Turkey has intervened in Syria, as expected, under the guise of fighting ISIL. Turkey’s desire to have a larger buffer zone has been known for some time, but it has little to do with ISIL. Turkey wants to protect itself from its own Kurdish population, and from being obliged to treat those Kurds with basic dignity. It has now been manouevred into a position where the best way it can achieve this is by helping create a new Kurdish state, as the US has long desired, on terms as favourable to both Turkey and the US as possible.
The timing of this intervention is highly suspect. It is related to the US elections and gives a boost to the US, the Obama administration and Obama’s preferred successor, Hillary Clinton. But it also gives the Turkish military the green light to do what they have long been waiting with bated breath to do.
The US strategy is to let the Turks occupy territory in Syria which would otherwise have fallen to the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have until now been the spear point in securing the Turkish-Syrian border areas still under the control of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). This presents Turkey as the conqueror of the Kurdish terrorists who threaten it.
It also means that a “legal” Kurdish state can be established within territory occupied by “legal” powers, rather than a rogue state set up by terrorists. This latter was the first stage in the original plan, but ISIL having failed to deliver this, we have moved on to Stage Two – the takeover by legal forces, which had always been the endgame.
Who is friend and who is foe?
This latest intervention was made necessary by the events of 2014. In that year, ISIL allegedly seized a large quantity of US military equipment when it captured Mosul. This last ditch attempt to arm and equip ISIL to finish the job in Syria went wrong because Russia knew what was going on and stepped in at the right time to support the Syrian government.
This illegal Turkish incursion into a sovereign country, supported by the US, is designed to kill two birds with one stone. As a reward for helping create the new US-sponsored Kurdish state Turkey has been given free rein to go after the Kurds who control the area at present. From the Turkish viewpoint, the Kurds are trying to steal Turkish territory. From the US viewpoint, they are succeeding in driving back ISIL and creating a contiguous Kurdish State on their own terms, not the Kurdish State envisioned by the US.
As a recent article stated, “by seizing territory from IS, the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) is establishing control over “disputed territories” – areas both claimed by the autonomous Kurd region of Iraq, the Central government in Baghdad and has been held by US-sponsored terrorists, IS. Their motivation (the Kurds’) is clear, and it has little to do with restoring the territorial integrity of one country or another.”
It thus comes as no surprise to hear that a No Fly Zone in Syria is being urged by people closely linked with US intelligence. We have already witnessed the PR softening up for the Turkish invasion, and have heard the grounds for establishing the so-called “exclusion zone”, the enlarged buffer zone for Turkey which is in effect a Kurdish exclusion zone.
Kurds have always been denied self-determination and a state of their own. Their present grudges date back to the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided what was left of the Ottoman Empire into French and British zones of influence, splitting Kurdish majority areas between the main two players, and ultimately spreading the Kurds across several artificially created new states.
The distribution of Kurds within Turkey and the neighbouring states is the key to understanding their role in the current geopolitical fighting. Iraq’s Kurds are located in the north of the country, the ideal place from which to get to and from Syria. They were never able to get along with the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, which deported tens of thousands of them, destroyed their villages en masse, and killed at least 5,000 of them during the gassing of Kalabji in 1988.
Consequently the US decided they were the “natural enemy” of others in the region. They were protected by an UN-imposed no-fly zone during the toppling of Saddam’s regime, and more recently have been used as a means of getting back at disobedient Turkey. Turkey is terrified of the PKK becoming a real political force, with the backing of Syria and Iraq. The Peshmerga gains from ISIL have made this a real possibility, and although the US did not want to see these gains it has turned them to its advantage by using them to draw Turkey into this adventure.
Turkey must be hoping that if it helps the US create a Kurdish state controlled by Kurds Turkey isn’t afraid of the US will not include any part of Turkish territory in that state. If Turkey remains intact while its neighbours are carved up this will be a significant propaganda victory. It won’t help regional security, but will greatly increase the prestige of Turkey, both conqueror and benefactor. So much so that its conduct within its own borders will no longer be subject to the same scrutiny.
The incursion also has to do with buffer zones, so to make sure that a Kurdish state too close to Turkey’s borders born as a result of the misadventure in Syria. For instance, Dr. Robert Olson, University of Kentucky, and one of my former instructors, addresses the topic of a buffer zone in detail.
In the Western leaning, democratic society Turkey has traditionally aspired to be the Kurds are technically equal citizens before the law. But the recent Turkish attacks on local Kurds, described as anti-terrorism operations, are designed to instill in non-Kurds the idea that they are not equal citizens, and should not be. Turkey won’t get away with this forever. But shunting its Kurds off into a new state, obliged by its sponsors to be friendly to Turkey, would give every excuse for these attacks to continue.
As apartheid supporters used to say of South Africa’s blacks, you are all aliens anyway, so if you don’t like it you can go back to your homelands – the ones we’ve created for you. As with those South African homelands, such as Ciskei and Bophuthatswana, the creation of a Kurdish state is designed to help their sponsors portray the “freedom struggle,” as pointless; and therefore pure terrorism. But unlike those homelands this new Kurdish state is almost guaranteed international recognition, thus further diluting its ability or willingness to claim new borders which would include current Turkish territory.
Kurdistan but not Kurdish
But this is not a new process. It has been clear for some time that Turkey has been working with the Iraqi Kurds to get them onside. When Turkish troops were accused of entering Iraq illegally between December 2015 and January 2016, it was said that Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, gave them refuge in Northern Iraq. Turkey has also long sponsored the flow of black market oil through its own territory, with Barzani himself being one of the main beneficiaries of this process, despite being Kurdish himself.
The Financial Times has reported that sales of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Iraq have averaged 450,000 barrels a day since May of last year, raking in some $1.5 billion in revenue from traders in a period of two months alone, according to an article in the Al Monitor on August 1, 2015.
Such proceeds are more than enough to pay civil servants’ and Peshmerga fighters’ salaries. Turkey has also helped to make up any shortfalls, via hefty cash handouts to the tune of over $1 billion.
Barzani theoretically represents the enemy, as Turkey’s Kurds can easily be supplied with personnel and weapons from there. However Turkish military success against its domestic Kurds seems to have persuaded both sides that their ambitions are dovetailing. If they work together, Barzani can have his Kurdish state and Erdogan can resolve his “Kurdish problem.” A compliant Kurdish state with international support would seem as attractive a new home for the Turkish Kurds as Israel is meant to be for global Jewry, or so it is hoped.
Not long ago Turkey was holding talks with the US on establishing a “safe zone” north of Aleppo which would be controlled by Turkey. On March 28 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said while on a visit to Jordan, “Turkey’s security zone starts from Latakia and passes through Aleppo, Mosul and Sulaimani (Sulaymaniya)….”
The Turks know what is going on. “The reason why Turkey has tenaciously pushed for this safe zone plan today is not only to relieve itself of the burden of some of the 1.9 million Syrian refugees now calling Turkey home but also to prevent the establishment of a Syrian Kurdistan along its border with the PYD’s further expansion to the west of the Euphrates River, a move that would unite the three cantons of Rojava,” according to Selin NASİ in an article entitles Conquering Aleppo by Hurriyet News.
It is no coincidence that we are now witnessing a media bombardment about what is going on in Aleppo, designed to secure exactly this safe zone, allegedly for humanitarian reasons. It would in effect give Turkey a big say in the composition of a new, friendly Kurdish state which controlled all the oil transport routes and reduced the sovereignty of both Iraq and Syria. The fly in the ointment of this plan is the Syrian Kurds, who will never accept such terms. The more of them Turkey can massacre during this intervention, the more this serves the purposes of the Iraqi Kurds and their new state, whether they call it a Kurdish homeland or not.
Too clever by half
Turkey has everything to gain from this illegal intervention. It repairs relations with the US by helping it fulfill its plan and at the same time does not compromise its new friendship with Russia, as it is merely fighting terrorists, not the Syrian government which Russia supports. It will go after a number of Kurdish targets outside its borders and within and then come out of it as the joint architect of a new Kurdish state, a gift from the benevolent Turkish people, which doesn’t include any of Turkey and ensures Turkish control of the regional oil trade and a pretext for stripping Turkey’s Kurds of their remaining rights.
The problem will come when it gains too much, and rejoices in it. Turkey is being used by the US just as the Syrian Kurds have been so far. If Turkey tries to claim too much of the pie in the exaltation of victory it will find itself shut out like Italian Prime Minister Orlando was at the end of the First World War: it will only be allowed to profit if suitably grateful, as much a client as the new Kurdish state but expected to be more self-reliant when trouble comes.
Turkey may forget it has been manouevred into helping create this new Kurdish state. It is hoping that the Kurds will also forget this, and take Turkish assistance at face value. It appears that history may write that Russia and Syria were set up by Turkey in collaboration with the Kurds from Northern Iraq. Now Barzani and Erdogan get what they want. It is strange, and too bad we were not able to connect all the dots weeks ago as what is now transpiring in the region. There was confusion among experts in Moscow and the region when the announcement came that Turkey intervened in Syria.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.