30.05.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey’s ‘Kurdish Agony’

345345345While the current phase of the conflict in Syria has consumed numerous lives, it also has enabled the Kurds, who are scattered in the Middle East, to raise their political significance to a level hitherto untouched since the notorious Sykes-Picot treaty. While the question of Kurdish independence has become as important as elimination of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there are countries in the region, such as Turkey, who, despite the successful Kurdish resistance against ISIS, continue to desist their emancipation. It was, in this context, only two days ago when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went on to call a hypotactic approach on the part of the US to openly support the YPG fighters in Syria. Should this support be necessarily seen as an American soft-corner for an independent and sovereign Kurdistan?

While the U.S. may not have expressed such support and despite the fact that the U.S. has classified the PKK as a “terror group”, Turkey continues to see in co-operation between the U.S. and YPG a ‘conspiracy’ being hatched to eventually establish Kurdistan. Without directly calling it some ‘conspiracy’ against Turkey, the foreign minister did, however say, “It is unacceptable for the soldiers of the United States our ally which is very assertive in the fight against terror to use or wear the badges of a terror organisation, ` Cavusoglu said. The minister decried what he said was the approach of `a terrorist organisation I can use and a terrorist organisation I cannot. ` `You wear the insignia of a terrorist organisation on your shoulder, put up its flag in your capital. Of course we will not succeed in the fight against terrorism through this understanding as it is today, ` he said.

It is quite apparent that Turkey has a definition of ‘terrorism’ different from that of the U.S. or even Russia and China. It is this disagreement over classifying all Kurds as ‘terrorists’ or potential ‘terrorists’ that has made the U.S. resist intensive lobbying from Turkey to also outlaw the YPG and stop working with the group in Syria. He also insisted that in private talks with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry the United States had said the YPG `are not reliable` and vowed Washington would `stand by Turkey in the fight against terrorism.` `And then they wear the badges of the terrorist organisation responsible for the last two attacks in Ankara,` he complained.

While Turkey took it as a serious matter, the American response to it was only lukewarm. Asked at a briefing on Thursday if it was appropriate to wear such insignia, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said that when Special Forces operate in some areas, they do what they can to blend in with the community to enhance their own security.

This disagreement is not restricted to the officials only. Recently conducted annual public opinion survey undertaken by Kadir Has University in Istanbul has also revealed anti-Americanism permeating the Turks. For 44.1% of the respondents, the U.S. is the greatest threat against Turkey. Although Russia’s perception as a source of threat has risen from 10.2% to 34.9% due to the ongoing crisis, and Syria’s has gone up from 22.1% to 30.4% since last year, the United States is still perceived as the main threat against Turkey and its interests.

In the meantime, while 41.6% of the respondents describe the U.S. as an “unreliable country” and 21.3% consider it as a “colonial power”, only 4.1% see it as a “military ally” and 4.8% as a “friendly country.” The reason behind this significantly negative view of the U.S. relates to the divergences in the way the two countries deal with terrorism in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and the way both have been and continue to differ over which group should be and should not be classified as such.

While considerable anti-Americanism exists in Turkey due to the Kurdish question, the U.S. is hardly the only country supporting them. Some recent reports have strongly indicated China’s soft-corner for them too. While China usually does not support separatist movements, since 2009, when the Chinese state oil company Sinopec acquired Addax Petroleum which had been developing the Taq Taq oil field in Kurdistan, China has boosted its investments in Kurdish oil fields and infrastructures.  Given this, it would not be an exaggeration to infer that China, at some point, might find it compelling to re-think its erstwhile policy and find that its national interest is best served by backing an independent Kurdistan.

What might also make China extend its support to Kurds is also the fact that the U.S. is supporting many Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria in the name of strengthening the “opposition.” This is happening, and China is weary of it, despite the fact that many of the “opposition” groups are neither Syrian nor wholly Arab. There are many Asians from China and Central Asia who pose a direct threat to Asian security. The most effective “rebel” coalition Jaish al Fath includes the anti-Chinese Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Should China, given this, not feel concerned over the U.S.’ dubious policies vis-à-vis both the Kurds (read: the U.S. dualism vis-à-vis the PKK and YPG), the ISIS and the so-called “Syrian opposition”?

This has led China to view the U.S. and Turkish support for Jaish al Fath, and indirect support for TIP, as an attempt on their part to eventually use the group against both Kurds and China. Hence, for China, supporting Kurds does make strong sense.

Needless to say, Russia and Israel have already been supporting the Kurds. Israel was, in fact, the first country to express publicly its support for an independent Kurdistan. Following this, Russia championed Syria’s Kurds by allowing the Kurdish group PYD to open a diplomatic mission in Moscow in February. Other PYD representative offices were later opened in Prague, Stockholm and Berlin, with more planned in Paris and elsewhere. In Asia, Beijing may be the next to allow PYD to open a representative office.

All this clearly implies that the international support for Kurdistan is increasing and that perfectly explains why it is turning into a sort of ‘agony’ for Turkey. Were Kurdistan to come into existence, it would certainly involve some of the Turkish territory going to them. For the Turks, such a scenario would be akin to ‘second disintegration’ after the World War 1. For Erdogan, it implies a failure on his part to restore Turkey to ‘Ottomainsh glory.’ Hence, Turkey’s emphasis on classifying all Kurds as ‘terrorist’ to permanently kill the question of their independence, and thereby create one of the most controversial and pervasive political-stereotypes of the 21st century.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.