By Taj Hashmi
05 August, 2015
Turkish air force’s latest bombing of ISIS positions in Syria, and its simultaneous bombing of Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, and its asking for a no-fly zone for Syrian air force in the border region between Turkey and Syria are both enigmatic and counterproductive for a durable peace in the sub region. As these attacks and their specious justifications are grossly unwarranted, so are they neither surprising nor unexplainable.
However, the Obama Administration, which defied the hawkish opposition at home and abroad and signed the historic Nuclear Deal with Iran, seems to have condoned the crypto-Islamist and authoritarian President Erdogan’s military adventure in Iraq. His bombing the Kurdish forces – who have been fighting the ISIS terrorists in northern Iraq – amounts to supporting the terrorists. The US support for Erdogan’s monstrosity is astounding. As one analyst has argued: “Turkey’s opportunistic decision to conflate the risks posed by the Islamic State with its three-decade conflict with Kurdish separatists could set back the broader efforts of the American-led coalition.”
One may justify Erdogan’s decision to bomb ISIS positions seemingly in retaliation against the apparently confirmed, recent “ISIS attacks” in Turkey. However, it is difficult to rule out the purported “ISIS attacks” as a false flag operation by the Turkish government. ISIS seems to have no compelling reasons to attack Turkey, which was a safe haven for foreign Islamist fighters who freely moved into Syria through its territory since the beginning of the Syrian civil war until the recent past.
The answer to the question as to why Turkey bombed Kurdish positions in northern Iraq is not that plain and simple. If Turkey is genuinely interested in crushing the ISIS, it has no reasons to attack the Kurdish militias who have been the main bulwark against the ISIS in northern Iraq. However, there are convincing answers to all the above questions, and also to the question as to why Turkey wants to enforce a no-fly zone for Syrian air force across the Syria-Turkey border.
There are different versions of the stories. They are very different from what the Turkish Government is trying to sell to the world since it started bombing Syria and northern Iraq last Friday, July 24th. The crafty and crypto-Islamist Erdogan simply wants a safe haven for the Islamist rebels in Syria. His preference for the ISIS to the Kurdish State, as espoused by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is not unknown.
More than 40,000 people died in the thirty-year long PKK-led rebellion (1984-2013) against the Turkish state, which denied the Kurds – between 10 and 25 per cent of the population – equal rights and opportunities. The PKK is in peace with Turkey, after the PKK and the Turkish Government signed a ceasefire agreement in 2013
After signing the agreement, the PKK slowly withdrew its fighters to the Kurdish districts of northern Iraq with a view to ending the long-drawn war with Turkey. The arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic PKK leader in 1999, had already demoralized many PKK fighters. Although PKK has renounced violence and does not want to curve out a Kurdish state out of Turkey, yet Erdogan seems to be worried about the emergence of independent Kurdistan out of Kurdish territories in Iraq and Syria. The PKK has its Syrian offshoot called the People’s Protection Units or YPG, which is friendly to the US and fighting against the Assad regime, but is also striving for a Kurdish homeland, free from Syrian occupation.
Erdogan seems to have allowed the US to use Turkish air bases to bomb ISIS strongholds in the region, on the condition that Washington would not restrain Turkey from attacking Kurdish forces within and beyond Turkey. The New York Times (July 27, 2015) has aptly illustrated the equation: “Having sought Turkey’s greater involvement in Syria for a long time, American officials appear reluctant to criticize Turkey’s bombing of the P.K.K. …. the United States played no role in the airstrikes against the Kurdish group, but recognized Turkey’s ‘right to self-defence’.”
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s military adventurism will eventually become a costly misadventure for Turkey. While Washington and the NATO have favoured the Turkish bombing of ISIS positions in Syria, and Kurdish positions in Iraq, analysts across the board are wary about the outcome of the Turkish attacks on Kurdish territories in Iraq. If Turkey does not stop attacking the Kurds right now, the dormant Kurdish fighters are most likely to retaliate against Turkey. Ominously, both the Turkish Government and the Kurdish authorities in Turkey and Iraq declared in the wake of the Turkish attacks of Kurdish positions in Iraq that the truce was over.
As Erdogan wants to contain the PKK, so is he eager to destroy the base of the fast rising pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. The HDP has a wider base beyond the Kurdish minority, among ethnic Turks as well. On the one hand, by breaking the truce with the PKK, Erdogan aims at crushing the PKK once for all. By neutralizing the PKK, it seems, he hopes to counterbalance the HDP support among ethnic Turks and Kurds in Turkey. While analysts considered the HDP as Erdogan’s “nightmare” before the Parliamentary elections in June this year, in the wake of the elections, the Party emerged as a “menace” to the President’s Islamist authoritarianism.
The HDP with popular support among Kurdish and non-Kurdish populations in Turkey eroded Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) absolute majority in the Parliament in the Elections last June. The HDP polled more than 13 per cent of the votes, and captured 80 seats in a parliament of 550. The AKP fell short of the needed 276 seats to get an absolute majority. It polled 41 per cent of the votes and captured 258 seats. Erdogan’s dream to become a strong “executive president” by amending the Constitution with a two-thirds majority in the Parliament has been dashed.
Erdogan’s military ventures against the Kurds– if not stopped immediately – are bound to backfire; and Turkey is likely to face terrorist attacks for an indefinite period. Instead of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s unjust invasions of Kurdish territories in Iraq, the Obama Administration must restrain the hawkish Turkish regime for the sake of a durable and just peace. Washington should realize that Erdogan’s strategy is as counterproductive as that of the Saudi regime. As Saudi attacks against Yemeni Shiites have indirectly strengthened the ISIS and other Sunni militants in the region, so are Erdogan’s attacks on Kurdish forces in Iraq and Turkey likely to benefit the ISIS and other obscurantist forces in the region.
The US has a responsibility and the capability to stabilize the entire region, which, thanks to its invasions and regime-change dictum since long, is one of the most turbulent regions in the world. Instead of trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad to make another fractured entity like Iraq or Libya out of Syria, it is time to engage Saudi, Iranian, Turkish and other regional governments to destroy the ISIS, al Qaeda and other menacing threats to peace instead of overthrowing Assad.
The US allocated millions to train up 3,000 “secular fighters” in Syria to topple the Assad regime by the end of this year, but it has managed to train up only 60 Syrians to date at a cost of $500 million. The US has already spent a staggering $3.2 billion in its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria – spending around $9.4 million a day – to overthrow the elusive Islamic State. Money and military hardware alone failed to have resolved any major problem in the region. The US must restrain the Turkish, Saudi and Israeli regimes, seemingly the most destabilizing ones in the entire Middle Eastern and Central Asian regions.
Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.