The US, Turkey, ISIS and the Kurds: What's Going On?

Friday, July 31, 2015

The big story this week has been the deal that the US and Turkey worked out regarding US use of the Incirlik NATO base in the southern Turkish city of Adana. Officials on both sides insist there's no secret deal, but from the outside it looks like Turkey has given the US a free hand in bombing ISIS targets while the US has given Turkey a free hand in bombing Kurdish ones. 

On the face of it all, the story goes like this: a bomb set off by ISIS in the city of Suruç convinced the Turkish government to play a more active role in the anti-ISIS coalition. So, as a result, the Turkish government has decided to allow the United States to bomb ISIS positions from the Incirlik air base located outside Adana, in southern Turkey. Oh, and while we're bombing ISIS, Turkey will be carrying out attacks against Kurdish-held positions in Iraq and, perhaps, northern Syria as well.

But there is, of course, more to the story than this. 

The Political Backdrop

For years, Turkey's AK Party government has been carrying out a so-called "Kurdish initiative," a peace process between the Turkish government and Kurdish rebels. This initiative has had, of course, an important electoral political element to it as well, whereby former Prime Minister and current President Tayyip Erdoğan has sought, in various ways, to forge an electoral alliance between conservative Turks and Kurds. In many ways, this made sense, as the overall view among many within the AK Party is that it is Islam, even more than nationalism, that binds Turkish citizens together. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan

In the wake of the June 7 elections, however, that calculus has changed--at least for the time being. The Kurdish-oriented political party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is led by a young, charismatic figure named Selahattin Demirtaş, who has done an excellent job of expanding his party's base to attract support beyond people who are interested mainly in Kurdish cultural rights and recognition. 

Selahattin Demirtaş

The HDP won more than 12% of the vote in June, which allowed it to get over the 10% electoral barrier. The barrier was devised (long before the AKP came to power) mainly to keep Kurdish-oriented parties (and other "marginal" groupings) out of parliament, and allows only those parties receiving more than 10% of the vote nationally to take their seats in parliament. So, if a party gets only 9% of the vote nationwide, the seats that they won are redistributed among the remaining parties in parliament. This is done proportionally, so the biggest parties in parliament have the most to gain from this.

Breakdown of June 7 election results

The June 7 elections attracted a lot of attention internationally because Erdoğan's AK Party lost its majority for the first time since coming to power in 2002. They came close, though, and if the HDP had received just a few less votes and hadn't made it across the barrier, the AKP would have likely been in the position of setting up their fourth straight coalition government. 

This was an election that meant some personal to President Erdoğan, beyond politics. Erdoğan served as Prime Minister for eleven years but last year was elevated to president (the president is chosen by parliament). For the last year he has been trying to turn Turkey into a 'presidential system,' whereby the president, who is currently an 'above-politics' figure who is supposed to be little more than a general overseer, would be an active political leader. Because Erdoğan willingly abandoned the prime ministry (which is the constitutionally-defined base of political power in Turkey) for the presidency (which is supposed to be a non-political position) he's currently stuck in the position of competing for airtime with his own Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Not that Erdoğan is actually heeding the constitution by staying out of politics, but without question he hasn't given up on his dream of giving his current position the official political powers that it currently lacks. 

Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu

The problem for Erdoğan is that, in order to give himself these powers he needs to change the constitution. And in order to do that he needs a supermajority in parliament, then win a referendum. Back in June, when the electoral returns gave Erdoğan's AK Party a "mere" 41% of the vote, pretty much everyone else seemed to assume that Erdoğan's plans for a presidential system were dead. But even back then I predicted that the Turkish president wouldn't give up on his dream of an American-style presidency in Turkey without a fight.

So what has happened since then? Well, no government has been formed yet (they have until mid-August to do so before a snap election would be called). From the beginning, my assumption was that the AKP would form a coalition with the Nationalist Action Movement (MHP), a Turkish nationalist movement that views Kurdish-oriented political movements in Turkey as an anathema (though they're hardly alone in that regard--many in the Kemalist opposition party CHP as well as in the AKP think likewise). 

If no government is formed--and even if one is formed--the prospect of running new elections in the near future is not unlikely. Meanwhile, I think the only real chance of a coalition government actually surviving for a couple of years would be an AKP-MHP partnership, which leads us to the events taking place over the past couple of weeks...


The Turkish government has had a very complicated relationship with ISIS over the years. When ISIS first took Mosul back in June of 2014, the group took 81 Turkish citizens hostage. These numbers included dozens of Turkish diplomatic personnel, along with the consul of Turkey's diplomatic mission in Mosul. 

So, at first glance, it might appear that Turkey and ISIS should be enemies, but that's not the case. The hostage taking in Mosul, which ended in the release of all of the Turkish captives, may have been inspired by Turkey's alleged support for a rival Sunni extremist group, al-Nusra, which Ankara appears to have backed as a means of placing pressure on the Assad regime.

Since the release of Turkey's hostages by ISIS, Turkey has been accused time and again of providing direct support to ISIS. Whereas the Turkish border with Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria was tightly sealed, access for smugglers attempting to cross between Turkey as ISIS-controlled parts of northern Syria was considerably easier. There were even reports (denied by Ankara) that the recent attempt, in June, of ISIS to retake the Kurdish-held city of Kobani was launched not from ISIS-held positions to the south of Kobani, but rather from the Turkish border.

I have no idea if all of these accusations are true, but what is clear is that the Turkish government under Erdoğan desperately wants to see the regime of Bashar al-Assad fall. Erdoğan, I think, believes that if Assad is replaced by a Sunni-dominated government--especially one that came to power with Turkey's support and assistance--then Turkey's influence in the region will grow at the expense of Iran, which supports Assad. 

And this isn't just a question of chasing "influence" for its own sake. As was the case with the United States, for example, in getting involved in overthrowing the government in Libya a few years ago, decisions of this sort are made with an eye to what happens after the war is over. Unlike Libya, Syria doesn't have much oil, but no matter who wins in Syria, an awful lot of rebuilding will have to take place. Someone's going to be doling out those contracts--if it's your ally, then a lot of those contracts will come your way. That means a lot of business for companies involved in construction projects--companies which, in Turkey, have benefited enormously from the build-build-build policies of the AK Party and which have a very cozy relationship with Erdoğan. 

For years, Erdoğan has been begging Obama to take a more active role in overthrowing Assad. A couple of years ago, the Turkish leader thought he had finally gotten his wish when, in an apparent attack against rebel fighters in Syria, the Assad regime was accused of having used chemical weapons. Obama had previously cited the use of chemical weapons as a 'red line' that would invite American action when crossed. So you can imagine Erdoğan's fury when Obama went back on his pledge and, by making a deal with Russia that was to remove all chemical weapons from Assad's control, the US changed its mind about actively participating in the overthrow of Assad--at least in the immediate future.  

Oh--and as for that chemical attack, Seymour Hersh says that it was actually undertaken by Turkish special agents as part of a plan to drag the United States into a war against Assad, and that the real reason why the US called off the war was because they uncovered this fact. Both the US and the Turkish governments vehemently deny this, and a number of others have criticized Hersh for his use of anonymous sources in his reporting. But Hersh is no crackpot. He's got a long history of uncovering scandals--such as the Mi Lai massacre--that were initially denied, but which turned out to be true. While I can't speak for the facts surrounding his accusations, I think they deserve to be taken seriously. 

Suruç and its aftermath

The bomb that went off in Suruç last week killed 32 people. Most of the victims were youth activists--many of them involved in the Kurdish-rights movement--who were in Suruç, which is located near the Syrian border, in order to participate in the rebuilding of Kobani, a Syrian town on the border of Turkey that had been besieged by ISIS for much of 2014 before coming under the control of Kurdish forces earlier this year. 

Some of the victims of the Suruç attack


Within Turkey, Kobani had become over the past year or so a symbol of people's opposition to ISIS, as well as to the policies of the Erdoğan government, which many people within Turkey see as having supported ISIS. This has especially been the case (though by no means exclusively so) among Kurdish citizens of Turkey. The bombing of the youth activists who were headed to Kobani has been viewed by many people in Turkey with a lot of suspicion, and HDP leader Demirtaş has even stated that was orchestrated by none other than Erdoğan himself--a charge that the Turkish president has obviously denied in very strong terms. 

Regarding this, Fuatavni, an anonymous (and in Turkey, very popular) twitter user who claims to be a government whistleblower, predicted last month that "false flag" operations supposedly involving the PKK, as well as terror conducted by government allies within ISIS, would take place this summer ahead of early elections. 

Some of Fuatavni's tweets from June

In the aftermath of the Suruç bombing, the Turkish government jumped into action. Talks were held with the US, and American forces were allowed--for the first time--to use the Incirlik air base outside Adana for the bombing of ISIS targets. 

Only there was a twist. Not only would ISIS be targeted, but also...PKK camps in Iraq. The PKK, for those of you unfamiliar with them, is a paramilitary organization that's been fighting the Turkish government, on and off, since the mid-1980s. Just like the easiest way to sell war to Americans is by telling them you're battling "terrorism," the easiest way to sell militarism to Turkish people is to tell them you're fighting the PKK. 

Hmmm...using a terrorist act as a means of attacking not only the alleged source of the attack, but also parties who had nothing to do with it in order to carry out measures that otherwise would have been impossible...that sounds vaguely familiar somehow.  

So, the official story in Ankara is that, while the US attacks ISIS in northern Syria, Ankara is going after PKK camps in Iraq in retaliation against a spate of recent attacks (here and here) against soldiers and police officers in southeastern Turkey that have allegedly been carried out by the separatist organization. The fact that the US campaign against ISIS is taking place at the same time as the Turkish campaign against the PKK is, in the words of a US official, a "coincidence." According to reports coming from Lebanon, Turkey has also been hitting Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, a charge that the Turkish government denies.

There's both a foreign and a domestic element at play here. The foreign element, relating to Syria, is that the Turkish government is afraid that, if the US succeeds in wiping out ISIS in northern Syria, the vacuum will be filled by the Kurds. By striking at Kurdish camps in Iraq and, quite possibly, Syria as well, the Turkish government hopes to prevent Kurdish forces from consolidating their position in northern Syria at the expense of ISIS

By calling an end to the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK, Erdoğan is also making domestic political hay, I think, with an eye toward upcoming elections. If, somehow, the HDP is banned, or else tarred with the terrorist label to the extent that they lose enough votes to fall beneath the barrier, then the AKP could very well end up getting its majority in parliament after all. Or, maybe they won't even need to go to new elections if the AKP makes a deal with the Nationalist Action Party, which would love to see the HDP shut down under any circumstances.  

What's Next?

And now? Apparently about 1,000 people have been arrested over the past week in Turkey--with the vast majority of them suspected of alleged PKK ties, rather than ISIS connections. That hardly seems surprising. After all, for a government that oversaw an 'Ergenekon' investigation that began as an inquiry into crimes committed by the state against civilians and ended as a campaign to track down alleged coup-plotters charged with conspiring against the AK Party itself, such a bait-and-switch must seem like child's play. Especially after they managed to con so many foreign bloggers, journalists, and academics into uncritically repeating their claptrap about Ergenekon for so many years, who could blame them for assuming we'd swallow this, too? 

It's hard to predict where all of this could lead. The Erdoğan administration has, I think, once again convinced the Obama team into taking an active role in destabilizing Assad even further--a policy that Erdoğan and his supporters no doubt think is beneficial for Turkey but which will yield, in my opinion, no benefit for the United States. Personally, I find it unlikely that anyone in Washington actually believes that the "moderate Syrian opposition" that we're backing will actually stand a chance against ISIS and other forces once Assad is gone. All they'll do, I think, is hasten the fall of the Assad regime, which will open the floodgates to even more death and destruction in all parts of Syria for the next several years, at least.

In exchange for access to Incirlik, the Obama administration has apparently given the green light to Turkey to decimate the only forces that have proven effective in fighting ISIS. For the Turkish government, this calculus arguably makes sense--Erdoğan and his circle are much more concerned about Kurds than they are about Sunni extremists--but how does this make sense for American policy interests in the region? Once again, I think, Erdoğan and his team have outsmarted their American counterparts, at least insofar as attaining their short-term objectives is concerned.

My guess is that, thinking more long-term, Erdoğan is banking on the ability of some other group--perhaps no less radical than ISIS but without ISIS's spoiled brand--eventually gaining control of the region once everything has quieted down. At this point, I think that's really the only realistic alternative to Kurdish control of northern Syria. And what matters most to Erdoğan and his circle is stopping the consolidation of Kurdish gains in northern Syria, while reversing those of the Kurdish-oriented political party at home. 

Because that's what Ankara's deal with Washington will, I think, ultimately mean--a strike against Erdoğan's perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic. 

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