NATO representatives met in Brussels on Tuesday after Turkey made a rare Article 4 request which compels treaty parties to convene in the event a member state is of the opinion that its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is being threatened.
That’s the case in Turkey, where the security situation has rapidly deteriorated over the past two weeks following a suicide bombing in Suruc (claimed by Islamic State) and the murder of two Turkish policemen in the town of Ceylanpinar (at the hands of the PKK, which claims the officers were cooperating with ISIS). Ankara responded by launching airstrikes against both Islamic State and PKK.
In many ways, the suicide bombing and retaliatory action by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – which both Ankara and the West have designated as a terrorist group – is representative of the complex web of alliances that makes understanding the conflict in Syria so difficult. As The Economist notes, the PKK “have been fighting an on-and-off guerrilla war against the Turkish government for decades,” but the group’s Syrian Kurdish militia arm (YPG) has helped the US coordinate airstrikes against ISIS targets near the border town of Kobani.
Complicating the issue further are long standing accusations that Turkey actively cooperates with ISIS. “ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all because there was full cooperation with the Turks,” one former ISIS commander said late last year, in an interview with Newsweek, which also noted that “Turkey had blocked Kurdish fighters from crossing the border into Syria to aid their Syrian counterparts in defending the border town of Kobani.”
More recently, The Guardian reported that information obtained when a raid by US commandos killed ISIS’ purported “oil minister” in May provided “undeniable” evidence of “direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members.” And let’s not forget that US Vice President Joe Biden admitted last year that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Islamist rebels in Syria that metamorphosed into ISIS.
Note that all of this comes from mainstream media sources, so there’s really no way to decipher the truth about Turkey’s alleged cooperation with Islamic State militants and of course there are very real questions as to what role the US played in facilitating the rise of ISIS in the first place, but what the situation in Turkey boils down to is that although NATO is of course fine with throwing its public support behind Ankara’s military action against ISIS, the US is cautious when it comes to the PKK because after all, they too are fighting ISIS via their Syrian affiliate.
Here’s WSJ with some commentary that underscores the characteristically absurd foreign policy stance that Washington is all too often forced to adopt when the Pentagon can no longer keep track of who is friend and who is foe and, perhaps more importantly, what the public narrative is supposed to be:
In Brussels, a NATO official said several allies used the meeting to urge the Turkish government to continue the peace process with the PKK. But there were signs of different views between Washington and its European allies. U.S. officials have gently urged Turkey to be careful in hitting the PKK, but stood by Ankara’s right to launch the strikes.
“We call on the PKK not to continue these attacks which are provoking the Turkish retaliation,” one senior U.S. administration official said on Tuesday. “And we’re also calling on the Turks to be judicious in the operations that they’re taking.”
U.S. officials put most of the blame for the expanding new confrontation with the PKK, which has taken responsibility for killing several Turkish security officials. After an escalation of violence in Turkey’s southeast last week, Turkish warplanes began airstrikes on the PKK’s mountain base in northern Iraq for the first time in four years.
“If the PKK did not launch a series of attacks in Turkey, Turkey would not be launching these attacks in northern Iraq,” said a second senior U.S. administration official.
Of course the PKK would say that if Turkey had not been cooperating with ISIS in the first place, the suicide bombing which killed 32 people in Suruc might have been avoided, and ultimately, the two Turkish police officers would still be alive.
Indeed, to let the PKK tell it, Ankara is simply using the strikes against ISIS as an excuse to renew its crackdown on the Kurds which, you’re reminded, comes as HDP won a stunning victory at the polls early last month when the pro-Kurdish opposition party garnered enough votes to enter Parliament for the first time. Here’s Reuters on the connection between the renewed military effort and the political situation in Turkey:
The pro-Kurdish HDP party won 13 percent of the vote in a June 7 poll, helping to deprive the AKP Erdogan founded of a majority in parliament for the first time since 2002.
Many Kurds believe that by reviving conflict with the PKK, Erdogan seeks to undermine support for the HDP ahead of a possible early election. That poll – so runs the argument – could then provide him with the majority he seeks to change the constitution and increase his powers.
“He is trying to achieve the result he failed to in the June 7 election in a political coup. That’s the real aim of the steps taken now,” the PKK said in an e-mailed statement.
It accused Erdogan of trying to “crush” the Kurdish political movement “to create an authoritarian, hegemonic system”, but it did not directly address his latest comments.
Turkey has shut down almost all Kurdish political parties over the years. Erdogan, who has accused the HDP of links to the PKK, said he opposed party closures but urged parliament to lift the immunity of politicians with links to “terrorist groups”.
Through it all, the US has adopted the only position it can under the circumstances: publicly, Washington will simply defend Turkey’s right to combat both “terror” groups (the PKK and ISIS) and hope that on balance, the Kurds come out better than Islamic State. To wit, from WSJ: “U.S. officials are hoping the damage done to Islamic State will outweigh the damage done to the YPG,” a US official said.
For anyone who is now thoroughly confused, here are two visuals which should help to clarify exactly what’s going on. The first is a simple map which shows ISIS positions along the border with Turkey and the second is a graphic which diagrams the three-way battle between Ankara, the Kurds (who are spread across three countries), and ISIS (who may be colluding with Turkey, even as Turkey bombs its positions).
Finally, here’s more color from BBC which sheds still more light on the conflict:
Some say Turkey will help the Americans hammer IS, while striking the PKK as a warning – no more. Others say it will go after the Kurds hardest, while doing the bare minimum against IS.
Turkish policy is “to pretend that it is waging a war against IS, while at the same time following up on another goal, which is to destroy the PKK,” says Kerem Oktem, a professor at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.
For the underlying narrative behind Turkey’s intervention, look to its troubled history with the Kurds.
United by ethnicity and divided by modern borders, the Kurds are a sizeable minority within Turkey, as well as within the neighbouring states of Syria, Iraq and Iran. In each of these countries, the Kurds have agitated against governments, sometimes for greater rights, sometimes for outright independence.
An armed struggle in Turkey was led for many years by the PKK, until it signed up to a ceasefire in 2013.
That truce has been strained by the civil war in Syria, which has strengthened the PKK’s armed offshoot there, known as the YPG.
Like its allies in the Gulf, Turkey wants the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It too has been accused of supporting many of the rebel groups fighting him – though not the YPG.
Turkey has looked on, worried, as the YPG has carved out a proto-state across its southern border – an unwanted beneficiary, in its view, of the fragmentation of Syria.
The other big beneficiary has been IS, whose Syrian territory roughly encircles the areas held by the YPG. Turkey denies the accusation, levelled by many Kurds, that it is using IS to check Kurdish influence.
In an attempt to crystallize all of the above, here is the situation laid bare with no pretensions to politeness.
Turkey is facing both a political and a security crisis, with the latter being perhaps partly attributable to the country’s tolerance of ISIS elements on or around the Turkish border.
A tragic suicide bombing (conveniently pinned on ISIS) led to retaliatory violence by the PKK which gave Ankara an excuse to break a fragile ceasfire with the Kurds. The government is now free to crack down on the PKK with virtual impunity under the guise of stepping up its efforts against ISIS (now with NATO’s blessing).
In an incredibly convenient “coincidence,” this all comes just as opposition parties won landmark victories at the ballot box, sweeping the Kurds into parliament for the first time and threatening Erdogan’s push to consolidate power.
Meanwhile, Turkey and the US share one real geopolitical aim (ousting Assad) and one ancillary, publicity-friendly sideshow (destroying ISIS), which should by all rights clear the way for Washington’s complete support of Turkey’s recent military actions, were it not for the fact that they may be but a thinly veiled attempt on Ankara’s part to eradicate the Kurds, who the US is obligated to support (at least publicly) because they too are ostensibly fighting ISIS, a group which was perhaps created by the US in the first place.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is geopolitics under US hegemony and given the above, is it any wonder that some commentators are looking forward to the return of bipolarity?