Turkey’s Undercover War

Photo: Reuters

Joining the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey has entered the Syrian war zone with an ulterior motive – to fight a ‘war on terror’ against the Kurds. And just like George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ Turkey’s new campaign may end up creating the next war in the Middle East.

A major geopolitical player in the Middle East, Turkey’s decision to step up its role in the fight against the Islamic State this past July coincided with the announcement of an airstrike campaign against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish nationalist organization located in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, along with its affiliates, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ). In response to a series of attacks on Turkish security forces by the PKK, Turkey’s retaliatory bombing campaign signifies the termination of the third Turkish-PKK ceasefire agreement, fashioned in 2013.

The irony of Turkey’s new campaign, however, is that the Kurdish militia forces have thus far been the most successful ground troops in defending against, and advancing into, Islamic State positions. In fact, Kurdish militia forces, most notably the YPG and YPJ, have even captured new territory in northern Syria. So why would Turkey conduct an airstrike campaign against the soldiers beating the Islamic State?

Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are more concerned with Kurdish territorial ambitions than they are with the Islamic State. And their new ‘war on terror’ is actually a war to prevent the Kurds, the largest stateless ethnic group in the world today, from fulfilling their aspirations of autonomy.

Represented by various political and militant groups such as the PKK, YPG, and YPJ, the Kurds have been striving for over thirty years to create an autonomous state of Kurdistan in northern Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan (currently semi-autonomous), southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran.

With the persistent Syrian civil war, the success of the Kurdish militias, and the increasing international recognition of Kurdish statelessness, the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state has never seemed more imminent. Turkey, the Kurdish independence forces, and the international community, however, will face great difficulty addressing the Kurdish aspirations during the reconfiguration of Syrian and Iraqi statehood. President Erdoğan has openly stated that he will not allow for the creation of a new state bordering Turkey. Critics claim Erdoğan’s vested interest in dealing with the United States to create a "safe zone" in northern Syria for war refugees is really an undercover attempt to halt the rapid advance of the YPG and YPJ along the Turkish-Syrian border. But the Kurds, who have protected their homelands from the Islamic State and previous aggressors (such as Saddam Hussein), are not going to let Turkey take away their best chance at statehood.

But Turkey’s war against Kurdish autonomy is not only being waged across the border. President Erdogan and the AKP fear the Kurds, who represent approximately 15% of the Turkish population, in domestic politics. Critics of President Erdogan claim the decision to launch attacks on the Kurdish militants reflects his political frustration with the ‘pro-Kurdish’ People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. This past June, the HDP received 14% of the vote in Turkey’s national election and deprived the AKP of its long-standing parliamentary majority.

In an attempt to regain a parliamentary majority in the snap general election scheduled for November, the AKP have embarked on a fear-mongering propaganda and legal campaign against PKK affiliates — defined in Turkey’s eyes as anyone who supports the Kurds, including the HDP. Hoping to divert HDP voters in the inter-election months, the AKP aim to strip the Kurdish-sympathizing political party of their treasury aid and convict HDP chairs of constitutional offenses by linking the HDP to the PKK. Under tremendous pressure from AKP fear politics, HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas is relentlessly attempting to distance and distinguish his peaceful political party from the tactics of the PKK.

With the increase of the HDP’s political authority in parliament, the July election established the foundation for a political environment in which answers to the Kurdish question could be addressed democratically. HDP former Batman deputy Ayla Akat Ata stated last month that "there are lots of people who believe that the Kurdish problem can be resolved via dialogue and negotiations. The fact that both parties are now in Parliament presents an opportunity. Unfortunately, the AK Party turns down this opportunity due to its desire to regain the parliamentary majority to form a single-party government again."

As Erdoğan and the AKP suppress Kurdish leadership and Turkey begins its ‘war on terror,’ Turkey’s perpetual lack of effort in addressing the Kurdish question continues. In fact, it seems that Turkey’s lack of political will to sympathize with the Kurds is facilitating the rise of intercommunal tensions between Kurds and Turks along Turkey’s southern border. Although Turkey retains the right to retaliate against the PKK and their terrorist tactics within Turkey’s own borders, Erdoğan’s campaign to bomb the fragile yet determined Kurds will ultimately continue the recurring conflict into the post-Islamic State era.

The Kurds will not stop fighting until they achieve their aspirations. And Turkey’s ‘war on terror’ is only making the Kurdish militias more pugnacious. As long as Turkey suppresses Kurdish nationalism, Turkey and the Kurds will inch closer and closer to creating the next war in the Middle East. In the long run, Turkey’s undercover war against the Kurds may just be more important than the fight against the Islamic State.

Adam Gold

Adam studies International Relations and Chinese Language & Culture at UBC. His writing and research focus on warfare & conflict management, geopolitics, and Turkish politics.

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