Will Erdogan’s Turkey Frustrate Kurdish Recognition in the War Against ISIS?

by Jerry Gordon (August 2015)

A series of suicide bombings in Suruc, Turkey July 20, 2015 triggered a major change in the Erdogan AKP participation in the US-led coalition effort to combat ISIS. The suicide bombing in the Turkish border town of Suruc directly across from Kobani this Thursday killed 32 and injured 100 of a Socialist group gathered to assist in the rebuilding of the devastated Kurdish community in Syria. The bomber was later identified through DNA analysis as Turkish University student, probably an ISIS returnee from Syria. The Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) accursed the Turkish police of being complicit in the bombing and killed two Turkish police officers in retaliation. Erdogan then opened up operations from Turkish air bases. The air attacks unleashed in both Syria and Iraq by Turkey's air force were directed at both ISIS targets and Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) combat units in both Syria and Iraq.

Turkey requested an emergency meeting of the NATO Council in Brussels on July 28th under Article 4, calling for a statement of support from the 28  members. After a brief meeting of the NATO Ambassadors, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced  “strong solidarity and the security of the alliance is indivisible." His statement condoned Turkey attacking “terrorists,” meaning both the Islamic State and the PKK Kurdish forces. Notwithstanding this statement, the AP reported a sense of “unease” among officials who met in a closed door session. According to a senior NATO official the group cautioned Turkey against “use of excessive force in reaction to terror attacks, while urging it to continue peace efforts with representatives of the Kurdish minority.” 

The BBC reported:

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara that it was "not possible to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood".

Later on Tuesday, Turkey's military reported that it had used fighter jets to target Kurdish rebels after its soldiers were attacked in Sirnak province, near the country's border with Iraq.

In a statement quoted by the Associated Press news agency, it said the Kurdish militants had fired on Turkish soldiers with heavy weaponry.

The leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party - the People's Democratic Party (HDP) - dismissed the Mr Erdogan's comments.

HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas insisted his party's only crime was winning 13% of the vote in June elections, according to comments reported Reuters news agency.

A BBC report showed gun camera video of air attacks on the PKK command headquarters on Qandil Mountain in Northern Iraq. 

The move by Erdogan signals an intrusive role by NATO ally Turkey seeking to upend burgeoning US support for highly effective Kurdish fighting units. The Kurdish role as the effective boots on the ground in combating ISIS in both Syria and Iraq were recently acknowledged by US Secretary of Defense Carter and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey in Senate Armed Services Hearings. Discussions were underway between Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government and Peshmerga representatives with President Obama and National Security aides in May 2015 for possible supply of quality weapons and equipment.

A report concerning a possible Turkish move to establish a buffer zone in Syria may have prefigured these dramatic developments. The rapprochement between the Obama Administration and Erdogan’s Turkey may frustrate Congressional efforts seeking to provide direct military aid to Kurdish resistance forces combating ISIS. Further, there had been suggestions of possible de-listing of the PKK as a terrorist group by the State Department. Given comments by White House NSC staff in support of the Turkish air strikes against the PKK those positive developments may have been shelved in order to gain access to Turkish air fields for a more effective air and drone campaign against ISIS. Turkey is still considered complicit in support for ISIS activities. Moreover, Erdogan may be unnerved by the Obama White House rapprochement with Iran over the UN endorsed nuclear weapons pact. However, the reality is that neither Turkey nor the US have committed ground forces, aside from training personnel in the instance of the US for Iraqi national forces. Kurdish YPG and Peshmerga forces had provided those boots on the ground pushing back ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Their heroic effort has been fully recognized by senior US military officials and commanders of the coalition forces.

What the Deal was between Obama and Erdogan Opening Turkish Air Bases

The Institute of War provided background on these development in an article, Turkey Expands Campaign against ISIS and the PKK:

Turkey began launching airstrikes and internal crackdowns targeting members of both ISIS and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the wake of several days of violence which included an ISIS-linked SVEST attack inside Turkey and several PKK-linked assassinations of Turkish police officers. Turkey’s decision to escalate against both militant groups suggests that Turkey intends to leverage the coalition’s calls for further action against ISIS in order to assert its own strategic interest in limiting the expansion of armed Kurdish groups along the Turkish border.

A Fox News report revealed White House support for the Erdogan air attacks on Kurdish and ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq:

The White House said late on July 25th Turkey has the right to defend itself against terror attacks by Kurdish rebels, after bombing Kurds in northern Iraq.

The strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, muddle the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. The U.S. has relied on Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK to carry out attacks against ISIS militants.

Turkish jets hit shelters and storage facilities belonging to the PKK in seven areas in northern Iraq, including Mount Quandil where the group’s headquarters are located, authorities said. It was Turkey’s first aerial raid in northern Iraq against the PKK since Turkey brokered peace talks with the Kurds in 2012. The PKK declared a cease-fire in 2013.

Commentator Patrick Smith in a Fiscal Times column viewed this deal as a “short term gain, long term loss.”

Erdo?an isn’t bombing ISIS alone. He instantly took the new pact as license to resume Turkey’s long campaign against the Kurds—within and beyond its borders.

Turkish authorities have arrested hundreds of “extremist militants” in the past few days, nearly 600 by the government’s count. From a well placed source in Istanbul: “About 20 supporters of Daesh [the Arabic for ISIS] were taken in and about 200 were Kurdish militants.”

“Could Washington's tacit toleration of the PKK strikes have been the price of Ankara's involvement against ISIS?” the BBC’s Mark Lowen asks. In the question lies the answer.

You must know the punch line here: The Kurds are key allies in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS in Iraq, especially in the northern regions of the country.

Smith concludes:

The Obama administration gives no indication of a long-term strategy to stabilize the Middle East’s arc of crisis. Short-term gain, long-term loss: This is the fruit of Washington’s recruitment of Turkey into the Middle East’s widening war.

Turkish President Erdogan 7-24-15.jpeg

Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Ankara, July 24, 2015

Erdogan Treachery Revealed

A  Gatestone Institute article by Uzay Bulent revealed the extent of Erdogan’s treachery behind the bombing campaign against Syrian and Iraqi PKK targets as a pretext for alleged attacks against ISIS, Turkey Uses ISIS as Excuse to attack Kurds. Bulent reports:

Turkey's government seems to be waging a new war against the Kurds, now struggling to get an internationally recognized political status in Syrian Kurdistan.

Turkey is evidently unsettled by the rapprochement the PKK seems to be establishing with the U.S. and Europe. Possibly alarmed by the PKK's victories against ISIS, as well as its strengthening international standing, Ankara, in addition to targeting ISIS positions in Syria, has been bombing the PKK positions in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK headquarters are located.

As expected, many Turkish media outlets were more enthusiastic about the Turkish air force's bombing the Kurdish militia than about bombing ISIS. "The camps of the PKK," they excitedly reported, "have been covered with fire."

Shortly after military operations against the PKK started, access to the websites of pro-Kurdish newspapers and news agencies was denied "by decree of court." These websites -- including F?rat News Agency (ANF), Dicle News Agency (DIHA), Hawar News Agency (ANHA), Ozgur Gundem newspaper, Yuksekova News, Rudaw and BasNews -- are still blocked in Turkey.

ISIS, meanwhile, has not so far made any statement regarding Turkey's so-called bombings of ISIS in any of its media outlets.

Erdogan is clearly engaged in dropping the 2013 cease fire agreement with the Kurds. They have PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan under House arrest in Turkey. A new Kurdish political party, the HDP, has won some seats in the Ankara parliament and the Kurdich victories against the Islamic State by Syrian YPG fighting units are clearly making them nervous. The PKK militia, the People's Protection Units in Syria (YPG) successfully beat back ISIS control of Kobani across the border from Suruc in Turkey. More recently, the YPG succeeded in seizing Tal Abyad on the critical highway between Turkey and the ISIS administrative Capital at Raqaa.   

As to Erdogan’s motivations Bulent wrote:

The AKP government, dissatisfied with the results of last month's parliamentary elections, also seems to want to hold new elections, to push the mainly Kurdish HDP Party below the required 10% threshold, and thus force them out of parliament. Perhaps the government thinks that bombing the PKK will generate Turkish nationalist enthusiasm that will work in the AKP's favor to help it regain a majority in early elections.

Sadly, Turkey has preferred not to form a "Turkish-Kurdish alliance" to destroy ISIS. First, Turkey has opened its borders to ISIS, enabling the growth of the terrorist group. And now, at the first opportunity, it is bombing the Kurds again. According to this strategy, "peace" will be possible only when Kurds submit to Turkish supremacism and abandon their goal of being an equal nation.

Kurdish forces are the only ones that are truly resisting the Islamic State.

Zind Ruken PKK women fighters Sinjar Mountain Iraq  Source Wsj.com
Zind Ruken and fellow PKK fighters waiting for battle call on Sinjar Mountain
Source: WSJ.com

The Maoist Ideology that binds the Greater Kurdistan PKK Fighters

Some insight into the PKK commitment fighting  ISIS was the subject of a Wall Street Journal profile of a 24 year old Kurdish Iranian woman PKK fighter with the nom de guerre, Zind Ruken, in Kurdish meaning, “alive smiling.” Ms. Ruken had been engaged in the rescue of the religious minority Kurdish speaking Yazidis from the redoubt of Sinjar Mountain along the northern Iraq border with Syria. The profile revealed the Maoist agrarian, secular, gender equality ideology espoused by Abdullah Ocalan under the Doctrine of Democratic Conferderalism that unites Kurdish men and women in regional transnational fighting groups. It also demonstrates the common linguistic and cultural values among the various Marxist groups in Greater Kurdistan spawned by Ocalan in 2005 from his jail in Turkey: the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey (PKK), the Peoples Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG) in Iraq and the Party of Free Life in Iranian Kurdistan (PJAK). Ms. Ruken in the WSJ profile commented:

"It’s all PKK but different branches,” Ms. Ruken said, clad in fatigues in her encampment atop Sinjar Mountain this spring as a battle with Islamic State fighters raged less than a mile away at the mountain’s base. “Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK, sometimes I’m an YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”

Are they Terrorists? Ms. Ruken commented:

"People look at us as if we’re terrorists and they put us on this blacklist. We’re not terrorists. The Kurds know what we are fighting for. They know we will give our souls for them."

A PKK spokesman Zagros Hiwa cited in the WSJ article said:

"We have been defending our people against the denial and elimination policies of the Turkish state against the Kurds. Our struggle has always been on the basis of legitimate self-defense."

Obama in 2013 committed to continue counterterrorism efforts with the Turkish regime against the Kurds. The Bush Administration had established an intelligence fusion center in Ankara to update information on PKK activities.

When it comes to the PKK Syrian militia force, the YPG, US Officials have nothing but praise.

Henri Barkey, a former State Department analyst on Turkey now at Lehigh University said, “The U.S. has become the YPG’s air force and the YPG has become the U.S.’s ground force in Syria.” As senior defense official said, “These guys don’t exactly wear patches identifying what groups they’re fighting for, but they are fighting the right guys.”

Nevertheless, the PKK Marxist Kurdish fighters have differences with both Syrian and Iraqi Peshmerga fighting units. While the Peshmerga forces are a mix of nominal Sunni Muslim and secular, they do not hold to the cult-like Maoist doctrine espoused by Ocalan of PKK. There is competition between these Kurdish fighting groups for weapons from US and NATO members to replace aging Soviet era assault rifles and heavy machine guns with more contemporary weapons, especially anti-tank weapons. More troubling, especially in Syria, there is the suspicion that the YPG may have been conducting operations with the tacit support of the Assad regime. In our July NER article, Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdish National Assembly of Syria (KUDNAS) commented:

KUDNAS and the Kurdish National Council represent more than 15 political parties and many organizations, 123 major tribes and religious leaders and many other civic leaders. So we coordinate and work together. We showed up on Capitol Hill, stressing our views that the Kurds are the people with boots on the ground, an estimated 20,000 fighters to push ISIS. However we cannot do it for two reasons; we don’t have the equipment and we don’t want to coordinate with the Assad regime and the YPG.

Watch this Wall Street Journal video profile and interview with PKK fighter Ms. Ruken:

Conclusion:

The earnest hope that the Kurds might have been close to obtaining US support for becoming an independent pro-Western entity could well be dashed. That objective may now be beyond realization, given the militant opposition of Erdogan’s Islamist Turkey. It is compounded by the Administration’s current regional objective to maintain a good relationship with this problematic NATO ally. The Administration is preoccupied with rapprochement with apocalyptic Shiite Iran as exemplified in the controversial UN-endorsed nuclear pact. The events of late July that triggered Turkish air attacks against the Kurdish PKK forces were done as a pretext for joining the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. Kurdish mettle shown in battles in both Syria and Iraq pushing back the Salafist Islamic State demonstrate they are the most effective boots on the ground. They lost the opportunity for an Independent Kurdistan because of the objections of Turkey, Iran and the UK in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne. It may be left to the next US Administration to assist in achieving that goal for this valued ally in the troubled Middle East.

 

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