Turkey, the Kurds, and Northern Syria: Early Impressions

Sunday, October 13, 2019

It's been a snowy couple of weeks, on and off, up here at the Borderlands Lodge this October. Normally the snow doesn't start sticking until November, but this year they came early. The bike and hiking trails are snowy and muddy, but we're doing the best that we can. The upper peaks have been frosted since the end of September. 

On the trail up to Storm Castle Peak. 
But of course life is simpler here in the northern Rockies. Given the state of the world these days, we're simply grateful to have the opportunities to lead our quiet lives in peace.

Not everyone can say that these days, especially in northern Syria.

There's been a lot of chatter in recent days over the Trump administration's decision to give Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria. What's going on? 

I have a few thoughts on these developments. 

Alliances matter 

To begin, I think it's worth remembering that Turkey is a NATO ally. When it comes down to choosing between a NATO ally and a separatist army in Syria, the decision should be pretty obvious, even for someone like Trump. 

This doesn't mean that it's a good idea to just allow the Turkish Army to destroy a militia that successive presidents (Obama and Trump) have supported. To the contrary, under a different administration, the US could have acted as a mediator between Ankara and the Kurdish militias in Syria. 

Not that I think anyone currently in the White House is very concerned with keeping NATO alive as an institution. But for those of us who do think that maintaining NATO is a good idea, keeping Turkey within the alliance's fold is an important objective. 

This summer, Turkey began buying weapons from Russia. From an alliance perspective, this was terrible news. So, it may be tempting now to argue that Ankara is a bad ally and, perhaps, should not be in NATO to begin with. But keeping Turkey in the alliance is important not only for American interests, but also as a bulwark against multiplying today's regional instability by a thousand. Remember: things can always get worse. 

Influence comes with presence

Americans complain about the total waste of blood and treasure that we have expended on foreign wars in recent years--forgetting in our self-pity, of course, that non-Americans have paid a far higher price than we have for conflict that we of our own choosing.

Yet when it comes to withdrawing--especially, for good reason, under this president--Americans start to get nervous. Remember the collective freak-out that occurred in December of last year when Trump announced we'd be pulling out of Syria? What if Obama had made such an announcement? Would people have acted so negatively? I doubt it. 

Of course, Obama had the reputation--even among his critics--of someone who thought over major policy decisions, as opposed to making them in a fit of frustration. So, I do understand why any major decision--when it seems to be coming out of ignorance or impetuousness, can be a concern. That being said, there is a lesson here: pulling out of the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, which many Americans in both major parties desire, will bring more consequences of the sort that we are seeing in northern Syria this week. 

If you don't have a stake in the game, you're going to have to sit and watch while others do things you don't like. Shrinking the US presence internationally brings a concomitant shrinkage in US influence and ability to affect the decisions of others. 

Inconsistency is the real danger

The real danger is not so much a sensible, deliberate policy aimed at drawing down American troops internationally, but rather the impulsive leaps from one approach to another that leave us all with our heads spinning. Dating back to Trump's announcement last December that the US would leave Syria, and going up to the White House decision last week giving the Turkish Army the green light in Syria, there's a lot that the US could have done to both get American soldiers out of Syria and address Ankara's concerns about Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. This sort of mayhem--with hundreds of ISIS soldiers now being released in the confusion--was totally unnecessary and clearly ranks as an obvious foreign policy debacle by the Trump administration.

Things are getting uglier
Just look at the roller-coaster of the past week. One minute the US president is reminding us all that Turkey is a NATO ally, the next he is threatening to "obliterate" our ally's economy. You couldn't do a better job of alienating everyone--the Kurds, Ankara, other US allies, Turkish citizens--if you were actively trying to undermine American power internationally.

The PKK factor

There are two main reasons why most self-identifying Turks in Turkey--even those who despise Erdoğan--either support the Turkish president's invasion of Syria, or else refuse to criticize it. The first is that almost everyone in Turkey who does not identify as a Kurd buys, to one degree or another, the patently false claim that the YPG, the mainly Kurdish militia in northern Syria is a "terrorist" organization allied with the PKK--the Kurdish Workers Party, a terrorist group based in Turkey. 

It's easy, of course, to convince Turks that the world is conspiring to divide them up and give their land to the Kurds.  In school and in the public sphere, people are repeatedly told that everyone is against Turkey--this is an old trick that started long before Erdoğan, and which has been used to silence criticism and force unpopular measures upon society for decades. 

That being said, there are also good historical reasons for Turkish citizens to believe this stuff. Look at the borders that were proposed for the Ottoman Empire following WWI and the Treaty of Sevres, for instance. This is what Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his partisans were fighting against. The idea of recognizing the collective rights of the Kurdish minority--which many outsiders have called on Turkey to do in recent decades--is something that feels to many Turks like a page out of the late imperial playbook, in which Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania all eventually became independent entities thanks to the diplomatic and military actions of foreign states. No wonder it's so easy to convince Turks today that the Kurds are simply the latest minority that outside powers are employing as a means of establishing a friendly satellite state in the region.   
And frankly, it doesn't seem all that surprising or crazy to me that Ankara would not feel comfortable with the prospect of an independent, or northern Iraq-like quasi-independent, Kurdish-dominated state becoming established on Turkey's southern border. Of course Ankara wouldn't want this, and of course a majority of Turks would trust their own government rather than the US in a matter like this one. Absent any diplomatic leadership from the US to resolve the issue peacefully, this is what you get. 

The Kurds--like the Armenians in the late imperial era--are in the unenviable position of having to rely upon foreign powers to help them advance their claims of statehood. The problem, however, is that other powers will respond to these efforts mercilessly if given the chance. 

The refugee factor

Another reason why many Turks at least tacitly support the incursion into Syria is that Erdoğan is promising to repatriate Syrian refugees there. This is important. Since the fighting in Syria began in 2011, Turkey--a country with a population of about 80 million--has absorbed more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. 

Despite the fact that Turkey is, in some ways, a nation of immigrants (how many Turks can trace their roots back to refugees entering what is today Turkey from the Balkans or Russia?), the presence of so many Syrian refugees in Turkey is a real issue to many people. The idea of somehow solving this problem by shipping everyone back to a "liberated" zone in northern Syria is, I think, a tempting (if unrealistic) one even to many people in Turkey who don't like Erdoğan at all. 

Reflection of a changing world

What's happening now in northern Syria is, in some ways, a reflection of how much the world has changed since the Cold War. 

In 1991, the US created a "safe zone" for Kurds in northern Iraq, against the vehement opposition of the Turkish government and most Turkish citizens. But this was 1991, when the US bestrode the world like a colossus. Frankly, no one in Washington cared all that much what Ankara thought, and a Kurdish statelet was created anyway. 

Today, life is different. The US is no longer is a position to dictate policy vis-a-vis its allies. The fact that the US has already played an indelible role in setting up a Kurdish statelet in Iraq means that we now have zero to no credibility in Ankara when we claim to have no interest in creating a Kurdish state in Syria. Any government in Turkey, not only Erdoğan's, would be strongly against the creation of any entity in Syria that resembles the Kurdish government in the north of Iraq. It's disingenuous for Americans to suddenly freak out when Ankara decides to protect Turkey's national interests in these ways. They've learned from bitter experience that being a good partner with the US doesn't always lead to great results. 

Exit strategy? 

The most intriguing question is: where does Turkey go from here? Okay, overwhelming the YPG in northern Syria is not going to be very difficult for the Turkish Army. Just like destroying Saddam's army was pretty easy for the US in the initial months of the Iraq War in 2003. What happens next? 

The "plan" in Ankara appears to be that, once the militia is routed, there will be no resistance, despite the fact that the region has been at war for the last eight years. Repatriating 3.5 million Syrian refugees to the north might not be so easy, either, especially since most of these refugees are not Kurdish and not from this part of Syria. How are local Kurds in Syria going to respond to what they'll likely interpret as the Arabization of a region that is majority Kurdish?

And how are Kurds in Turkey going to respond to this? While Ankara's current relations with Kurdish-rights groups within Turkey could be better, they could also be a lot worse. If the Turkish occupation of northern Syria drags on and turns into the sort of war that the US occupation of Iraq did, I fear the effects of this incursion could eventually redound upon Turkey and invite new violence in Turkey itself. 

It's a very risky move. 

Chaos invites chaos

Diplomacy, it turns out, is not such a bad thing after all. By creating chaos with a series of uninformed or poorly-informed decisions, the White House has opened the door to still more chaos on the world stage. This is definitely something that Americans are going to pay a price for going forward, the only question is how much. 

Random question, but do you know when the second Turkish invasion of Cyprus began? The same day that Nixon resigned the presidency. Coincidence? I doubt it. Ankara saw an opportunity and took it. When would a chance like this come up again? 

Today, too, Ankara is taking advantage of a chaotic American foreign policy and a White House staff that is likely more concerned with staying out of prison than advancing national interests. And why shouldn't folks in Ankara feel that way? If Americans think it's a good idea to elect someone like Trump, other countries' leaders would be neglecting their own mandates if they didn't try try to take advantage of this. 

So, if you were a foreign leader looking to make a territorial score, wouldn't the next year or so be the time to move forward? What if Cyprus in 1974 were to revisit us in 2020 in the form of Narva

Again, it would be a risk, but if you were ever going to take that chance wouldn't now be the time to do so?

I guess we'll be finding out soon enough. 

Also see:

The US, Turkey, ISIS, and the Kurds: What's going on?   

On Coalitions, ISIS, and the Kurds

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your libarary.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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