I returned to Istanbul on Sunday after a 17-day trip to the idyllic South Sea Islands, where media attention was focused on the pregnancy of the recently elected Prime Minister, and whether she would have a boy, a girl, or some more politically correct, post-modern variation of one or the other. And what did I find back here? Turkey on the brink of war with the United States of America!
Of course, you will be aware that the Turkish military has begun conducting air and land strikes across its border into Syria, targeting Kurdish irregular forces holed up in the Afrin region. I don’t know what picture of this your local media have been presenting. What little coverage I saw downunder was portraying Turkey as the aggressor, ruthlessly bombing innocent Kurdish civilians in its ongoing suppression of those people’s righteous struggle for a national homeland.
Well, I’m not going into a lengthy analysis of the Kurdish situation in the Middle East. Millions of Kurdish people live in Turkey, and I suspect the vast majority of them are mostly interested in working to make a better life for themselves and their children. Given the option, few of them would relocate to a mountainous landlocked state in the Middle East, however oil-rich it might be. Despite the nay-sayers, the lives of most Kurdish people have improved enormously under the present government of Turkey, in terms of recognising their ethnic identity, supporting Kurdish language TV channels and encouraging economic development in eastern Turkey.
Undoubtedly, not all Kurds are happy campers. Just as in New Zealand, where elements among the native Maori population will not be satisfied until white NZers have gone back to Scotland, or wherever our ancestors came from, there are militant nationalist Kurdish elements ready and willing to employ violent tactics to achieve – whatever it is they want to achieve.
Rose Gottermoeller, Deputy General Secretary of NATO, speaking in Ankara the other day, acknowledged that:
Turkey is among the NATO members “most affected by terror attacks” and NATO fully recognizes the threat posed to it . . .
“Turkey has really suffered from terrorism in recent years and has a very serious problem. It is among the NATO allies that suffer the most attacks in recent years and we do recognize that fully,” [she said].
She could have gone on to add that, since civil war broke out in Syria in March 2011, the people of Turkey have been obliged to host and care for nearly four million refugees fleeing the violence – with precious little aid from their wealthy NATO allies.
Those refugees have been flooding across an 822 km land border between the two countries – a border than runs through some pretty mountainous and inhospitable geography, near impossible to police. Needless to say, among the hopeless, helpless and harmless multitudes, there are a few malcontents taking advantage of the situation to enter Turkey with a view to causing mayhem. There are also young men passing the other way, fired up by ideology or boredom, seeking to join one side or the other in the Syrian conflict – a relatively minor aspect that Western media have chosen to focus on.
Security forces in Turkey are quite proficient at maintaining order – given the geo-political turbulence in the region, they need to be. Their task is made more difficult, however, by support provided to local terrorists by interested groups across the border in Iraq and Syria.
“Turkey has long complained about American support for Syrian Kurdish militias, which it says have emboldened the Kurdish separatist movement that Ankara considers a threat to its territorial sovereignty and is prepared to go to great lengths to counteract. Turkish officials say that this has allowed weapons and support to reach the outlawed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.”
Those militias have been strengthened for many years by the United States government supplying arms, training and financial support. As far back as 1991, George Bush the Father was conducting Operation Provide Comfort, supporting Kurds in Northern Iraq. A few years later, George the Son was enlisting the aid of Iraqi Kurds in his crusading mission to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his non-existent weapons of mass destruction. What did George Dubya and his cronies promise Masoud Barzani in return? An independent Kurdistan? And why would they do that? Anything to do with having a grateful, oil rich puppet state in the middle of the Middle East, I wonder? Draw your own conclusions.
And more recently, Big Donald, the Holy Ghost, has been succouring Kurdish militants in north-west Syria. A senior American commander, according to the New York Times, “praised the partnership with the Kurds, whose help was critical in a major American airstrike on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, over the weekend.”
“Senior Pentagon officials and American commanders,” the article continued, “say that the Syrian Kurds will most likely serve as the backbone of the allied forces on the ground in Syria for months to come.”
“Echoing earlier comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview last month that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.”
On the other hand, the same article referred to a White House message “aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.”
“. . . the White House disavowed a plan by the American military to create a Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria, which Turkey has vehemently opposed. Turkey, which considers the Kurdish militia a terrorist organization, fears the plan would cement a Kurdish enclave along its southern frontier.
“That plan, a senior administration official said Tuesday, originated with midlevel military planners in the field, and was never seriously debated, or even formally introduced, at senior levels in the White House or the National Security Council.
“The official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, also said that the United States had no connection to the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched an invasion in recent days.
“And he drew a distinction between allies — a term he said had legal connotations — and partners in a combat mission, like the Kurds. America’s actions on the ground in Syria, he said, would be driven by a calculation of its interests.”
Meaning the United States’ interests, of course. And if US interests conflict with those of its loyal NATO allies, the allies can go hang. Nevertheless, countries like Turkey do have their own national interests, especially since they are somewhat closer to ground zero in Syria than most Americans. Our English language Turkish daily, Hurriyet Daily News has this to say about the US’s “combat partners”:
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting Turkey for decades and is designated a terrorist by numerous countries, including the U.S. Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter even admitted during a congressional hearing in April 2016 that the YPG and the PKK were “organically linked.”
This is why U.S. Special Forces Commander General Raymond Thomas asked YPG personnel to rename themselves, in order to circumvent NATO ally Turkey in the anti-ISIL alliance. “With about a day’s notice they declared they were the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF],” Thomas said at the July 2017 Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
He continued mockingly, amid laughter from the audience. “I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ in there somewhere,” he said. “But it gave them a little bit of credibility. I was lucky to have a great partner like Brett McGurk with me, because they were asking for things that I couldn’t give them. They wanted a seat at the table, whether it’s Geneva, or Astana, or wherever the talks are happening about the future of Syria. But because they have been branded as the PKK they could never get to the table. So we paired them militarily and McGurk was able to keep them in the conversation.”
What’s in a name? Rename a Kurdish terrorist as a loyal US partner fighting for democracy in Syria against an evil dictator, and all will be well.
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, as he often does, is calling out the United States government for its hypocrisy.
“The U.S. is urging that [Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch] should not last too long and should be conducted within a certain time frame. I ask the U.S.: Does your operation in Afghanistan, which you launched more than 10 years ago, have a certain time frame? When will it be completed? You are also still in Iraq, aren’t you? Do these kinds of operations have a certain time frame?” Erdoğan added.
So where does that leave us, we helpless observers of the great global imperialist game?
“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavuşoğlu, said the other day. “If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it.
A Turkish assault on Manbij could bring its forces into direct conflict with the Americans, with unpredictable results.
The NY Times correspondents wrote, “Robert S. Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former Ambassador to Syria, wrote in an analytical column that Turkey’s military operations in Syria demonstrated the difficulties of the American position. Turkey’s brushoff of American concerns made the United States look weak, Mr. Ford wrote, adding that some Kurdish observers were accusing America of being an unreliable ally.
“Over the longer term, it is hard to see how the U.S. will secure its stated political goal of stabilization in eastern Syria and genuine governance reforms in Syria,” he wrote.
Murat Yetkin, writing in Hurriyet Daily News, observed, “It is not hard to see that such a relationship [between the US and Kurdish militant groups] must end at some point, because it is not right. The partnership even evokes memories of the U.S.’s arming of Islamist tribes in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion.”
Well, of course I wish the people of New Zealand, their Prime Minister and her principal care-giving partner joy and happiness in their new First Baby. I’m pleased, however, to be back in a part of the world where issues of genuine global importance receive more attention.