Special for the Armenian Weekly
On Wed., July 22, U.S. President Barrack Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan got on the phone and struck a deal to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since then, the Western press has been full of adulation for Turkey, claiming that it has finally overcome its reluctance to act against the Islamic State, realized that ISIS has to be dealt with, and has joined forces with the U.S. in the fight against extremism.
There is only one problem with this story: The main target of Turkey’s offensive has not been ISIS but, rather, the sole force in the region that has proven effective in combating ISIS—the Kurds.
Since the start of Turkish air strikes this past weekend, only three ISIS targets have been hit (reportedly damaging some vehicles). Meanwhile, 75 warplanes have hit 48 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq, and Syrian Kurds have reported similar attacks on their units across the border.
“Instead of targeting ISIS terrorists’ occupied positions, Turkish forces attack our defenders’ positions,” read a statement by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria on Monday. “We urge Turkish leadership to halt this aggression and to follow international guidelines. We are telling the Turkish Army to stop shooting at our fighters and their positions.”
Similarly, the vast majority of the more than 1,000 suspected militants arrested inside Turkey over the past few days are not affiliated with ISIS but with other groups, such as the PKK. In addition, Erdogan has ended all peace talks with the Kurds and even called for stripping members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of their parliamentary immunity.
For Turkey, the fight is clearly not against the Islamic State. It’s against Kurdish democracy and self-determination.
Ankara’s concern over the Kurds peaked this past June, when the HDP succeeded in winning 80 seats in the Turkish Parliament, blocking Erdogan’s plans to gain a majority needed to push through controversial constitutional reforms. About a week later, Syrian-Kurdish forces, backed by the U.S., pushed ISIS out of the strategic border town of Tel Abyad, striking a major blow to their operations.
While the rest of the world celebrated the liberation of Tel Abyad, Turkish officials were incensed. “This leads to a structure that poses a threat to our borders,” Erdogan was quoted as saying. “Everyone needs to take into account our sensitivities on this issue.”
Turkey’s outgoing Defense Minister, Ismet Yilmaz, went so far as to claim that the anti-ISIS operation resulted in “ethnic cleansing” in Syria, in a desperate attempt to tarnish the victory and justify action against the Kurds.
Official plans of a Turkish invasion emerged soon after, with Erdogan declaring, “We will never allow a state to be established in northern Syria and in the south of our country. No matter what the cost, we will continue our struggle in this regard.”
Of course, both Turkey and the West constantly accuse the Kurds of wanting to establish a separate state in the region. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the northern Syrian territories under their control since 2012, the Kurds have not sought separatism or exclusion but have, rather, instituted an exemplary form of democracy that emphasizes local decision making, ethnic solidarity, and a “third way” for Syria—one that rejects both the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and the barbarism of ISIS. They have repeatedly stated, and proven with action, that they reject the notion of a nation-state altogether. Instead, they are working for an alternative society based on “democratic autonomy.” This is the same position of the Kurds in Turkey, who have been calling for peace talks and working within the electoral system for years to achieve basic democratic rights.
It is precisely this Kurdish commitment to democracy, coupled with success on the battlefield against ISIS, that has spurred Turkey to enter the fray. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the government has sought to crush any semblance of Kurdish identity and cultural rights. Any advancement in Kurdish equality, electoral representation, or self-defense is merely too much for Ankara to tolerate.
Thus, as pointed out by Kerem Oktem, a professor at the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Austria, official Turkish policy is “to pretend that it is waging a war against ISIS, while at the same time following up on another goal, which is to destroy the PKK.”
Much like the “Armenian Question” 100 years before it, Turkey is seeking to solve today’s “Kurdish Question” through violence and criminality. Sadly, the role being played by Western powers is not much different than it was a century ago. Every time the West turns a blind eye to these unjustified attacks of Turkey against the Kurds, and falsely characterizes the latter as “separatists,” they are helping pave the way for further Turkish aggression.
This shameful reality will not only prove disastrous for the humanitarian situation in the region, but will be a major blow against progress, democracy, and any hope of defeating the Islamic State.