President Barack Obama talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
In the aftermath of several high-profile failures to train allies in the region, U.S. foreign policy with respect to the Syrian civil war and the anti-ISIL campaign has doubled down on a favorite faction. As most of the conflict’s strongest actors have ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, or radical Islam, the United States has come to depend upon two primarily Kurdish forces: the Peshmerga fighters of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Syrian YPG, or People’s Protection Units. With the help of American airstrikes and weapons, they have won some of the most prominent victories of the war at Mosul Dam, Kobani, and most recently, Sinjar, a critical node on ISIL supply lines.
These successes have led to a rare consensus across the American political spectrum in favor of the relatively pro-West and largely secular Kurds. Presidential candidates from both parties have rushed to declare support for arming and training Kurdish fighters. After the public lambasting of a disastrous Defense Department training program for Syrian rebels, President Obama announced renewed support for the YPG, including the deployment of 50 U.S. Special Forces members.
American politicians are less likely to mention the rising tensions between these much-lauded allies and regional U.S.-backed regimes, which view the growing strength and autonomy of Kurdish enclaves as a prelude to secession. In particular, a heavy-handed government crackdown recently reignited the decades-old conflict between Turkey and the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), ending the ceasefire and peace process established a few years prior. Many observers have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of sparking the war as an electoral gambit to regain his party’s majority in the November 1 parliamentary elections. While the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., it is closely tied to the YPG and Iraqi Kurds and has helped them fight ISIL with tacit American approval.
American policy-makers have avoided tackling this issue, treating it as a narrow political conflict discrete from broader U.S. strategy. On the contrary, the Turkish-PKK conflict directly undermines American goals for democracy promotion, stability, and defeating ISIL. First, the fighting has been used by President Erdoğan to drag Turkey, the Middle-East’s largest democracy and a NATO ally, in a distinctly authoritarian direction. Secondly, the transnational nature of the conflict risks bringing Turkey into direct combat with U.S.-supported groups, damaging America’s credibility and efforts against ISIL. Though the U.S. has been unwilling to push too strongly for a Turkish-PKK settlement, shifting political conditions may open the door to renewed negotiation.
Turkey’s Democratic Erosion
President Erdoğan’s war against the PKK is first and foremost a calculated tool for maintaining power at the expense of Turkish democracy. The conflict has less to do with external events than the June 2015 parliamentary elections, in which Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority for the first time in thirteen years. The defeat was widely seen as a rebuke of Erdoğan’s personalistic rule, his corruption scandal, increasingly Islamist politics, and lethargic response to the rise of ISIL. The election also marked the first time that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) passed the threshold needed for representation, showing the Kurds’ dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s rule. The HDP’s success gave the diverse opposition, composed of both liberals and hardline conservatives, just enough votes to bar single party rule by the AKP.
Erdoğan responded to this electoral defeat by calling for new elections and essentially declaring war on the Kurdish population of Turkey. Seizing on the revenge killing of two policemen by a PKK affiliate, Erdoğan ended the peace process and began a bombing campaign against the PKK in both southeastern Turkey and Iraq. This resumption of wide scale conflict was a cynical attempt to rally voters around the flag while delegitimizing peaceful pro-Kurd politicians and activists. Recognizing this strategy, the PKK unsuccessfully attempted a unilateral ceasefire to avoid affecting the elections. The crackdown was not limited to PKK militants. Erdoğan’s apocalyptic rhetoric, which denounced the HDP as a PKK front, incited Turkish nationalists to attack hundreds of HDP offices and journalists critical of the government. Through censorship and intimidation, the AKP easily regained its majority in the November 1st parliamentary elections, mainly by pulling votes from right-wing nationalist opposition parties.
As Erdogan’s electoral gamble paid off so handsomely, he has little incentive to reverse his authoritarian measures and militantly anti-Kurdish stance. Indeed, in the days after the election, Turkish police arrested journalists accused of “attempting to overthrow the government by force” and espionage. Reporters have also been banned from entering the unstable southeast, where Turkish authorities are fighting a ground war in Kurdish population centers. Fear of instability and violence, which Erdoğan himself fomented, has allowed increasingly dictatorial rule in what was once a model secular democracy. If the struggle against ISIL has a critical ideological component, as many have argued, then the collapse of the Middle East’s “Islamic democracy” success story will have dire consequences.
State Breakdown and the Kurdish Moment
By extending its war with the PKK into the neighboring countries of Iraq and Syria, Turkey has exacerbated the salience of ethnic divisions and contradicted American efforts to build broader coalitions in the region. Astute observers of the Syrian civil war and anti-ISIL campaign may notice that its battle lines already closely mirror ethnic and religious distributions. ISIL’s territory encompasses the swathe of majority Sunni land in eastern Syria and Iraq’s western Anbar province; Assad’s regime controls the Shiite coastal cities; the Iraqi government controls its own Shiite interior. In both states, the majority Kurd northern enclaves remain in the hands of Kurdish forces, though the Syrian Kurds allow a token government presence in their towns.
This environment of eroded state capacity and sovereignty seems to have fostered unprecedented pan-Kurd cooperation despite persistent political divisions. Kurdish fighters from across the region have traveled to fight ISIL on the front lines of Syria and Iraq. The defense of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 included a great number of PKK fighters, while the Iraqi Peshmerga sent a detachment of 200 soldiers to fight at Kobani. The recent offensive to capture Sinjar required close coordination between the YPG and Iraqi Peshmerga, who surrounded the town from either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. After the Kurdish takeover, the town was festooned with the “sun-emblazoned [Iraqi] Kurdish flag… [and] smaller banners of rival groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” Though the various Kurdish groups vary in ideology and commitment to democracy, they have a common enemy in ISIL, an increased sense of self-reliance, and shared pain in the wake of tragedies such as the deadly Turkish suicide bombings and the rising count of war deaths.
In the face of Kurdish military cooperation, American distinctions between Kurdish groups, and especially the YPG and PKK, are becoming increasingly arbitrary. Turkey already insists on treating the Kurds as a single monolithic entity, considering both domestic Kurdish political parties and the YPG as PKK branches. In late October, the Turkish military briefly shelled YPG positions in a Syrian border town, causing no casualties but establishing its willingness to use force against the U.S.-backed group. While Turkey has avoided directly targeting Iraqi Peshmerga, perhaps in recognition of their formal legal status within the country, it has conducted airstrikes on PKK camps in Iraq and crossed the border in pursuit of fighters. If Turkey substantially expanded the scope of its attacks or accidentally killed members of the other Kurdish groups, it could risk turning the conflict into an explicitly inter-ethnic war with the most consistent U.S. allies in the region.
The End of Turkey’s Free Hand?
In spite of U.S. efforts to build an international anti-ISIL coalition, the greatest Sunni Muslim state in the region remains far more interested in attacking another group fighting the jihadists. PKK efforts to unilaterally declare a ceasefire with the Turkish government have failed, and Turkey refuses to negotiate until the PKK both disarms and leaves Turkish territory. Meanwhile, the U.S. focus on winning Turkey over to the anti-ISIL effort muted its reaction to the passing of Turkish democracy.
In return for the use of Turkish air bases, the United States ignored an entire set of Turkish actions contradicting American regional interests, including the original reluctance to tighten border control, the war with the PKK, and Turkey’s support of jihadist anti-Assad groups such as the al-Nusra Front. The EU, far from being able to demand anything, has desperately been trying to bribe Turkey into stemming the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe with travel visas, billions in aid, and progress towards EU accession.
Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane last week may have changed the political calculus enough to allow a new approach to the conflict. Joint Turkish-Russian collaboration on the Turkish Stream oil pipeline project and a rumored rapport between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan had raised the prospect of Turkey drifting from the NATO alliance just as it faced its steepest challenge in decades. While the two countries may feel compelled to keep their close economic ties, President Putin’s characterization of the attack as “a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists” indicates that the possibility of expanded strategic cooperation is dead. Already, Russia is taking punitive measures against Turkish firms and revoking its visa-free travel agreement with Turkey. For now, Turkey’s belligerent action has left it with no alternative other than to remain with NATO. The U.S. should use this additional leverage to curb Turkey’s more destructive and counterproductive regional policies.
Russia itself may prove to be an unlikely partner in this regard. For one thing, the YPG is one of the few Western-backed groups in the country not being attacked by Russian planes. Russia has a long history of ties to Kurdish nationalism, including USSR support of the PKK. In fact, Russia has provided enough aid to Syrian Kurds to provoke Turkish protests in the past. This amity opens up the possibility of multilaterally designating Syria’s Kurdish enclave as a no-fly zone and humanitarian safe haven for Syrians fleeing the conflict. The measure would carry little risk of escalating conflict with Syria or Russia, which was the main obstacle for establishing a no-fly zone to protect other Syrian rebel groups. If the United States is serious about ending the threat of ISIL and creating a political solution in Syria, it should be looking for avenues of cooperation with Russia to lessen the proxy-war character of the Syrian civil war and eventually lead to peace talks.
John Indergaard is a junior at Cornell University, majoring in Government and minoring in International Relations and East Asian Studies.
Image Attribution: “Obama and Erdoğan Speaking” by The White House, licensed under Public Domain