [from Makkah]. But they plan, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners} Quran 8:30

  9. Syria is needed to form a contiguous Sunni nation. Then it will be Sunni vs. Shia, to the benefit of U.S. and Israel. The Kurds will be sacrificed.

  10. And the path to power for this guy, just five miles down the road for me gets ever clearer.

  11. […] a former chief of staff to erstwhile Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, told the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. “Maybe they calculate that with Turkey on their side, they don’t need the […]

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