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Who is Turkey really fighting?

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkKurdistan
Who is Turkey really fighting?
Turkey said it joined the fight against ISIS and shelled the group across the border from the province of Kilis. But then it started bombing the PKK, the armed Kurdish group, as well. Who is Turkey really fighting, and why? Your Byline correspondent unravels.

(This story was originally published on, 28 July 2015)

A breathtaking view it was, the F16s passing in front of the waxing moon above Diyarbakir, heading southeast. One after another lifted off, twenty at least, first with a raging roar over the city, after that above the plains to the mountains across the border in Iraq. There they dropped their load, on the regions of Zap, Hakurk, Qadesh, Habur, Haftanin, Avasin and Amediye, all territory under military control of the PKK and where the organisation has its camps.

Honesty demands mention that there were also F16s heading southwest to bomb ISIS positions, right on the border of Kilis province. But that was just sputter compared to the downpour that landed on the PKK. Meanwhile, the narrative is that the Turkish government has finally decided to join the war against ISIS in full force. The country even has, after years of pressure from the United States, agreed to open up the important air base of Incirlik, close to the southern city of Adana, to American fighter jets that want to attack ISIS.

So who is Turkey really fighting?


Back to 20 July. Back to the town of Suruc, in Turkey some ten kilometres from Kobani, the Syrian-Kurdish city the Kurds managed to defend against an ISIS siege in late January.

‘Then it happened. A huge explosion. The bodies of the young people singing revolutionary songs were torn apart before they could finish the sentence ‘Long live the brotherhood of the peoples’. We picked up the parts of our friends with our hands. What kind of pain is this? Many of our friends were stuck underneath dead bodies. Can you imagine that? That you try to breathe while you are stuck under a comrade with whom you sang a song of struggle just a minute ago? I think that everybody, including myself, would rather be dead than experience something like that. I mean, I wish I had died.’

Fidan Kanlibas. Photo: Jinha news agency

Fidan Kanlibas, a young woman from Izmir on the Turkish west coast, shares her account of the ISIS attack on a group of activist youth with the Kurdish press agency Jinha. She herself was taken to the hospital wounded and was soon released again. The attack, it soon became clear, had been carried out by a Turk who had left for Syria six months earlier to join ISIS. Ten days earlier he had returned to his family home, but soon disappeared again.

Two of the young men from the group Fidan remembers, Osman Cicek (20) and Kasim Deprem (23), didn’t survive the attack. They are laid to rest the next day in Suruc. The atmosphere during the funeral is activist and defiant, but at the same time silently sad. There are slogans, in favour of the PKK but also against the AKP government and against ‘murderer Erdogan’. There is no fear of a new attack among the funeral attendants. ‘We are not afraid’, HDP MP Leyla Güven says, reacting to young men going through the bags of visitors they don’t know to check if there are any explosives in them. She keeps a paper handkerchief over her mouth as protection against the clouds of sand swirling around while the graves are being closed. ‘We take responsibility for our own safety because obviously we can’t trust the authorities for that.’

Alleged cooperation

The Kurdish political movement in Turkey, and the political party that grew from it, the HDP, has been claiming for months that Turkey supports ISIS directly. Not only now in the Suruc massacre, but also during an ISIS attack on Kobani on 25 June, in which some 250 civilians were murdered in cold blood and about 270 people were wounded. Also during the battle for Kobani between Kurdish forces and ISIS, between September last year and January, the alleged cooperation between Turkey and ISIS was often pointed out.  

HDP co-leader Figen Yüksekdag (photo left) said after the attack on Kobani at the end of June: ‘The gang which murdered civilians today is supported by Turkey and used for her own goals.’ Prime Minister Davutoglu, who stepped down after the parliamentary elections on 7 June but who stays in office until he has formed a new government or until new, early elections are called, answered: ‘Nobody can prove that Turkey was involved in the attack on Kobani. All accusations consist of nothing but insinuations and slander.’

He has a point there: there is no proof, also not for direct involvement of Turkey in the Suruc massacre. But that doesn’t mean that Turkey doesn’t have a huge problem. An image problem, says Turkey watcher and analyst Aaron Stein, of the Centre for Security Policy in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Atlantic Council in Washington: ‘Not only the Kurds believe that Turkey supports ISIS. I notice that when I talk to diplomats here in Geneva. Arab diplomats are deeply suspicious of what Turkey is doing and also in the highest regions of the American government, right up to the National Security Council of the White House, some wonder what Turkey’s stance towards ISIS is exactly.’

Two important goals

The opening of Incirlik helps to patch up that image, but the suspicion didn’t vanish like snow in the sun. That has everything to do with two important goals of Turkey’s Syria policy, which remain unchanged for the time being: President Assad has to go, and the Kurds can under no circumstances build autonomy.

The suspicion of some governments and the hard accusations of the Kurds in Turkey don’t come out of nowhere. Between 2011, when the Syrian civil war started, and last year, Turkey has done little to bother ISIS. In those years foreign fighters and Turkish citizens crossed the border into Syria to join ISIS (and other Islamic groups) by the thousands. Turkey was just watching it occur.

Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan (try to) pass through Turkey on the way to Kobani, October 2014   

But even more than that lack of action, the total aloofness of Turkey to the fate of the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, right at the Turkish border, is reason for suspicion. ISIS almost took over the city. Eventually the tide was only turned when the Americans came to the rescue of the Kurds with aerial attacks and after Turkey, under immense international pressure, opened the border with Iraqi Kurdistan and allowed the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross over Turkish territory into Kobani, with heavier weapons than had been available in Kobani up to then. Analyst Aaron Stein says: ‘The Turkish government didn’t do anything because it was in Turkey’s interest that ISIS and the YPG were killing each other.’

The words of HDP co-leader Figen Yüksekdag, that Turkey was using ISIS for its own goals, was, in other words, a bulls eye shot. The most important AKP newspaper, Sabah, recently even claimed in a headline: ‘The PYD is more dangerous than ISIS’. The PYD is the Democratic Union Party, the political power of the Kurds in Syria, the YPG are the People’s Liberation Units which are the armed counterpart of the PYD.

Very logical

It sounds miraculous to outsiders: the Kurdish armed forces which are so successful in their battles against ISIS and who are supported by the Americans with air raids and who install more democracy in the territories they control than the Middle-East has probably ever seen, are more dangerous than the sadistic and professionally and strategically trained fighting men of ISIS? Still, the Turkish vision is ‘very logical’, says Turkey watcher Aaron Stein: ‘The YPG and the PYD are affiliated with the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for more than thirty years. It’s Turkey’s known enemy.’

It’s an enemy the Turkish army hasn’t been able to defeat in thirty years and which is a strategical danger for Turkey’s interests: the hard Kurdish demand for autonomy is considered ‘separatism’, and thus a violation of the sacred unity of the Turkish state. While ISIS is considered more of a security threat, more precise a beatable security threat. Stein: ‘Security policy always builds on the worst case scenario. For Turkey that’s a border area in Syria that is entirely contolled by the Kurds, so if the three Kurdish areas in Syria are united.’

For Turkey the change of policy probably started with the conquest by the YPG of Tal-Abyad (Girespi in Kurdish), a majority Arab city right across the border from the Turkish town of Akcakale which has been in ISIS hands for a long time.

Map of the current (but ever changing) situation in Syria. The Euphraat clearly marking the western border of the Kurdish territories, and Afrin canton in the west. Map via Wikipedia, user ‘North’   

For ISIS the loss of Tal-Abyad was a serious blow because it meant an important place on the way to their unofficial capital of Raqqa was blocked. In the Turkish capital of Ankara alarm bells went off because the YPG had managed to connect two autonomous Kurdish areas, the ‘cantons’ of Cizire and Kobani. Suddenly the Kurds controlled a huge part of the border region. What if the Kurds were to push further westwards with the help of American bombing, and cross the river Euphrates, in the direction of the third canton, Afrin, in the west? Then the whole of northern Syria along the Turkish border would be in Kurdish hands.

Aaron Stein: ‘And then imagine the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state, which has been holding for two and a half years now, ending and the war flaring up in Turkey. Then of course such an autonomous Kurdish area of some four hundred kilometres would be an enormous security problem for Turkey’.

Flat and bare

All of this is, by the way, denied by the PYD, YPG and the Kurdish movement in Turkey. Ertugrul Kürkcü, lawmaker for the HDP, tells Beaconreader: ‘Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan, FG) has it hands full. The YPG is never a threat to Turkey. The border between Rojava and Turkey isn’t about military goals for us; it’s about economic aid to the areas in Syria and about social ties between people on this side of the border and the other side. By the way’, he asks, ‘has the PKK ever attacked Turkey from Syrian territory? No, not even when PKK leader Öcalan was still based there until the end of the nineties.’
True: the Syrian-Turkish border is flat and bare and thus unsuitable for infiltration by guerrillas. For that very reason the PKK always used the mountains on the border with Iraq as its operating base for attacks on Turkish territory.

However, Turkey thought of a ruse.

The area between Cizire/Kobani and Afrin had to be secured. But crossing the border with the Turkish army was absolutely not an option, however wild the Turkish papers speculated about it (and still do). It would get Turkey involved in a war that would cost the lives of many soldiers on foreign soil, while the stream of martyred soldiers had just dried up because of the ceasefire with the PKK. Besides Turkish soldiers, as well as YPG fighters could become victims of the emerging battle if the Turks were to set foot on Kurdish soil. Which would no doubt lead to intense anger among Kurds in Turkey.

But also from a military perspective a Turkish action inside Syria was completely unrealistic, says analyst Aaron Stein: ‘According to leaked scenarios for a buffer zone that Turkey would want to install and which have been going around for years, it’s an area of about 110 kilometres long, starting west of the Euphrates river, and 33 kilometres deep. Jarablus and Manbij are in that area, both cities where ISIS is very well entrenched. So that would mean a war at street level between the Turkish army and ISIS, a battle which Turkey is not sure to win. Impossible.’

Influx of refugees

Add to that the new influx of refugees that military action would cause in Turkey’s direction. Turkey reached its maximum capacity for the sheltering of refugees long ago and doesn’t get enough help from the west to facilitate all the fleeing Syrians. Also, the Turkish population is increasingly complaining about the by now 1.8 million Syrian refugees, whose arrival has raised housing prices and decreased wages.

So it was important to make sure the Kurds didn’t advance further, and to achieve that, both the PYD/YPG and the US, who after all support the Kurdish troops, had to be pressured. Thus the build-up of troops at the border, which was started early July. Analyst Aaron Stein: ‘After the ISIS attack on civilians in Kobani at the end of June, the American army carried out bombing in the Jarablus vicinity, but this halted after the Turks increased pressure.’ Most likely already in those days an agreement was made about American access to Incirlik, and the bureaucratic process in Ankara to make it possible was speeded up after the Suruc massacre, but probably even more so after the PKK’s retaliation for it, in which two policemen were executed. Also the ISIS attack against the Turkish army near the border at Kilis made it once again necessary for Turkey to take the battle against ISIS more seriously.

By the way, according to Stein the Kurds had no intentions at the beginning of the month to cross the Euphrates, and they don’t intend to: ‘The YPG is at the limits of its military capabilities. Also, the YPG can’t take over Jarablus and Manbij, let alone the city Azaz, which is also on the route to Afrin.’

There are rumours of an agreement between the PYD and the Turkish government, that the Kurds remain east of the Euphrates river. HDP MP Ertugrul Kürkcü can’t confirm that, but says: ‘Salih Müslim (co-leader of the PYD, FG) visits Turkey often and speaks with government representatives. I have no information about a deal, but if there was a deal, it would only be a reflection of the status quo.’

HDP's Ertugrul Kürkcü

He doesn’t deny that the Kurds would love to connect their third canton to Cizire and Kobani: ‘The goal, the historical goal, is the unification of Kurdish areas’. But isn’t the area that is now in ISIS hands, the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s government troops, Arab land rather than Kurdish? Kürkcü: ‘Arabs are in the majority there now, but historically it’s Kurdish soil that was Arabized by demography politics. If the Kurds took it over, of course the Arabs and other groups wouldn’t have to leave. They would get their place in the administration, just like in other Arabized Kurdish areas that are now in Kurdish hands, like Girespi.’

Because of the suspicion about Turkey’s Syria policy that is also felt in the American government, Turkey did have to pay a price: a tougher stance against ISIS. Which means legal action against ISIS recruters in Turkey, better securing of the border so foreign ISIS wannabees can’t reach Syria. Ertugrul Kürkcu: ‘In the build-up of troops at the border the measures against both the YPG and ISIS come together.’ Since early July dozens of Turkish and foreign ISIS recruiters were arrested and in house raids weapons and battle fatigues were seized. Also websites which were used to recruit new ISIS fighters, were blocked on court order.
And, of course, the opening of the Icirlik air base for American F16s and drones, which from there can gather intelligence much faster and bomb targets more effectively than was possible with F16’s leaving from carriers in the Gulf zone, as was the case up until now.

Confirmed and denied

The deal at the same time gives Turkey a free hand against the PKK. Besides the military operations on camps in the north of Iraq, in waves of arrests last weekend and last week more than a thousand people were arrested, amongst whom, besides ISIS members, many PKK sympathisers and HDP members. The bombings of PKK camps continued over the weekend. That the American government gave implicit or explicit permission for the tough approach towards the PKK, which is after all the big brother of the YPG, its ally against ISIS, is both confirmed and denied by Brett McGurk, the deputy special envoy of the coalition against ISIS.

He aired a series of tweets on Sunday 26 July, in which he first condemned the ‘terrorist attacks’ of the PKK and fully respected the Turkish ‘right to self defence’. After that he stated that there is no connection between the bombings of PKK territory and the recent deals to intensify the American-Turkish cooperation against ISIS. But whether the US gave their green light or not, they could not object to the attacks anyway, even if they considered it dangerous for their alliance with the YPG and thus for their war against ISIS. After all, the PKK is also on the American (and European) lists of terrorist organisations. Apparently the opening of Incirlik gains more than the renewed Turkish war against the PKK might cost.

Turkish ruse succeeded. And the Turkish government hits another bird with this stone. New elections seem inevitable now that the coalition talks are bleeding to death. It is still President Erdogan’s biggest wish to install a presidential system in Turkey, with himself ruling. Which is only possible if the HDP doesn’t again crash through the 10% threshold in new elections, possibly to be held in November. And what pulls Turks who gave their vote to the Kurds for the first time in the last elections effectively away from the HDP? ‘Terrorist’ violence. And just maybe it also draws some nationalist voters back to the AKP. Votes of those who switched to the ultra nationalist MHP because of the peace process that was still somewhat alive at the beginning of June and which the MHP opposes. That peace process is over now, as is the ceasefire.

And the Kurds? They are once again confronted with an old truth. They have no friends but the mountains.

The Dutch version of this story was published in Dutch weekly magazine Groene Amsterdammer, in the issue of 30 July 2015. Read it here.

#Turkey, #Daesh, #ISIS, #PKK, #Syria, #Suruc massacre, #Rojava