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Turkey-Kurdish Conflict: Obama's Deal with Ankara Is a Betrayal of Syrian Kurds and May Not Even Weaken Isis
Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase
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The deal between the US and Turkey which will allow American bombers to use Incirlik airbase while Turkey takes action against Islamic State (Isis) looks stranger and stranger. When first announced over a week ago, US officials spoke triumphantly of the agreement being “a game-changer” in the war against Isis. In fact, the war waged by Turkey in the days since this great American diplomatic success has been almost entirely against the Kurds, at home and abroad.

Turkish jets are pounding sites occupied by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) guerrillas in the Qandil Mountains and other parts of northern Iraq. Inside Turkey, the majority of those detained by the security forces turn out to be Kurdish or left-wing activists and not suspected Isis sympathisers. Prosecutions are threatened against MPs of the largely Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which has tirelessly advocated peace between the PKK and the Turkish government. Evidently, the HDP’s offence was to win 13 per cent of the votes in Turkey’s general election on 7 June, thereby depriving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP of its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002.

It is now becoming clear that two crucial parts of the accord were not agreed at the time of the historic announcement. The US Air Force was desperate to get the use of Incirlik, 60 miles from the Syrian border, in order to intensify its bombardment of Isis. American planes currently have to fly long distances from Bahrain, Jordan and an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. The failure of the US air campaign to prevent Isis fighters capturing Ramadi and Palmyra in May intensified the sense of urgency.

At the time of writing, US aircraft have not started using Incirlik and the reason is that Turkey does not want US aircraft using it to launch air strikes in support of the Syrian Kurds who have hitherto been America’s most effective military allies against Isis in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its determined and well-disciplined militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), successfully defended the city of Kobani (with US air support) during a 134-day siege by Isis. Since then, the PYD has linked up two of its enclaves just south of the Turkish frontier by capturing the Isis-held border crossing of Tal Abyad. Again the YPG was helped by frequent US air strikes. I was just east of Tal Abyad with the YPG in May, and there was scarcely a moment when I could not hear the sound of US aircraft overhead.

Turkey is now demanding that US planes based at Incirlik not be used in support of the PYD/YPG because they are the Syrian branch of the PKK which Turkey is busy trying to destroy with its own air campaign. But US bombing in Syria has mostly been in support of the YPG in the north-east of the country and against Isis-held oil and gas fields in other provinces. Possibly the US could continue to support the Syrian Kurds with aircraft that don’t operate from Incirlik, but using Turkish bases would be a great advantage. And even the US’s ability to do this is in doubt if, as is intended, its single aircraft carrier in the Gulf, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, pulls out this autumn and is not replaced for several months.

Even if this dispute is ultimately resolved, it highlights the contradiction at the heart of US policy: Washington is teaming up with a Turkish government whose prime objective in Syria is to prevent the further expansion of PYD/YPG territory which already extends along 250 miles of the 550-mile-long Syrian-Turkish border. In brief, Ankara’s objective is the precise opposite of Washington’s and little different from that of Isis, which has been battling on the ground to hold back the PYD/YPG advance.

A second point of difference between the US and Turkey is over a plan to establish an Isis-free zone in an area between the Turkish border and Aleppo. This would close off Isis from Turkey, but who is to do it? Turkey says it is not going to commit ground troops. Public opinion in the US would likewise veto American involvement on the ground so its military pressure on Isis must entirely depend on its air power. The Turks and their allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar would like to rebrand the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, movements, whose beliefs and actions differ little from Isis, as born-again moderates. Jabhat al-Nusra, founded by Isis leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi in 2012 before splitting away, has decided attempts to start a “moderate” Syrian opposition military movement, in competition with itself, are best strangled at birth.

This sometimes happens even before birth, as was shown last week when al-Nusra abducted Nadeem Hassan, the leader of a small faction trained by the US after careful vetting. And last year, al-Nusra wiped out two groups, the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm, who were being trained and supplied by the CIA as “a third force” opposed to both Assad and the extreme jihadis.

So far, Isis has not done too badly out of Turkey’s “game-changing” turn against it. Because of disagreement over aid to the Syrian Kurds, American warplanes have not yet started using Incirlik and, if and when they do, Isis will have had more than a week to change the disposition of its forces in preparation for a heavier air assault. If US aircraft based at Incirlik are forbidden to attack Isis fighters when they are battling either the Syrian Kurds or the Syrian army, the militants’ two main opponents on the ground, then they will be no worse off militarily than they were before. This may explain why Isis has responded so little to the US-Turkish agreement that is supposed to deal it a crippling blow. Close observers of the Syrian armed opposition in northern Syria say that it welcomes the Turkish attack on the PKK.


Were world leaders just a bit simple-minded or ill-informed when they congratulated Turkey on finally turning against Isis? Probably there is as much cynicism as naivety at work here since their intelligence services will have told them that Turkey has long been giving covert support to Isis and al-Nusra, the most important element of which was not closing the border. The main concern of European countries is the actions of their citizens who have joined Isis or al-Nusra and may return home to commit atrocities. Given this preoccupation, governments may calculate that whatever Turkey does or does not do, the Turkish-Syrian border will be more closely guarded in future.

But in terms of the stability of the region President Barack Obama may turn out to have made a poor deal with Turkey. It will not be a killer blow to Isis and may not even weaken it, but it will hit the Kurds who have been IS’s most resolute opponents. It will spread the violence stemming from the civil wars in Iraq and Syria into Turkey. And it will rekindle a Kurdish-Turkish civil war that had long been on the wane.

The game may have changed but peace is even further away.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Turkey 
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  1. Sonic says:

    Bombing may win battles, but it cannot win wars. Over 20 years of bombing Iraq, and things have only gotten worse as far as the interests of those who have been bombing it. Despite all the bombs Assad has dropped (and in particular, barrel bombs), he has lost control of most of his country and continues taking heavy losses. Turkey also will not defeat the PKK and its allies just through aerial bombardment.

    As for the contradictions in US policy…it starts to make sense when you realize that the American Empire’s policies right now in the Middle East (especially after the Arab Spring and ongoing Islamic Awakening) are a continuation of the divide and conquer strategy of the European imperial powers of the past. During those times, such a policy was accelerated once the various colonial powers realized that they were being kicked out and could not sustain their occupation forces. The US knows that the tide has already turned against it in the Arab and Muslim world. So they want to keep everyone fighting everyone for as long as possible.

    Now, why would the US want to completely destroy ISIS (degrade it and contain it – yes, but not destroy it)? ISIS acts as a check and balance to any sort of Iranian expansion, scares the client regimes of the Gulf, empowers the US to continue to justify its global empire, helps the US to continue to use fear tactics to maintain power and nullify various constitutional, civil, and human rights within its own borders, and ISIS has divided the global jihad and harmed al-Qaidah in a way that has never happened since the internationalization of the Islamist movement and the founding of al-Qaidah back in the mid-90s.

    I’m not suggesting that the US created ISIS for such purposes (as so many conspiracy theorists on these forums would). The existence of ISIS represents a failure on the part of the US to win its various wars of aggression in Iraq, as well as to spread its values and systems of governance into the heart of the Arab and Muslim world. The US has also begun drilling its own shale oil since their hope for a stable Iraq that is subservient to western nations (while continuing to uphold the dollar as the world’s reserve currency) and subservient to western oil companies – became a failure.

    Despite these failures, there have been failures and mistakes on the other side (such as the split between various Muslim groups that has now lead to bloodshed between them) causing a lack of unity among those who successfully resisted the US during the last few decades. There is tremendous opposition in the US for another occupation force (as Patrick mentions in this article). At the same time, most Muslims (and significant numbers of Jihadists) do not recognize ISIS as a Khaliphate. This leads us to the situation we are in now. The US is simply trying to play its cards and maintain hegemony at all costs, not wanting things to go from bad to worse. Turkey is simply playing its hand at the table as well – telling the US that if it wants Turkish help with ISIS, then Turkey demands an end to any hope or aspiration that the Kurds may have for a future Kurdistan. The questions for the near term are: will ISIS be able to take back territory recently lost to the Kurdish militias, and how much instability will now occur in Turkey as a result of its policy shift? For the sake of pleasing the US and its NATO allies, Turkey has restarted its civil war with the Kurds while increasing hostilities with ISIS (both of whom are also fighting each other).

    It’s like an extended game of duck, duck, goose…except with multiple people running around the circle while picking others simultaneously.

    • Replies: @Romanus
  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The deal seems strange only of one ignores the possibility that US’s primary goal os to promote wars. That makes for a growing market for weapons, its main export industry.

    • Replies: @Johnny F. Ive
  3. @Anonymous

    I agree. Also there is the Turkish lobby in the US and it has infiltrated the US government and political establishment according to Sibel Edmonds.

    There is a lot of money to be made in militarism and ISIS is the perfect enemy. It can’t do serious damage to the US, its despicable, and it can be bombed perpetually.

  4. Turkey’s aim was not to prevent ISIS but to use the strategy to destroy Kurdish inroads and their influence. That being said, they have cut their throat to spite their face and allow for ISIS to gain inroads where they should have been destroyed in the first place. Continued false flags against the Kurds will damage internal security of Turkey because vigilence is lost and payback is baksheesh.

  5. Romanus says:

    “barrel bombs”

    That’s just a propaganda term, Syrian army has probly a better civilian/terrorist kill rate than “coalition” air raids.

    “he has lost control of most of his country and continues taking heavy losses.”

    Actually I think that Syrian gov controls most of the population there. IS may control the deserts and more (empty) land.

    • Replies: @Sonic
  6. Sonic says:

    Romanus – Keep up with activists on the ground (who are not shia) and you will learn of a very different picture regarding the situation on the ground in Syria. Also, remember that in this day and age there are *multiple* alternate media sources (aside from the mainstream, corporate press). One cannot know what is going on by just bouncing between the mainstream media and traditional alternate/independent media.

    Go on youtube and type “syria barrel bomb”, and take a look at the compilation videos, blitz videos, and so forth.

    As for comparing s.a.a. and coalition air raids, Assad has had a head start of a couple of years. So without question (if we are just talking Syria and not any other nation-state), Assad has far more blood on his hands and far more civilian casualties to account for as compared to this coalition that just started bombing Syria over the past year. The western coalition has better technology as well, so this could lead to a better “rate” on their part. But the recent bombing strikes in Atmeh with all the dead women and children there – does show that at the very least, the US-led coalition wishes to compete with Assad in bombing the people of Syria.

    Most of the population is in the major cities that are still controlled by Assad – yes. But one doesn’t just take over a city until they control all of the rural areas around the city. This is how ISIS eventually took over several major cities over the last year. They first took control of the deserts, mountains, and rural areas around the major population centers. These are areas where the advantages of a conventional force with superior firepower can be negated. The same is true of other anti-Assad Islamist groups in Syria as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    It is only a matter of time now before Assad’s fall. The real competition is whether it will be the secular FSA and forces aligned with the west, the anti-Assad Islamist rebels, or ISIS that wins control of those cities. Certainly, most of the territory ISIS controls today is desert (and this is why their claims of establishing an authentic Khalifah are grossly exaggerated). It should also be noted that people tend to leave areas that are being constantly bombed from the sky. Thus, a lot of people have gone to Assad-controlled urban areas out of fear of Assad’s own aerial bombardment. Once Assad loses these cities…have no doubt that he will start dropping barrel bombs on them (and this has been the case in Idlib). Other portions of the population have fled to refugee camps, foreign countries, and other remote areas far from the fighting. This is something to consider as well when trying to determine numbers in the midst of a continuing civil war.

    From Nagasaki/Hiroshima to Shock-and-Awe to Assad’s Barrel Bombs – modern day aerial bombardment is how professional armed forces terrorize local populations and urban centers. Here is a good site (from among other similar sites) that keeps tabs on what areas are being controlled and by whom in Syria, Iraq, and other war fronts…

  7. Pacific says:

    Turkey is one of the most important ally’s in the region if they weaken in flood ISIS to Europe.

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