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“Kurdish conundrum” of Middle East: Turkey imposing its game on U.S.

Photo: radiovesti.ru

On August 12, the United States launched its first manned air strikes against the Islamic State targets in Syria from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.  A year of insistent demands from Ankara to provide the Base for the so-called anti-Jihadist mission in Syria has finally brought its fruits.  Not only U.S. has managed to get Turkey’s sanction for launching strikes from the military base located in the Turkish province of Adana, but also persuaded its NATO ally in the Middle East to lift the requirements earlier made by Ankara. To recall, Turkey was insisting on exclusively unmanned missions against the Islamic State ground targets from the Incirlik Base. However, U.S. launched its first airstrikes in the geographically expanded mission by F-16 fighter jets (1).

Soon after the Turkish Army joined the military phase of the conflict against the IS, it became evident that the Islamic militants are not the prior target of Turkey.  Jihadists did not feel the combat power of the Turkish Air Force and shock troops, as Turkey’s fight against them was just imitation. The Turkish forces launched real strikes on the other front and against other forces. The ratio of Turkey’s air strikes and artillery barrage against the IS targets in Syria to those against the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) forces in the north of Iraq was 1 to 100. The ratio of human losses of the Islamic State and PKK is almost the same. Turkish experts speak of a dozen of killed Islamic militants and hundreds of destroyed PKK fighters. While the Turkish Kurds at Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, have been falling under strong waves of air strikes and artillery shelling for already a month (since July 24), the IS militants have suffered no serious damage from the episodic raids of Turkey’s Air Force.

Turkey’s plans for the near future are quite evident. It is important for Ankara not to let the military actions against the PKK units to spill over into the southeastern provinces of Turkey. So far, Kurds retaliate with localized strikes on the checkpoints and patrols of the Turkish army and gendarmerie and with subversive attacks on the local energy communications. To launch an armed conflict on the front, Abdullah Ocalan’s organization has no sufficient resources.  However, in case of protracted military actions, Turkey may face a full-scale partisan war. In such case, PKK may find mobilization resources in the southeastern provinces populated with Kurds. This is what Ankara must prevent.

From the viewpoint of both domestic and foreign policy, the situation is quite favorable for the Turkish authorities. On November 1, Turkey will hold snap elections, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has all chances to enlist the support of more voters. According to the latest polls conducted in Turkey, the bombardments of Kurdish targets have already helped AKP gain a certain number of votes from the nationalist camp, first.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rating is growing amid falling trust of the Kurdish voters in the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP).

The situation on the southern borders of Turkey is not so clear, but it will hardly make any unpleasant surprises to Ankara. Turkey’s NATO partners have already made a kind of demarche by removing from combat duty the Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems. Many in Turkey interpreted that step as demonstration of discontent at Ankara’s actions against Kurds in the north of Iraq despite the calls of the United States.

Disregarding the current relations of Turkey with U.S. and other NATO partners, one can state for sure that Ankara is so far taking advantage of the mess in the anti-Jihadist coalition.  “U.S. & Co” lacks any exact plan of the fight against the IS. They cannot even imagine their immediate steps in Syria, where they need someone to rely on, but that ‘one’ is not known yet.  This proves one of the geopolitical axioms of the Middle East saying that in case of any large-scale destabilization in the region, Turkey’s role grows sharply and U.S. cannot but reckon with it.  They can press Turkey and even get certain concessions from it, but it is impossible to ignore NATO’s Middle East ground flank having the second strongest army in the Alliance. 

Following the first rule of the regional power claiming an independent choice, Turkey protects its ‘geopolitical investments.’ Ankara waited too long before it could start settling accounts with PKK under the pretense of fighting against the IS. At the same time, Turkey has confirmed its image of a complicated actor even for its NATO partners, including U.S.

Turkey hurries to dictate its game to its opponents or partners every time when occasion offers. This time, Turkey came out with at once several initiatives in Syria thereby discouraging the United States. Ankara began to promote its idea to give the Ahrar ash-Sham group – part of Jaish al-Fatah (The Army of Conquest), the united front of the anti-Assad forces in the northwest of Syria – with functions of ‘the local police’ in the eastern part of Aleppo province. Meantime, the United States is unwilling to coordinate its actions with Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that is under influence of another extremist organization having close ties with Al Qaeda.  Ahrar ash-Sham commanders have recently disseminated a statement hailing the establishment of a security zone in Syria. It cannot go unnoticed that Turkey has had influence also in the north of Syria where it searches for partners to promote its idea of land buffer in the dialogue with U.S. Someone should conduct field activity in the buffer territories, come out inside Syria as a power providing security within the zone of its responsibility. Ankara tries to persuade Washington that there are ‘moderate’ opposition groups in Syria and they can assume that mission and push the local Kurds into the background.

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U.S. unwillingly supported Turkey’s intrusive demands to create a “security zone.” Unwillingly, but going on a leash of its Middle East partner, Barack Obama’s administration supported the operation of Turkish forces against PKK.  The United States recognized it as a terrorist organization, which leaves it no choice but to watch from the sidelines how Turkish authorities try to destroy that party. At the same time, U.S. insists that the fight against IS in Syria is a priority for it and tries to make Turkey do the same. The raids of Turkey’s F-16 fighters in the Iraqi Kurdistan are not what U.S. seeks in the region.

In these contradictory interests, Obama’s Administration and Erdogan’s government did found a common platform. They have decided to separate the military organizations of Turkish Kurds (PKK) and the major military-political organization of Syrian Kurds –Democratic Union Party (PYD). Leading Washington experts in Turkey highlight this moment of the U.S.-Turkish rapprochement on at least one issue (2).  

Kurdish rebels in Syria are actually the only organized force in the north of that Arab state opposing the IS and enjoying the open support of the United States. For some obvious reasons, U.S. cannot show such “favors” to Bashar al-Assad’s government troops, another anti-Jihadist force.  Therefore, Washington got “a concession” from Ankara – it undertook a secret commitment not to bomb the Syrian Kurds.  It is another matter that Turks may not remain committed to their promise. It has been reported that the Turkish Air Force has several times attacked the positions of the PYD in Syria “by mistake.”

Obviously, when Kurds in the north of Iraq and southeast of Turkey are attacked, while other representatives of that indigenous people of the Middle East in Syria enjoy “most favored nation treatment” of the United States, it cannot but affect the unity of Kurds in the region. The efforts of the United States and Turkey to gain upon the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan once again proves their policy of splitting the Kurds into “good” and “bad” ones.

The Kurdish government in Erbil has never been happy with the presence of its Turkish compatriots at Mount Qandil.  President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani has repeatedly stressed the need to withdraw the PKK fighters from the northern districts of the autonomous region. In this light, the stands of Ankara and Erbil coincide. U.S. comes out for PKK’s withdrawal from the Iraqi Kurdistan too.

U.S. offers Barzani to focus on the fight against the IS within Iraq and not to think of supporting the Syrian Kurds. Instead, U.S. promises the leader of Iraq Kurdistan to increase the military aid and political support at the stage when Barzani will need help to retain his grip on power. Immediately after U.S. launched air strikes from the Incirlik Base in Turkey, a representative delegation of the United States rushed to Erbil. Washington’s envoys met with wide range local political forces and promoted the idea of extending the term of the incumbent president of Iraqi Kurdistan. They substantiated the idea with the upcoming battle for Mosul saying “changing horses in the midstream” is not a good idea in such crucial time for the Iraqi Kurds. U.S. envoys highlighted Barzani’s “significant role in the upcoming operation.” They pledged to help all the participants in the political processes in Iraqi Kurdistan achieve an agreement that will enable the incumbent president to retain power for another two years.

Thus, Masoud Barzani enjoys the support of the U.S. Administration and respect of the Turkish government. Leaders of Syrian Kurds will not be left to their fate either. However, they are less insured against ‘surprises’ from Turkey. And only the long-suffering Turkish Kurds with their relatively combat efficient force – PKK – have occurred in quite difficult situation. The Kurdish factor is being removed from Turkey into the territories destroyed by the policy of U.S., Iraq, and Syria. The U.S. human rights defender organizations that make a fuss of any incident at Russian prisons do not care for Ocalan who serves life sentence on the island of Imrali in Istanbul.

“If America continues to back Turkey’s policies it is possible it will lose the Kurds,” Cemil Bayik, one of the three-man interim leadership council of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), tells the Telegraph.  “If America loses the Kurds, it will be difficult to defeat ISIL.” Actually, the dishonored military organization of Turkish Kurds can appeal to the combined fight against the common evil in the Middle East.

PKK, in turn, hopes that the military operation of Turkey cannot last forever and there will be a long ceasefire ahead of the snap elections of November 1. Erdogan’s government cannot neglect the high social support to PKK in some regions in the southeast of Turkey. A protracted partisan war on its territory is the worst scenario for the Turkish authorities that have been weakened by a range of domestic policy problems and unfavorable foreign factors.  Therefore, a truce in the war against Kurds is not far off. However, the current armed conflict has finally proved to its parties that peace process is dead-end.   It does not apply to the Kurdish problem only. Any serious conflict of interests in the Middle East lacks long-term peaceful resolution. At least, look at the Islamic State – the catalyst of many regional conflicts.

(1) Before Turkey provided its Incirlik Military Base, U.S. aircrafts used the air force infrastructure in Qatar, UAE and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf , as well as the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan.

(2) Soner Cagaptay, Implications of Turkey’s War against the PKK // The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 14, 2015.

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