Turkey’s new “war on terror” mainly targeting Kurds

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

What was at first announced as a new Turkish turn toward attacks on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) on Friday has quickly become largely a campaign against Kurds instead. It is being alleged that the Turkish Air Force launched dozens of strikes against bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party over the border in Iraq on Saturday, and just 4 against Daesh positions in Syria.

Political cartoonists had fun with the mismatched sense of priorities:

What is weird about the Turkish campaign against the Kurdish forces is that they have been the only really effective fighters against Daesh with the exception of Shiite militias in Iraq. If you were going to launch a campaign against Daesh, would you do it by damaging Daesh’s most effective foe on the ground?

Early on Sunday Turkish police in the capital of Ankara dispersed hundreds of Kurdish activists who gathered to protest the bombardments, and arrested 25. the headlines say something about the protesters not wanting the campaign against Daesh, but these were mostly Kurds and they weren’t demonstrating in favor of the beheaders. Turkey’s twin campaign has a propaganda element that the press is sometimes falling for.

Some 550 persons have been detained by Turkish police, including a prominent Salafi preacher suspected of ties to Daesh/ ISIL. But Kurdish activists maintain that a large number of the arrestees are not Daesh at all but just Kurdish Turks. In other words, the AKP government is taking advantage of its alleged turn against Daesh actually to crack down on the Kurds instead.

The PKK had had a truce with the Turkish government since 2013, but a PKK spokesman said Saturday that the truce, and any peace process are at an end given the bombing campaign Ankara launched against them.

The US and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, and in the past it has been extremely violent. In the 1980s and after some 30,000 persons died in southeastern Turkey in a dirty war between the PKK guerrillas and the Turkish army. Some 20% of Turkey’s 75 million people are ethnic Kurds, who mainly live in the hardscrabble southeast of the country. Very few Kurdish Turks are separatists, but Ankara is obsessed with the danger that they might turn in a secessionist direction, encouraged by moves toward autonomy of Kurds in Syria (Rojava) and in northern Iraq (the Kurdistan Regional Government).

The PKK seemed a spent force 15 years ago, but the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq destroyed that country’s security and some 5000 PKK commandos fled Turkey to camps on the Iraqi side of the border.

The pro-Kurdish left of center Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has 13 percent of seats in the Turkish parliament, complained that

“It is unacceptable for [Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan] and the Justice and Development Party [AKP] to make their war on the Kurdish people part of their war on Daesh.”

The turn of Kurdish Turks to parliamentary politics and their entry into parliament in the recent elections could have formed a basis for improved Turkish-Kurdish relations. Instead, the Islamically-tinged AKP seems to have seen this development as a threat and appears to want to polarize the country so as to weaken and isolate the Kurds.

The HDP believes that the bombardment of PKK positions is an electoral ploy intended to whip up nationalist Turkish fervor in case there are snap elections because Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the center-right ruling Justice and Development Party could not put together a coalition with another party.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the bombings put KRG President Massoud Barzani in a bind. He had sought better relations with Ankara after the rise of Daesh, Salafi Arab organization that relentlessly attacks Kurds. People are accusing him of letting Turkey bomb Kurdish territory, and President Erdogan said after a phone call with Barzani that the Kurdistan Regional Government leader approved of the bombardment of PKK positions. Barzani himself denied saying any such thing and he demanded that Turkey stop its aerial bombardment immediately. Barzani’s forces, the Peshmerga, and the PKK fighters had not gotten along until last summer, when they united against the depredations of Daesh. Barzani’s government is center-right whereas the PKK are leftists and former Communists.

The HDP theory is that Erdogan is doing all this to win the next parliamentary elections which could come as early as four months from now if coalition talks between the AKP and its rival, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) fail. I don’t know if that is true. I can’t actually see how AKP could improve its fortunes by mobilizing Turkish Kurds. Maybe AKP leaders are convinced they lost the last election, or didn’t get 51% of seats, because of low turnout among ethnic Turks?

In any case, sensible analysts agree that Erdogan’s decision to ruin the truce with the PKK is a fateful one, and that it could throw Turkey into disarray.


Related video:

Euronews: “Protests erupt in Turkey and Iraq over Ankara’s operations against IS and Kurdish militants”

14 Responses

  1. In my rookie understanding of the area’s politics I understand that there is a political spectrum of kurds. Does the Turkish government make any distinction between the PKK and the YPG/J? Thanks.

  2. The portrayal of Demirtaş, leader of the HDP, and of the protests in general in the mainstream press seems to support the contention that this has been orchestrated to discredit the Kurdish affiliated party so that the AKP may get a better result in another election. It’s the old strategy of demonize the opponent and then reap the benefits.

  3. Bear in mind these are the very PKK bases that, back in the fall, send out guerrillas to (a) rescue the Yezidis on Mt Sinjar when the Peshmerga ran away, and (b) save Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, from ISIS when they were no more than 16 kilometres from the city. The only major military engagements they’ve been involved with have been against ISIS, not Turkey, with whom they declared a unilateral ceasefire many years ago.

    So basic chain of events: ISIS suicide bomber attacks left wing Turks trying to help left wing Kurds. Turkey responds by attacking left-wing Kurds.

  4. “I can’t actually see how AKP could improve its fortunes by mobilizing Turkish Kurds. Maybe AKP leaders are convinced they lost the last election, or didn’t get 51% of seats, because of low turnout among ethnic Turks?”

    It looks to me that if a snap election is part of the AKP’s calculation in attacking the PKK, it’s to steal votes from the ultranationalist MHP by showing that they can be tough on the Kurds too. The AKP has perhaps figured that they can use these attacks to move further to the right and grab the MHP’s votes in the next round. It’s the Likud plan recycled!

    Looks like Israel has become the model for both Turkey and Saudi in their wars against their neighbors.

  5. Who would have thought that the Arab Spring would be a precursor to a vast regional war, from Turkey all the way down to Yemen?

  6. This is the conventional wisdom of the educated left: he’s aiming to provoke the kurds, which would allow him to more fully mobilize, and probably extend the reach of, the AKP. Even if they don’t take the bait, Erdoğan knows how to sell red meat.

  7. I agree with PP, though there is so much I do not know.
    I would add that Turkey has, for more than century, pursued “ethnic cleansing” under the guise of Turkish nationalism. Ugh-this phrase makes genocide sound like doing the laundry.
    So conservative nationalism can join with fanatic religiosity and Likud political tactics.
    (Note: My definition of religious fanatic begins with someone who is willing to kill in the name of God.)
    In addition:
    The Alevi Muslim/Zaza-speaking Kurds are together with the Sunni Kurds. The PKK did a lot, beginning in 1974, to bring the 2 groups of Kurds together, which alarmed the Turkish government.
    As Turkey has had a hostile relationship with the Syria ruled by the Alawite Muslim Assads, there has always been the fear that Alevi Kurds would ally themselves with the Alawite minority in Syria, even though Alawis beliefs and practices are different from Alevis. And Iran claims that both are branches of Shi’a-Ayatollah Khomeini claimed that the Alevis of Turkey were Shi’a.

    So, we have Sunni semi-secular Turkey doing a token bombing of Daesh, and many bombings of the Kurds.
    They, the Turks, are terrified of a Kurdistan on their border, more terrified of that than they are of Daesh. I suspect the bombing of Daesh was the Turkish idea of proportionate punishment for taking the war to the Turkish homeland. By bombing the Kurds, I suspect the message is, Turks have the same enemies as Daesh, and will be covertly on the side of Daesh, as long as Daesh does not cross the Turkish line.

    With so many strands here, Alevi & Sunni Kurds, Shi’a Iran, Alawis in Syria, refugee-flooded Turkey getting hostile to the unwanted Syrians, the PKK, brutal Turkish practices past and present, and all the rest, there is no definitive clear understanding.

    I, too, welcome information and analysis, from more-informed people. There is so much that is so dark.
    The Turkish paper, the Hurriyet, is on-line in English, by the way.

  8. PKK is equally a terrorist organisation as ISIS, and any kind of legitimate activity against terrorists should be welcome. Turkey is dealing with two separate (in fact they are enemies of each other) terrorist organisation at the same time, which must be noted. Is there an obligation to drop the same amount of bombs to each of them equally ?
    Secondly, the truce was broken when PKK has killed two policeman (and they claimed the responsibility). They have targeted the military members (a soldier died because of remote controlled mine), not when Turkey has launched counter attacks. It was a good opportunity for the newly elected HDP to criticise PKK and denounce violence & terrorism to show that politics & democracy is the way to go (they are now the 3rd biggest party in the parliament) but that did not happen.

    • If you hardly bother to attack ISIS at all, folks might come to the conclusion that you are secretly on its side. Especially if ISIS is secretly funded by right-wing Moslems in the Arab monarchies that your party is close to. And throwing all the Kurds in Turkey into prison while claiming to oppose ISIS doesn’t denounce violence or terrorism – it nationalizes them.

  9. Don’t forget that not long ago Davutoglu described ISIS thus:
    “The structure called ISIL, in its core, could be viewed as a terrorized, radical group, but people joined there … we should know it like this. Previous discontent, anger, discrimination and insults gave birth to a wide reaction in a big front.”
    With friends like this, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, who needs enemies?

  10. The outlawed PKK has been involved in more than 2,000 acts of violence across Turkey in 2015, security sources said on Saturday.

    PKK militants have carried out 2,099 acts of violence in Turkey since the beginning of 2015, security authorities’ statistics show. These acts include armed attacks on police and civilians, assaults with stones and sticks, bomb attacks, as well as hijacking or abduction, according to police statistics.
    [deleted file]

    Militants have set at least 31 vehicles on fire during the last week, which saw the murders of Turkish policemen in southeastern Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir and Kilis provinces.

    On Wednesday, two police officers were found shot dead at their shared home in Sanliurfa’s Ceylanpinar district – an attack for which the PKK claimed responsibility.

    A day later, another policeman was killed in a gun attack in Diyarbakir.

    On Friday, another police officer was kidnapped as he was heading from Mardin to Mus with his family on the Diyarbakir-Bingol Highway, police said.

    PKK militants have also reportedly sabotaged the roads and vehicles in various places in southeastern Turkey. The PKK is considered as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

    The Turkish government launched an initiative in early 2013, commonly known as the “solution process”, to end the decades-old conflict with the PKK, which has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people for over 40 years.

    Police have apprehended 320 people suspected of having ties with terrorist groups in 22 Turkish provinces on Friday and early Saturday.

    they shouldnt have killed those two traffic police dudes in their sleep because people became sick of their activities at that point and government didnt have any other choice than to retiliate

    • In order to have a legitimate case against the right of Kurds to form a sovereign state, the governments that rule over the pieces of Kurdistan, at a very minimum, must prove they will defend the lives of Kurds equally to their own dominant ethnicities. Correct? Then the willingness of those governments to actually protect Kurds from being conquered by ISIS is therefore a test of their legitimate rule. The Iraqi Army will not fight for anyone. The Syrian government has disqualified itself as an unbiased defender of its citizens. Now I must regretfully question whether Turkey actually considers itself an enemy of the Caliphate. Though I’ve been loath to admit it, maybe Greater Kurdistan is the only safe bet for the Kurdish people.

  11. Turkey has an Israel at heart. Basically doing whatever they want with the help of uncle Sam.

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