Notes on Turkey, the Kurds, Incirlik, and ISIS


11705352_1005341582823689_7540684201876452080_nI’ve refrained from writing much about this past week’s news for a number of reasons. The first is that I’ve been deeply depressed about it, which doesn’t make for sober analysis. The second is that there are many elements of this story I don’t yet understand. I’ve been hesitant to make a categorical judgment about many of the rumors I’ve been hearing from Turkey, since I’m not there to evaluate any of them myself. The third is that there are so many aspects of this I do understand that I’m tempted to write too much, drowning everyone here in detail that’s essential — yet failing to convey the essence. The fourth, as one (good) journalist in Turkey put it on Twitter, is “[redacted’s] just too complicated. Moving too quick.”

I’m also aware how difficult it is to write about this in a way that makes sense. I remember studying the Spanish Civil War as an undergraduate and feeling so overwhelmed by the number of acronyms that I decided my exam strategy would be to play the odds, skip the Spanish Civil War, and instead master every other topic that might come up on the Modern European History finals. To this day, I could tell you all about Béla Kun, but my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War remains limited to what I learned from reading Homage to Catalonia.

So I’m not going to try to write a definitive update. I’ll just direct you to three articles, open the floor to discussion, and try to answer questions, although I may not know the answers. I’ve extracted key quotes from the articles, but if you read them in full, they’ll make more sense — not least because all these beastly acronyms refer to things that are, in fact, very different.

The first is by Patrick Cockburn, in the Independent. Cockburn is, to say the least, a controversial journalist. My rule with him is that whatever he writes is worth reading, but requires confirmation by at least two independent sources before it should be considered accurate. I include this because he’s correct to point out the potentially huge strategic consequences of US policy here. Also, in this case, everything he’s written is correct. (I haven’t confirmed his quotes, of course, but those aren’t the essential points.)

The US denies giving the go-ahead for Turkish attacks on the PKK in return for American use of Turkish air bases, or of any link with Turkish action against Isis fighters and volunteers, who were previously able to move fairly freely across Turkey’s 550-mile border with Syria.

But whatever America was hoping for, initial signs are that the Turkish government may be more interested in moving against the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq than it is in attacking Isis. Ankara has previously said that it considers both the PKK and Isis to be “terrorists.” [my note — the US and Europe also consider the PKK to be terrorists. Having walked over their handiwork more than once, I can confirm that this is the correct designation.]

Meanwhile, Turkish police have stepped up suppression of all types of dissent – using water cannon against everybody from activists to members of the heterodox Shia Alevi sect, who number several million and claim they are discriminated against [my note — they claim it because it’s true]. …

The result is that the US may find it has helped to destabilise Turkey by involving it in the war in both Iraq and Syria, yet without coming much closer to defeating Isis in either country. If so, America will have committed its biggest mistake in the Middle East since it invaded Iraq in 2003, believing it could overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace him with a pro-American government.

The next is by Erik Meyersson. I almost wrote, “my friend Erik Meyersson,” but in truth we’ve never met. I’ve just been following his writing about Turkey and exchanging messages with him on Twitter for so long that I feel as if I know him. He’s a perceptive analyst of Turkish domestic politics, and this piece — Bombing the PKK: It’s the (domestic) politics, stupid! — struck me as dead on target, as his writing usually is:

The “peace talks,” “solution process,” “Imrali process,” or whatever you want to call the talks between members of the PKK and those of the Turkish government, was always an asymmetric engagement and, at best, a long shot … When the peace talks started in the late 2000s, PKK had its back against the wall, squeezed between Turkey, Iran, the KRG in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and a Europe that then still saw Turkey as promising and ripe for EU talks …

… With the Syrian civil war, Assad’s pulling back from Kurdish areas, and the rise of the Syrian Kurds, the PKK’s outside option improved markedly. With its success in Syria, PKK was no longer in such a bad state, with military successes in Sincar, and even greater political successes in its cooperation with US forces in beating back ISIS. Undoubtedly the terms demanded by the PKK likely swung into red territory for the AKP. To make things worse, the electoral success of the Kurdish party HDP made things even more complicated as the AKP would now have to negotiate with two organizations, each looking to claim specific concessions and each wanting to be seen as the main spokesperson for Turkey’s Kurds. But most damaging, the surge in “political Kurdishness” caused direct political harm to AKP in the last election, as HDP climbed above the ten percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation, scuttling an AKP supermajority in parliament and its plans for an executive-presidential constitution. As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, a large share of this surge came from Kurds previously voting for the AKP.

Bombing PKK camps in Iraq is unlikely to destroy the organization, or to weaken it to levels it can’t recuperate from. Turkey has witnessed multiple rounds of mass incarceration of Kurdish activists (recently in the KCK trials), and bombed Qandil mountains as recently as in 2011. The Turkish government probably knows it can’t defeat PKK military, so then why is it resorting to violence then?

The likely target here is instead the HDP. By striking hard at the PKK, the Turkish government is pressuring the HDP to pick a side. Either it denounces PKK to end violence, risking political blowback among its Kurdish base, or it adopts a more pro-Kurdish rhetoric, risking the ire of the Turkish public as well as the judiciary, which has a long history of banning Kurdish parties and politicians. The strain could furthermore risk breaking the HDP party, with its more pro-PKK members leaving to pursue its goals elsewhere.

As coalition talks to form a new government are stalling, Turkey may soon see another round of elections. If the current conflict results in HDP polling below the ten percent threshold, this could leave the field open for an AKP supermajority, an Erdogan presidency, and a new era of political AKP dominance in Turkish politics.

I add the third link with some hesitation, because it doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of Kurdish politics. But it’s a useful corrective to a tendency to romanticize an alliance with “the Kurds,” who are in fact anything but a single political entity. Let’s be realistic about Kurdistan; it’s a deeply unpleasant autocracy, writes Alastair Sloane:

Now, let’s be clear, the Peshmerga are certainly brave and they are certainly holding back ISIS, but their rulers, the Barzani clan, are dictators and gangsters. Masud Barzani isn’t meant to be president; there is a strict two term limit on the post, which he’s just ignored. When a Kurdish poet wrote a satirical piece recently poking fun at the Barzani family, he was arrested and executed. If Kurdish businessmen don’t pay the right bribes to the Barzanis, they too face arrest. Numerous journalists writing critically about the clan have simply disappeared.

“You son of a dog, if you publish that magazine tomorrow, I’ll entomb your head in your dog father’s grave,” one newspaper editor was told. Eighteen months later, he was shot dead outside his home. When Arab Spring-inspired street marches hit Kurdistan in 2011, there were over three hundred and fifty attacks on journalists by the Barzanis’ thugs. There have been hundreds more since then.

The Barzanis also appear to be overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing, both directly in Iraqi Kurdistan and via their affiliated fighters in Syria. They deny these charges, but diplomats and several aid workers attest to seeing Sunni Arabs driven from their homes in their thousands, their former dwellings burned to the ground. Many of the displaced Sunnis have lived there for decades, having been encouraged to move there by Saddam Hussein.

Looting, arson and forcible removal hardly seems a recipe for ongoing stability, and with the West simply standing by, often the only place for the Sunni Arabs to go is into ISIS-controlled territory.

I could clarify, update, and analyze all of this for pages and pages, but suspect it would be more confusing than helpful. The key point is that we’ve made a momentous decision — but it doesn’t seem to be one we’re much debating. And given our absurdly hesitant stance toward ISIS thus far, I want to know how we plan to use this access to Incirlik: Do we in fact plan to use it to wipe ISIS off the face of the map? If not, is it worth this price?

I’ll summarize with a comment sent to me by e-mail by a very reliable Western journalist in Turkey who doesn’t wish to be identified:

This morning was terrible. [Every time I tried to finish my article], I discovered that some even more absurd and terrible event has happened. … I was one of the first people to think that boots on the ground were needed for ISIS. But breaking an entire country, starting a war, wrecking a democracy, killing people and sending others to prison — all for what is ostensibly a desire to defeat IS but in reality a pursuit of domestic political goals both in Turkey and the USA?”

Photo credit: AFP/Ozan Kose. It was taken a few days ago in the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul. Not Syria. Here’s some background on the neighborhood.

Published in Foreign Policy, General
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  1. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    lesserson:SCORECARDI ran across this “Scorecard” that was put together by the BBC. It’s basic but seems to sum it up. Is it missing anything Claire?

    A major one — the HDP, which is a legitimate and elected political party in Turkey which is right now the main target of this entire charade. They aren’t officially a “Kurdish” party, but that’s the point: The whole point was to get the PKK to lay down its arms and participate in parliamentary democracy.

    • #91
  2. lesserson Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    lesserson:SCORECARDI ran across this “Scorecard” that was put together by the BBC. It’s basic but seems to sum it up. Is it missing anything Claire?

    A major one — the HDP, which is a legitimate and elected political party in Turkey which is right now the main target of this entire charade. They aren’t officially a “Kurdish” party, but that’s the point: The whole point was to get the PKK to lay down its arms and participate in parliamentary democracy.

    Ah, thought it might. I haven’t been able to keep up with the thread as much as I’d like over the last day or so but when I ran across it I snagged it. Thanks for the correction!

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  3. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    lesserson:Ah, thought it might. I haven’t been able to keep up with the thread as much as I’d like over the last day or so but when I ran across it I snagged it. Thanks for the correction!

    This one has been making the rounds on Twitter. It’s unfortunately almost too true to laugh.


    • #93
  4. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Ontheleftcoast:Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Would a glossary/guide help? I’m happy to write one up if you think it would.

    Yes, please. Program here, getcher program here, ya can’t tell the players without a program.

    On a serious note, what do you think of Caroline Glick’s latest? She seems to consider “the Kurds” to be America’s allies.

    I largely agree with her. There are some points of fact that I haven’t confirmed: I don’t know that there have in fact been Turkish airstrikes on ISIS at all.

    And she’s playing a dangerous game by suggesting the PKK should come off the terrorist list. The way you get on that list is by committing terrorism. I don’t actually believe that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I’ve seen PKK terrorism; a terrorist attack in Istanbul looks just like one in Israel does. The list has consequences: If we put groups on the list or take them off because they’re useful to us, what happens when we decide, “Hey, these Hezbollah folks can be useful?” And you know, that’s fully imaginable. It is not in Israel’s interest to make that list a meaningless thing.

    I think — very seriously — that we should consider creating a legal category called “terrorists with whom we must cooperate for strategic purposes.” I’m not joking about that. I haven’t worked out the idea fully, but we can’t just decide a group is not a terrorist group because they’re working for us. If you splatter civilians’ guts everywhere with suicide bombers, you’re a terrorist, even if you’re also useful to us.


    Not just thank you but bless you. I can now begin to stumble my way through. Also, you’ve got Ms. Berlinski to give us a few higher level insights that I can follow. Claire, if Lesserson wants to provide hot dogs with the scorecard I want mustard with mine.



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