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“Right” and “wrong” Kurds: Why is Erdogan preventing destruction of ISIL?

One more terrorist attack has taken place in Europe. Once again it has resulted in dozens of deaths and new warnings from the West. But these warnings are crashing into reality. The western allies see that air strikes are not helping any more, but they are not ready to sacrifice their soldiers for land operations. For the time being the Syrian Kurds are the only force that is ready to give thousands for the sake of a victory over ISIL (Daesh – a terrorist organization banned in Russia). Over the last year, with the support of the Americans, they have fought back 2/3 of northern Syria, but they have lost as many as 1,500 men as a result. Their YPG would have taken the rest too were it not for Turkey’s threats and shellfire. Last week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called Kurds “reliable and effective partners.” And their army is ready to attack the capital of ISIL, Raqqa. Raqqa’s fall would not be the end of ISIL but would be a big blow on its image and power – for the reality of new “Caliphate” has been a really big stimulus for ISIL’s followers so far.

One of the YPG’s foreign fighters has confessed that they expect to lose as many as 3,000-4,000 men during the fight for Raqqa but they are ready for this. All they need is a guarantee that they will not be stabbed in the back by Turkey – as the Turks seem to be burning all bridges with them.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned the terrorist attacks in Brussels and has advised the world to fight terrorism and to stop differentiating extremists. The Turks believe that the root of this problem is the Kurds. But which ones? Right after the February terrorist attack in Ankara, the Turkish authorities appeared with a new picture of reality. The organizer of the attack was the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons. The Turks’ key enemy, whom they have been fighting in the southeast of their country for four months already, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had nothing to do with the crime and even condemned it. But in its articles about the attack Anadolu News Agency mentioned both forces and blamed mostly the PKK. Even more, it published a number of articles proving that the Kurdish PYD has been formed by the PKK. So, according to the Turks, all Kurdish rebels – be they in Turkey or Syria – are terrorists, with their President Recept Tayyip Erdogan having already blamed the West and Russia for supporting Syrian “extremists.” So, Ankara has divided all Kurds into “right” and “wrong” camps.

The right Barzani

The Iraqi Kurds are getting ready for an independent referendum and are digging a 1,000 km long entrenchment not only to protect themselves from ISIL but to separate them from the rest of Iraq. If the referendum succeeds, the Kurds are planning to get oil-rich Kirkuk and Sinjar. These regions are not part of the official Kurdish autonomy, but have been seized from ISIL’s hands and are now being controlled by Kurds.

Iraq is the only objector here. As regards Turkey, it is silent. Even more, in his recent interview to Al-Monitor, President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani said that Erdogan’s regime is the only Turkish regime that can recognize Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. “If they don’t recognize our independence, I don’t think that any other Turkish regime will do it,” Barzani said, quoting Erdogan as saying in Erbil once that the era of denial of Kurds was over. So, according to Barzani, Erdogan understands the Kurds’ problems. But why are Kurds’ independence in Iraq and their strengthening in Syria two different stories to him?

Perhaps, the answer is Barzani and his ruling party, who have repeatedly said that they are not interested in the fate of Turkish Kurds. Two years ago Iraq decided to dig a trench to protect itself from the war in Syria. The Iraqi Kurds used this pretext to dig a trench on the border with their Syrian brothers. Their peshmerga even shot at Syrian Kurds. Their explanation was that they were protecting themselves from ISIL fighters but there were lots of them in their territory. So, many experts suggested that Barzani did it just to blockade the Syrian Kurds and to please the Turks. When Barzani’s party lost elections, the Iraqi Kurdish president lost his influence over the Syrian Kurds. Now he has confirmed to Al-Monitor that his autonomy seeks to get rid of “wrong” Kurds. For example, he wants the PKK to leave Iraq peacefully.

The reason for such attitude is clear. Experts have long noticed that Kurds are no longer divided not into tribes but into parties and clans. Barzani and his autonomy are dependent on Turkey. Oil is the key asset of the Iraqi Kurds. They in Baghdad forbid any unauthorized oil export, while the Turks have opened their border for this business even though in the United States it is also forbidden. Now that oil prices are low, Iraqi Kurdistan is having hard times and hopes for Turkish investments.

Such dependence and loyalty are quite convenient for the Turks. Control over Iraqi Kurdistan will give them influence over the rest of Iraq. And they will get even more if Iraq Kurdistan gets independent. First of all, the Iraqi Kurds do not mind their military presence in their territory and, secondly, the Turks import 70% of their oil and gas, so, if Iraqi Kurdistan gets Kirkuk, they will get control over one of the oil-richest countries. Already today Iraqi Kurdistan has the sixth biggest oil reserve in the world. According to Barzani, they are considering building a gas pipeline to Turkey. This will give the Turks an alternative to Russian gas.

Wrongly surviving and winning

Perhaps, initially, the Turks were planning to make friends with the “wrong” Kurds and to beat them with others’ hands. In 2012, Prime Minister Erdogan started ceasefire talks with Abdullah Ocalan and his PKK party. This marked the end of any clashes in Turkey. But in 2014, when Erdogan was elected president, things changed. In 2012, the Turks expressed support for the “moderate opposition” and would love to see the Islamists gaining control over the Kurdish north of Syria. If the Islamists did that, they would serve as a buffer between Turkey and Syria and would make a short work with the Kurdish rebels. But they failed and it was then that ISIL came to help them.

Everybody remembers how calmly Turkish soldiers watched the seizure of Kobani. But their plan that ISIL would help them to get rid of Kurds failed. Quite the contrary, four months later, supported by Americans, Kurds fought Kobani back and started an offensive all along the border. And even more, the PYD announced autonomy and beat all Barzani-controlled parties in local elections. As a result, all of Turkey’s plans in Syria failed.

In June, ISIL attempted to take Kobani back. Some of the fighters came from Turkey. They were rebuffed. And a week later ISIL suicide bomber killed 30 Kurds. This triggered mass protests all over Turkey. In Istanbul, Kurds went into the streets with posters calling Erdogan an assassin. The Turkish authorities had a short way with the protesters. In the southeast, they began killing PKK rebels. The PKK counteracted with terrorist attacks on the army and the police.

According to Politico, in early 2016, Turkey started a quiet civil war in its southeast. As a result, hundreds of Kurds were killed, over 100,000 fled, with many of them having no place to go back to: in March, the Turkish authorities allowed Kurds to go back to Cizre but the town is almost all in ruins. IBTimes even compared it with Syrian Kobani.

According to human rights organizations, Turkey’s anti-terrorist campaign and ISI’s terrorist acts have claimed over 700 Kurdish lives against almost 100 Turks (mostly military men) killed in all Kurdish terrorist attacks.

Under such circumstances, one can hardly expect any peace talks between Turkey and the PKK. The Syrian Kurds will hardly make friends with Erdogan’s regime and will certainly support their Turkish brothers. The Turks have already proclaimed all “wrong” Kurds as terrorists. But to call one a terrorist and to act against him are two different stories. The Americans have already made it known to the Turks are the PKK is terrorists while the PYD is not. So, the Turks have just one way to get rid of all “extremists” at once – to invade Syria. But this is fraught with so many risks that even American experts warn Erdogan against a coup or a civil war.

Erdogan’s second front. Is it the last one?

Expert at the American Enterprise Institute Michael Rubin believes that Erdogan’s inability to solve the Kurds’ problems and growing corruption may ruin Turkey. Erdogan is losing his power and is becoming more authoritarian.

One of his key mistakes, according to the expert, is his direct confrontation with the Kurds. This may lead to a civil war, where the Turks have no chances to win.

According to Rubin, more and more Turkish generals are displeased with Erdogan’s policy. The Turkish president is losing supporters abroad. So, if he is toppled, the Americans will condemn the coup but will be ready to cooperate with the new regime – especially if it appears with a specific plan of how to recover democracy in the country.

Erdogan is running out of time and has just one serious ally left, ISIL. If the Kurds capture Raqqa, they will gain a number of strategic advantages. They will insure themselves against direct attacks on the north of Syria. They will get more influence in Syria and will gain access to the talks on its future. For the Turks the fall of Raqqa will be bad. They will no longer have a force that will terrorize and exhaust their enemy. The “moderate opposition” will no longer have the upper hand at the talks in Geneva. And most importantly the Turks will stop being the West’s key ally against ISIL – the fact they constantly use for blackmailing their partners.

But for the Kurds to be able to conquer Raqqa, they need all of their strengths. In the meantime, the Turks have opened the second front against the Syrian Kurds. Now they are storming Nusaybin, which is very near to Qamishli. As a result, the YPG has been involved in their conflict with the PKK.

Under such conditions, we can hardly expect the Kurds to take Raqqa in near future. Nor can we hope for no more terrorist attacks in Europe.

For the time being the civilized world and Turkey have different terrorists.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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