Turkey is Playing With Fire
With Turkey taking a deep plunge into the war against the ISIS and Kurds, the reality of Erdogan’s popularity is fast turning into a perception—an illusion. Turkey’s decision to play as the U.S.’ new “sweet-heart” in the Middle East is virtually taking it to the verge of civil war in its easternmost region, where Kurds have lived on the frontline of a bloody conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) for decades. What is adding more tension to this already uncertain military situation is political instability currently prevailing in the country.
Political instability, resulting from general elections held in the month of June, has, too, a lot to do with Kurdish question. With pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) winning 80 parliamentary seats, Erdogan was left with no option but to negotiate with other parties to form a coalition government. Until today, he has been unable to secure it. It is not a mere matter of coincidence that Turkey’s operation against Kurds has combined with Kurdish political ascendance in Turkey. A powerful impetus to Erdogan’s decision to settle the Kurdish question permanently by virtually eliminating the Kurds was actually provided by Kurdish political ascendance in Turkey as well as Kurds’ remarkable success against the ISIS.
It was, as such, the combined threat of Kurdish political and military ascendance that basically pushed Erdogan to launch military operation against them. It was, therefore, not so much Turkey’s covert support for the ISIS that might have prompted the former to wage war against Kurds; it was rather the question of pre-empting the making of an independent Kurdish state on the borders of Turkey.
The ISIS is, therefore, not Turkey’s main target. As a matter of fact, given the history of Turkey-Kurd conflict, there is every reason to contend that Turkey might prefer the ISIS to an independent Syrian Kurdish state on its border, worried it could further motivate Turkish Kurds to reignite their campaign for Kurdish sovereignty on Turkish territory.
In this behalf, Turkish campaign against the ISIS is nothing short of a myth. This reality was clearly expressed by Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the YPG, the Kurdish group fighting the ISIS in northern Syria. He says he doesn’t trust Turkey’s motivations, believing it to be more of political play than genuine desire to defeat the militants. “All this is connected to the policy of the Turkish state and its interest in pleasing the international community and the world by showing it is against terrorism,” says Xelil. “If the Turkish state was truly serious about fighting ISIS, it would have taken action the day the international coalition was formed,” he argued further.
Under present circumstances, when the Turkish army is conducting various operations in different Kurdish cities, it was clear that similar to not-so-distant years, the army would attack PKK’s positions in northern parts of Iraq, which constitute the main base for PKK’s command and support operations. The ongoing attacks on northern Iraq by the Turkish army can be construed along this line because by carrying out these operations, the Turkish military is actually trying to reduce the fire power of PKK.
Of course, the situation is now more complicated than previous years because the Turkish army is also engaged in military operations in northern Syria. However, the main motive behind Turkish government’s extraterritorial operations is to fight the PKK to establish its own hegemony in Kurdish regions at a time that the outlook for the establishment of a new cabinet in Turkey is not clear yet and deliberate dawdling by the government and the army in this regard may lead to major and uncontrollable unrest, or even civil-war like situation, in the country.
As far as Turkish Kurds are concerned, they are certainly prepared for such a scenario. For instance, in Cizre, the center of Kurdish resistance, trenches have been dug in, several feet wide and paired with mounds of earth and torn-up building material. They also appeared to be blocking roads in this Kurdish enclave in southeastern Turkey after Ankara launched an intensive air campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July. Cizre—an unremarkable-looking town of just over 100,000 lives on the Tigris River, around 30 miles from the tripoint where Turkey meets conflict-ravaged Syria and Iraq, and violence regularly strays over the national boundaries– has spent years on the fringes of war.
The city is important because Cizre’s history of unrest and PKK support goes back decades. During the worst of the insurgency in the 1990s, dozens were killed in frequent street fighting, and even today, it continues to provide critical raw material for the continuation of the “movement for independence.” Once again, the city and its dwellers are ready to tackle what can reasonably be called Turkish re-enactment of Ottoman tyranny.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”