February 2, 2018

The Turks and the Kurds - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy

The Turks are now two weeks into their so-called campaign to "eradicate terrorists" inside northern Syria. By terrorists, they are referring to the fighters belonging to the militias of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD). The two militias are known as the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG) and its female counterpart, the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ).

These militias are a key component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was the primary ground force which - with massive American air and artillery support - liberated most of the areas of northern Syria that had been seized and occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They were the proverbial "boots on the ground" as part of the U.S.-led coalition to oust ISIS from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

A few words about the Turks and ISIS. Although the Turks couch their operations in Syria as an effort to support the fight against ISIS, the Turks rarely, if ever, took on the jihadist group. There has been a lot of finger pointing between the Turks and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition over Turkey's real stance on ISIS.

If you will recall, between 2013 and 2016, ISIS's ranks were swelled by the constant flow of new recruits from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and even some from the United States. The major transit route for these foreigners was via Istanbul, then to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, then across the border into Syria.

I have spent a lot of time along both sides of that border - it's not a border I would attempt to cross unassisted. It is quite formidable, with substantial fences, obstacles, including minefields in some areas, overseen by a series of guard towers manned by armed soldiers on the Turkish side. One has to wonder how these thousands of ISIS recruits were able to reach Syria. I think we know the answer.

As a result, the United States is reportedly in the process of creating a 30,000-strong "border security force" from the ranks of the SDF. The pragmatic reason for the necessity of such a force? If thousands of ISIS recruits were able to infiltrate into Syria via Turkey, why would we expect that they would not be able to exfiltrate via the same route in reverse?

The mission of the new forces is to prevent the survivors of the anti-ISIS operation in Syria and Iraq from re-entering Turkey and returning to their home countries. Most of the countries of origin are concerned that these veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq will return home and attempt to conduct "martyrdom" operations.

As I said in my recent article, Turkey's main concern in Syria is not ISIS, it is the Kurds. If you ask the Turks, they believe the YPG/YPJ is nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK). While the PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO, and the European Union, the YPG has not. (See that article, Turkey - Operation Olive Branch: how far will they go?)

I disagree with the Turkish assertion that the PKK is synonymous with the YPG (and there will be numerous comments from my Turkish readers that I am incorrect). For a better perspective, here are excerpts from a recent article by journalist and award-winning author (and friend) Michael J. Totten, No, the Syrian Kurds are not Terrorists:

Their [YPG] ideology isn’t Islamist. It’s leftist. They champion, in their own words, “social equality, justice and the freedom of belief” along with “pluralism and the freedom of political parties.” They hope to implement “a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society.” They describe themselves as libertarian socialists, a minority faction within the worldwide socialist movement that rejects one-party rule and authoritarian state control of the economy.

They also ascribe to what they call Communalism, a set of ideas put forth by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is here that the YPG gets itself into trouble with Turkey.

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist separatist movement and a Marxist-Leninist insurgency. Like nearly all communist guerrilla armies—from Peru’s Shining Path to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—it was inherently prone to terrorism. While primarily striking Turkish soldiers and police officers, the group has also committed a number of attacks against civilian targets, including a car bomb in Ankara last March that killed dozens and wounded more than 100 and a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2010.

The YPG...has never committed an act of terrorism in Syria or anywhere else, not even at a time when terrorist attacks are as routine as weather in Syria. So while, yes, the YPG and the PKK are ideologically linked, the Turkish government has never been able to identify a single act of terrorism the YPG has ever committed, not in Turkey, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.

Turkey can call the Kurds terrorists all they want, but that will not make them so.

With their ill-advised and ill-timed invasion of 'Afrin canton in northern Syria, the Turks may be creating, or at the very least, exacerbating the very problem they claim to be solving. If there was no cooperation between the various Kurdish factions in all four countries that are home to Kurdish minorities - Turkey, Syrian, Iraq, and Iran - there soon may be. With the Turks attacking the PYD/YPG in Syria, who is next? The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq?

I spoke yesterday with a member of the PUK. He believes that Turks have done something that the Kurds themselves have not been able to do for decades - unify the various Kurdish parties and factions.

He added (my translation), "All of us are now YPG, we Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran - all over the world - now support the YPG and Rojava.* Now the PKK, YPG and peshmerga are all one. It is the only way to have a free Kurdistan. The Turkish army, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army are all against us."

Bottom line: If the PYD/YPG were not cooperating with the PKK, thanks to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, they most likely are now or will be in the future. The Turks have just created a larger enemy that will continue the fight for years to come. They did this to themselves.

* Rojava is the common Kurdish name for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. It is not recognized by the Syrian government.