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Michael Jansen: Erdogan’s Kurdish obsession
January 29, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

As Turkish troops and militia allies advanced on the city of Afrin in northwest Syria, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told Ankara the US would no longer supply weapons to Syrian Kurdish forces in a bid to halt the Turkish offensive.

McMaster’s statement came a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deployed his Syrian Free Army surrogates backed by Turkish tanks and troops in a battle to wrest the Afrin border enclave from the Kurdish dominated, US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia. Erdogan took this initiative after the Trump administration had announced its intention of keeping 2,000 US special operations soldiers in Syria and training 30,000 Kurds and others to form a “border force” to seal the frontiers of the SDF-held enclave of Syrian territory comprising 25 per cent of the country.

Erdogan had accused the Trump administration of reneging on a pledge given by its predecessor to halt cooperation with the SDF and collect weapons provided by the US once the campaign against Daesh had ended. When Trump appealed to Erdogan to halt the offensive, he said he intends to continue to the town of Manbij to the east and drive the SDF from the entire Turkish-Syrian border region to the frontier with Iraq.

In the Afrin offensive Turkey has had the tacit support of Russia while its ally, the Syrian government, has condemned Turkey’s action as aggression, and the US has abandoned SDF forces based in Afrin to the tender mercies of Turkey, claiming Washington is allied only to KDP forces in the east. The KDP in Afrin has appealed to the Syrian government to rescue the Kurds there as they could face violent ethnic cleansing.

It remains to be seen whether Ergodan will made good on his threat to deploy his troops eastwards to Manbij where Turkish forces would also encounter US troops who have been based there in spite of a promise that Washington would compel the SDF to withdraw from the area to the western bank of the Euphrates River. Since this did not happen, Erdogan is doubly wary of US assurances.

Erdogan is determined to prevent the SDF from maintaining its control of Afrin and establishing a Kurdish autonomous zone in territory held by the Kurds. He is paranoid about armed Kurds establishing an enclave in Syria across the border from southeastern Turkey where armed Turkish Kurds have been in revolt since 1984. The major contributor of fighters to the SDF is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD). Both are offshoots of Turkey’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) branded a “terrorist” group by Ankara, Washington, and other world capitals.

While the US tries to argue the PYD/YPG is independent of the PKK, its officers and men as well as Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militiamen have joined KDP offensives against Daesh and cleanse Syria of its fighters. Erdogan is right to object to false claims.

Turkey’s military objective is to sweep the SDF from the Turkish-Syrian border and establish a Turkish administered “safe zone” where Free Syrian Army surrogates can be based and Syrian refugees can be settled within their homeland under Turkish administration and protection. Turkish protection could, however, turn into permanent Turkish occupation as happened in northern Cyprus after Ankara’s 1974 invasion to protect the island’s 18 per cent Turkish Cypriot minority from the Greek Cypriot majority following a coup by the Athens military junta. Last Friday, some 5,000 Turkish Cypriots protested the occupation following an attack by Erdogan’s henchmen on a leftist newspaper opposed to his policies.

Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to be obsessed with Kurds. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, proclaimed all inhabitants of the Anatolian rectangle were “Turks” and launched a campaign to assimilate Anatolia’s non-Turkic minorities.

This was unsuccessful. Turks are of Asian Turkic background, speak Turkish, and are rooted in Turkish culture while Kurds are ethnic Indo-Aryans, speak Kurdish and adhere to Kurdish culture. Ankara has suppressed the Kurdish language and culture, and fought Kurdish nationalists. In 1980, the generals who seized power in Turkey designated the restive Kurds “mountain Turks.” This did not work as the Kurds are too large a minority, constituting 15-20 per cent of the population. They demanded recognition as Kurds, formed the PKK and launched a separatist uprising against the Turkish state.

In 2013, Erdogan and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, then residing in a Turkish prison, agreed to a ceasefire and pledged to negotiate a deal providing Kurds with ethnic rights in exchange for acceptance of the rule of the Turkish state. Erdogan attempted to convince the Kurds to “come on board” by appealing to them as Sunni Muslims, the faith of the majority Turkish community. While Kurdish identity remained a stumbling block, another reason this approach did not work was a large percentage of Turkish Kurds are not Sunnis but Alevis, who profess a distinct faith with connections to Shiism, and constitute 15-20 per cent of Turkey’s population. Alevis are both Kurds and Turks.

Negotiations collapsed in mid-2015 when Ergodan’s Sunni fundamentalist Justice and Development Party failed to win an outright majority in Turkey’s parliamentary election while a pro-Kurdish party took ten per cent of the vote. Erdogan launched a fresh campaign against the PKK with the aim of appealing to ethnic Turkish nationalism ahead of a snap assembly election that November. He regained his majority. The failed army coup against Erdogan in July 2016 led him to clamp down on all dissent and criticism and to jail opponents and critics, including Kurdish democrats. Since he faces fresh presidential and parliamentary elections next year, he is already playing the ethnic Turk card by taking a tough line against all Kurds.

Little wonder Ankara has always opposed the creation of Kurdish entities on Turkey’s borders as dangerous models for Turkish Kurds. Turkey could do nothing to prevent the US from proclaiming Iraq’s three Kurdish-majority provinces a “safe haven” following the 1991 US-led war on Iraq. Turkey was deeply suspicious of Kurdish intentions when this region was accorded autonomy under the regime imposed by the US military following the 2003 occupation of Iraq. In self-defence, Ankara courted Iraq’s Kurdish regional government established in Irbil until it proclaimed independence last September. In response, Ankara and Tehran (also wary of its Kurdish minority) joined Baghdad in isolating the Iraqi Kurds and limiting their autonomy.

Erdogan’s preoccupation with Kurds — his own, Iraq’s and Syria’s — is complicating not only US plans for post-Daesh Syria, but also the nefarious schemes of all the other external powers involved in the conflict and UN efforts to shape a post-war government for Syria.

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