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Turkey and Kurds in the Middle East and the ‘Battle for Syria’ (Part 1 and Part 2)

By Robert Olson

January 16, 2016

As we start 2016 it is appropriate to again ask what challenges lie ahead for Turkey and for Kurds. I say “Kurds” referring to the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and within Turkey itself and its own challenging “Kurdish question.”

There are an estimated 9.5 million Kurds in 15 provinces of south-eastern Turkey. It seems that Turkey -- and by Turkey I mean the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- and the state's military, intelligence, security and police institutions intend to emasculate their political and civil institutions. Current differences between Kurds, state institutions and the AKP have intensified since peace talks collapsed in July 2015 and the AKP's solid victory in the Nov. 1, 2015 general election in which the AKP secured almost 50 percent of the vote. The conflict had intensified even before the election as the AKP ramped up its appeal to Turkish nationalists in efforts to secure their votes and gain acceptance for increasing its war against the PKK and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that up to 3,000 PKK militants have been killed since July. It was announced on Jan. 10, 2016 that 448 PKK members have been killed in operations since Dec. 15 in which some 200,000 people have been displaced. Intense fighting between the PKK and security forces has also led to the substantial destruction of sections of towns, including the major city of Diyarbakır: population 2 million.

The intensity and destruction of the current operations begs the question of what the AKP government policies are. It is always imprudent for journalists to predict outcomes of current battles between long-time adversaries. Current developments in Turkey however, especially in southeast Turkey and their role in the larger wars raging in Syria and Iraq, demand some attempts at explanation, as much is at stake, not only for Turks and Kurds but also for everyone in the Middle East.

It seems that Turkey is intent on decimating the PKK and the KCK, and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) now in Parliament. I say decimate because it is unlikely that Turkey can destroy the PKK and the KCK. It is able to destroy the HDP. The easiest way to do this is simply to have the Constitutional Court ban it. The court has done this several times in the past to various Kurdish political parties and the current situation, at least to the AKP and perhaps the state, seems more threatening with the AKP's proposed plans to institute a presidential system in Turkey either with the approval of Parliament or via a national referendum.

What Would Happen In The Case Of A Voter-Approved Presidential System

The implementation of a voter-approved presidential system would then allow for even more forceful polices towards Kurdish nationalist movements, especially the PKK and the KCK, and any political parties that the Kurds would be able to come up with unless such parties were complete pawns of the ruling president.

This is what seems to have given rise to AKP officials' statements that they intend to “bypass the most prominent Kurdish actors, [Abdullah] Ȍcalan, the PKK and the HDP, in favour of alternative groups, including clan structures, religious leaders, smaller parties and middle-class business circles'' as stated in the recent Internationals Crisis Group Report (Dec. 17, 2015).

The AKP and President Erdoğan seem to think this can be accomplished. Differences and fractionalism among the HDP, the PKK and the KCK, and among the Kurdish bourgeoisie in the Southeast and elsewhere in Turkey, including İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir and in other large cities outside of the Southeast, suggest that such bypassing policies could be successful or, at least, successful enough that the military, gendarmerie and national and state police would be able to “manage” whatever resulting resistance remained.

In order to accomplish the above it would seem crucial to the AKP and to the state not only to decimate the PKK, the KCK and the HDP to the fullest extent possible, but also to sever to the fullest extent possible the relationships between the PKK, the KCK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed force, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Ankara certainly wants to make sure that the YPG does not take over the 98-kilometer area stretching along the Turkey-Syria border which it needs to support allies and jihadist forces in Syria.

This is why Ankara does not look favourably on the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) largely made up of YPG forces with contingents of Arab tribesmen and Assyrians from northeast Syria opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra (Succour Front); Arar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) and the Jaysh al-Fath (The Army of the Conqueror) and positioning themselves to move on al-Rakka backed by the US.

This means that Washington is making a distinction between the PKK and the PYD/YPG. Washington's attempt to make distinctions between the PYD/YPG and the PKK of course holds no water in Ankara. Ankara knows who its primary enemies are and it is not the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are good reasons why Turkey has been supporting ISIL for several years, despite some recent attacks against it. In addition, Ankara supports Jabhat al-Nusra, Arar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fath, which are tied to the al-Qaeda network.

In spite of differences between Washington and Ankara regarding the prosecution of the “War against Terrorism” in Syria (and Iraq), it is quite possible that when the US and the “Coalition against ISIL” (including Turkey despite its reticence) think they have the jihadist forces in Syria under control, if not totally defeated, Ankara and Washington will continue to cooperate on many geopolitical and geo-strategic interests they, the EU and NATO share. One of the most important shared interests is the Russian presence in Syria.

Another shared interest of Turkey, the US and the EU is that not only should the Russian and Iranian presence in Syria be challenged -- through negotiations or by other (subversive) means -- in the wake of ISIL's defeat, but also that Syrian Arabs, especially Sunnis, should be aided to the fullest extent to resuscitate the economy in northern Syria and bring some relief to the Syrian refugees in Turkey and displaced peoples within Syria.

The 2.2 million or more Syrian refugees, their rehabilitation in Turkey and their return to Syria, especially northern Syria, is vitally important for Turkey's geopolitical and geo-economic projection of power, much like the importance of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is for Turkey's economic and geopolitical position in the Middle East.

There will be little room for the PYD/YPG in such a scenario.

This gives substance to the idea that “Large states have permanent interests and short-term alliances.”

Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.



Kurds, Turkey and Syria in the Middle East and the ’Battle for Syria’: (2)

By Robert Olson

February 08, 2016

In this piece I want to address further the topic of the situation of the Kurds as embedded in the evolving geopolitics of the Middle East, especially Turkey.

In the Jan. 17 edition of this newspaper, I quoted the Dec. 17, 2015 International Crisis Group report that said the policy of Turkey, or at least of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was “to bypass the most prominent Kurdish actors Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), in favour of alternative groups, including class structures, religious groups, smaller parties and middle class business circles.” The term “class structure” was apparently a reference to the lower middle class and lower classes of both Turks and Kurds who are tired and exhausted by the war between the Turkish state, Kurdish nationalist movements, and whatever classes or groups support them directly or indirectly, such as Turkish liberals and academics in particular.

The AKP also hopes to gain even more support than they received in the Nov. 1, 2015 election from the religious classes, whether Turkish or Kurdish, but especially from Kurds. This is apparently what Murat Yetkin was referring to in his article in Hürriyet Daily News on Jan. 20, 2016, when he quoted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as saying that “the people of the Southeast” have been sending messages to Ankara that the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] should “go on until the end.”

The reference to “religious groups” was an apparent reference not just to Turks, but also to Kurds of the Shafi'i and Hanefi schools of thought and Alevis, as well as Kurds who support the Hüda-Par extremist, largely Kurdish, political party and Kurds supporting the Village Guards (Köy Korucuları). The Turkish armed forces were sufficiently confident of the latter to deploy some of them to the fighting in the city of Diyarbakır. The most important statement from AKP officials was that they intend, or think they will be able to persuade or, even better, co-opt some elements of the Kurdish bourgeoisie in Diyarbakır, the Southeast and throughout Turkey. It is important to note that 9.5 million of the estimated 19 million Kurds in Turkey live outside the 15 provinces (iller) of the Southeast.

As quoted above, Erdoğan thinks that the “people of the Southeast” want the Turkish armed forces, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), national police, special teams and Esadullah (Islamist) forces to “go to the end,” meaning to completely emasculate the PKK, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) and the HDP, if possible. If the AKP was to decide to once again go to elections, it is possible, indeed probable, that the HDP would not be able to achieve the 10 percent threshold necessary to sit in Parliament. If another election were to occur, not just the HDP, but even the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) might not pass the 10 percent threshold. If either of these developments were to take place, the AKP would be home free to establish a presidential system. If such a system were to be created, it seems clear from the above analysis that all Kurdish political organizations, with the exception of those acquiescing to the AKP, would be completely marginalized in Kurdish political life.

No Room for Demands of Self-Government; Self-Defense; or Decentralization

There would certainly not be room for policies or demands of self-government, self-defence or decentralization. Decentralization has been one of the demands of Kurdish political parties since at least 2007. It is clear from the events of the past eight months that Turkey's objective is to prevent the above from happening.

In order to accomplish the above, it is also necessary for Turkey to weaken the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People's Protection Units (YPG), or even to destroy the YPG as an effective fighting force and sever its relationships with the PKK/KCK.

The challenge to Turkey and the AKP is whether or not, and to what extent, this will be allowed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in its war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It has been noted in the Turkish press by Cengiz Çandar (Radikal, Feb. 3) that Turkey faces challenges to the above stated policies in that the US is opposed to Ankara's policies toward the YPG and the 50,000 armed forces that it now commands in the guise of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Quwwat Suriya al-Demuqratiya (QSD) in Arabic and the Hezwen Suriya al-Demokratik (HSD) in Kurdish, which includes large numbers of Arabs, Arameans (Syriacs), Armenians and Turkmen.

For its part, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has stated that Ankara might be able to accept the PYD as an interlocutor, much like the AKP tolerates, unwillingly, the presence of the HDP in Parliament. However, this acceptance does not extend to the YPG as Ankara considers it a terrorist organization like the PKK.

It is clear from Çandar's report that Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, along with officials from the United Kingdom and France, visited the leadership of the PYD/YPG on Jan. 30-31 to discuss the role the YPG had in the upcoming battles against ISIL around Raqqa and Aleppo (the two cities where the SDF are sending deployments of men with cooperation from Russia and the ISSG). Of course, Iran is important as well, but it has no air force in Syria.

The challenge and conundrum for Ankara are to what extent it can tolerate the increasing importance of the PYD/ YPG. It was able to prevent their admission to the Geneva III talks by threatening to boycott the talks if the PYD/YPG were admitted. But despite this rejection, Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD still went to Geneva, and by all accounts he was listened to by officials at the talks, including Staffan de Mistura, the UN official heading the talks. Muslim seemed satisfied with what McGurk told the PYD/YPG officials in Rojava and what de Mistura told him in Geneva. It seems to have been decided that the PYD/YPG will be approved attendance to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich on March 11. We shall see.

The big question is: Will the ISSG, with whatever promises it makes to the PYD/YPG, be able to persuade Ankara that it is in its interest to allow the PYD/YPD-led SDF to play a major role in the fight against ISIL and to allow it in regions so close to the Turkish border? Will Ankara's war on or even defeat of the PKK/KCK in south-eastern Turkey help prove Turkey and the AKP's belief that the YPG, like the PKK, is a terrorist organization just like ISIL, a group the ISSG has declared war against?

There is an even bigger problem between the ISSG and Ankara. The bigger problem is that the major geopolitical threat, as Ankara and the AKP see it, is the challenge of not just the PKK/KCK but of a number of Kurdish nationalist organizations in Turkey and, indeed, large portions of Kurdish society at large. This includes increasing levels of dissatisfaction among Turks and disgruntlement among current as well as former officials of the AKP, such as Bülent Arınç, one of the principal founders of the AKP, that have differences with Erdoğan over a number of issues. One of these issues is how do deal with Kurdish challenges.

Concern Is Terrorism as US Defines It

Ankara must realize that the major concern of the US and the coalition against ISIL is of terrorism, as they define it, and not Ankara's polices of subduing Kurdish nationalism in whatever form it exists or might materialize from. Another concern must be the realization that not just Syria but all Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, are of lesser importance among US global geostrategic considerations than five years ago when the civil war in Syria commenced, although for global security issues, especially regarding oil and gas reserves, it remains significant. However, this could be said with or without the Saudi dynasty in charge. Apart from Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey are the most important countries for the US.

Turkey has other major concerns with Russia and its defence of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Besides the regional and geopolitical concerns Turkey has about Russia, such as its opposition to almost all Muslim nationalist movements in Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, is Russia's opposition to other Turkish policies.

Turkey must deal with the probability that relations between Ankara and Moscow will become more strained and that Russia might support Kurdish nationalist movements with greater strength, much like they did during the 1990s when Turkey was supporting the Chechens. It must be concerning to Ankara that the PYD/YPG leadership seeks good relations with Russia, the US, ISSG and the al-Assad regime. Russia's aerial bombardment of areas and towns in northwest Syria continues to send more refugees into Turkey.

For the time being, Turkey probably finds some succour in the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is aligned with Ankara for economic and political reasons. Indeed, Ankara might even support President Massoud Barzani's recent announcement that the KRG will have a referendum as to whether or not Iraqi Kurds want independence. Given the close relationship between Ankara and Arbil, it seems obvious that Ankara, if not publicly, will support the referendum.

In the fast changing developments in the Middle East, the KRG is now in control of 14 to 15 percent of Iraq, including valuable oil and gas fields, and it needs Turkey to be able transport the oil and gas to markets. The KRG will also be a valuable ally to Turkey in Ankara's efforts to control or even destroy the PKK/KCK as effective organizations. In return, Ankara will aid the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in projecting its power to Rojava.

It will be interesting to see whether Ankara deems the threat from the PYD/YPG and its relationship with the PKK/KCK strong enough to attack the PKK strongholds in the Kandil Mountains with the solid support of the KRG/KDP. And whether it thinks the threat big enough for it to move forces into Syria in the next two or three months.

Such a development would put the US-led ISSG, especially Western European countries, even more at odds with Turkey, a NATO member and a bulkhead against further flows of Syrian refugees to Europe. Such a development would also be a test for the international community, including the UN, NATO and the US-led ISSG, which claims it is fighting a “war against terrorism,” while a NATO country and EU applicant defends what it declares are its vital national security interests against terrorist organizations.

Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.