The United States has trumpeted a July 23, 2015, agreement under which Turkey would, after years of refusal, allow the United States to use the strategically located Incirlik air base in operations against the Islamic State (IS). As of August 4, no such U.S. strikes had been made.
While Turkey has launched token strikes against the IS from Incerlik — a joint Turkish-US base built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Cold War as part of NATO’s effort to counter the USSR — Turkey has turned its planes, bombs, and guns primarily on Kurds, whom the Turks see as a perennial enemy, but who have been the most, perhaps the only, effective force fighting IS on the ground, protecting Kurdish towns across northern Syria and Iraq, and also guarding the Yezidi minority, who have suffered brutal attacks at the hands of the IS.
The US’ announced aim is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the IS. Its record on that score has so far been lackluster. And the US has now joined forces with Turkey — a country far more interested in its parochial battles with Kurds than with joining an anti-IS coalition.
The US and Turkey also agreed in July 2015 to establish IS-free “safe zones” in northern Syria. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, ‘“When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [IS] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally. People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe areas.”
Here , too, however, the US has supported the Turks in their battle against the Kurds, rather than concentrating on fighting the IS. The Wall Street Journal reported on August 3, 2015, that the U.S. has agreed not to allow Kurdish fighters to move into the “safe zone”–in spite of the Kurds’ success and the Turks’ nonfeasance against the IS.
From the creation of the modern Turkish state under Kemal Atatürk in 1922, Turkey adopted for its national identity the fiction that it was a unified and homogeneous society, barely acknowledging the existence of its many minorities, and in fact expressing hostility toward them. The Kurds, as Turkey’s largest minority group, at some 18% of the population, felt the brunt of this policy — Turkey has even used the ersatz designation “Eastern Turks” to refer to the Kurds.
The current leader of Turkey, Recep Erdoğan, prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and president since then, along with his AKP party, seem to lament the demise of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and seek to reestablish Turkey as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. Following the June 7, 2015, election in which the AKP failed to win the super-majority in parliament Erdoğan had sought in order to implement his plan to replace the parliamentary structure with a presidential system that reserved sweeping powers for himself, Fuat Çalapkulu, an AKP leader, tweeted, “Now they are saying Erdoğan cannot be president. The Caliph is coming, get ready.”
While Çalapkulu later said he was jesting, many, looking at Erdoğan’s history, didn’t get the joke.
The election, which saw the AKP lose its parliamentary majority, also produced, for the first time in Turkish history, at least some representation for the Kurds in the parliament. The HDP party, which came in fourth with 13% of the vote, is not a Kurdish party per se, but it has significant Kurdish membership and support.
Erdoğan and his allies are now lashing back, threatening to withdraw parliamentary immunity for newly elected Kurds — opening the door to prosecuting them for allegedly supporting terrorists — and, after thus handicapping the Kurds, to hold a new election later in the year.
The ascendancy of the Shia Muslim faction — rival to the more numerous Sunnis since the groups split in the 7th Century — was contained largely in Iran as Sunni Ottomans swept from north Africa to China in the 1300’s. The clerical revolution in Iran in 1979 and the installation of a radical, expansionist theocracy in Iran posed a challenge to the US’ historic allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni countries.
The army of the Sunni Islamic State challenges not only Shiite Iran and its puppet in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, but also Sunni Turkey, which wants to return to its place as a non-Arab state leading the Sunni world. Turkey has, however, until now, refused to challenge the IS. It has declined to commit its own forces to the fight and has barred the US and other allies from using its air bases. It stood by, doing nothing, as the IS fought to wipe out Kobani and other Kurdish towns in Syria near Turkey’s border, and it allowed IS units from throughout the world to access Syria and Iraq through its borders.
Now, suddenly, the US and Turkey have struck a deal. The US gets to use the Incerlik base in Turkey to fight the IS, diminishing the threat against Iran and Syria’s Assad, in exchange for agreeing, tacitly or otherwise, that Turkey can use its jets to bomb Kurds in Syria and Iraq who have been fighting the IS and protecting Kurdish towns, like Kobani, that span the long border of Syria and Iraq with Turkey.
Turkey has opposed the Kurds with military attacks that began soon after the post-World War I Turkish state began. It has long feared the millions of Kurds who live in near-poverty along the border and fear they will obtain statehood someday. The US has now agreed, acquiescing to a long-held dream of Turkey, to the creation of a 70 by 60 mile “buffer” zone in Syria — in territory that had largely been held by the Kurdish group the PYD, which has been an important force opposing Assad. The ostensible reason is to create a safe haven for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but for Turkey the objective is to gain control over Kurdish towns in Iraq and Syria, and to prevent Kurds in Syria from linking up with those in Turkey and Iraq.
The US-Turkey announcement was simultaneous with mass arrests of Kurds throughout Turkey. So now the U.S. tilts on the one hand to Shiite Iran — and concomitantly to Iran’s Alawite ally Assad — by signing a “deal” that ensures Iran’s becoming a nuclear state, and stepping up its efforts to wipe out Iran’s rival, the Sunni IS, and on the other hand to Turkey, by approving its attack on Kurds.
Opposition to Kurdish unity is also one of the bases for the emerging common cause between Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran, which also has a large Kurdish minority that it finds troublesome. Turkey has long sought to protect Iran from western sanctions in expectation of greater trade in oil and gas. Those efforts have now been rewarded by the US-Iran “deal.”
NATO has agreed to Turkey’s attacks on Kurds in Iraq and Syria, while mouthing cautions against “excessive force,” thus summoning unwanted memories of NATO’s failure to take any effective action against NATO-member Turkey’s military takeover of half of Cyprus in 1974–a conquest that still stands–and its mass expulsion of more than a quarter of the island’s population.
Given the chance to comment on Turkish strikes against the Kurds, the U.S. representative, Brett McGurk, demurred, saying, “We respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” And now the US seems to have moved to more direct support of the Turkish war against the Kurds.
*Barry A. Fisher, counsel to KNC-NA (Kurdish National Council-North America)