Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why Turkish Kurds have been demonstrating, and in some cases rioting, to protest the Turkish government's Syria policy

A good deal has been written about this subject over the past few weeks. But I just noticed a Financial Times column by David Gardner that explains some of the reasons in an especially clear and compact way. Here are some selections, offered as a guide for the perplexed:
For a country that so recently harboured ambitions as a great regional power, Turkey is offering an unedifyingly feeble spectacle on its border with Syria, as the merciless fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) close in on the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani. This could be a defining moment for the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has dominated its politics like no other since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who forged the republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Despite President Erdogan’s regional swagger, and Turkey’s possession of the second largest army in Nato, the country’s neo-Islamist leadership appear unwilling or unable to prevent a bloodbath at Kobani happening within sight of their tanks. This refusal to act could also sabotage an Erdogan legacy project of a peace settlement with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, a probable casualty of Kobani as Kurds rise across the region in fury that Ankara is not just watching the town’s defenders being massacred by the jihadi fanatics of Isis but obstructing others trying to aid them.
[JW:  That last point is worth emphasizing. This is not just a matter of inaction by the Turkish army. There have been plausible reports that Turkish authorities have been actively preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching the Kurdish militia in Kobani. A few days ago even the UN's special envoy for Syria, warning of the imminent prospect of another Srebrenica in Kobani, "called specifically on Turkey, which has closed its border adjacent to Kobane, to allow weapons and potential defenders, primarily Turkish Kurds, to cross into the Kurdish-populated town."]
Allowing for difference in scale, the Erdogan policy looks as cynical as Stalin halting his Red Army on the east bank of the Vistula in 1944 while the Nazis butchered the survivors of the Warsaw uprising. “This isn’t how a Nato ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border”, an unnamed senior US administration official was quoted as saying in the New York Times on Wednesday.

Do Mr Erdogan, and his successor as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, former foreign minister and architect of Turkey’s eastward turn in foreign policy, know what they are doing?

Ever since they turned decisively against Bashar al-Assad in mid-2011, as the Syrian minority regime brushed aside all talk of reform and unleashed total war on what began as a civic uprising led by Syria’s Sunni majority, both Mr Erdogan [....] and Mr Davutoglu have thundered at the west for standing by while hundreds of thousands died. Their government opened its borders to fighters flocking to join the Syrian rebellion, in what became a pipeline for jihadis.

The west, by refusing to arm mainstream rebels it was egging on and instead outsourcing support for the uprising to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and Turkey, by permitting a jihadi highway into Syria, in different ways contributed to the rise of Isis, which used its success in Syria as a springboard back into Iraq. [....]

Turkey is understandably reluctant to provide ground troops for the US and its allies, while they have built a Sunni coalition that is steering equally clear of ground fighting against Isis. Most of those fighting on the ground, moreover, are either not up to it (the Iraqi army, mainstream rebels, and the poorly-armed peshmerga forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government) or are regarded by the coalition as terrorists (Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Iraqi Shia militia such as Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, and the Kurdistan Workers’ party or PKK). [JW: The PKK, of course, has waged a decades-long guerrilla war for Kurdish independence in southeastern Turkey. There is currently a cease-fire, but the underlying tensions definitely haven't gone away.]

Mr Erdogan this week equated the PKK to Isis, giving currency to the idea that his real reason for standing back from Kobani is that its defenders belong to the Democratic Union party (PYD), essentially the Syrian Kurdish branch of the PKK – with which Turkey has been at war for 30 years.
[JW:  Erdogan has a weakness for shooting off his mouth with inflammatory statements, and this one probably played a key role in helping convince many Kurds, in Turkey and elsewhere, that he and his government want Kobani to fall to ISIS. That accusation may or may not be entirely fair, though I don't find it inherently implausible myself. But the comparison between ISIS and the PKK may well have made sense to a lot of (non-Kurdish) Turks, but it enraged a great many Turkish Kurds. And that's more consequential than what I think.]

As Gardner points out, there is an irony here.
Yet it is also Mr Erdogan who has done more than any Turkish leader to end this enmity with Turkey’s Kurds, ignoring hardline nationalists and opening a dialogue with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader.

The idea was to give Kurds in south-east Turkey a measure of self-government and cultural freedom, while drawing Iraqi Kurdistan and the liberated Kurdish cantons of northern Syria into a Sunni Turko-sphere that would serve as a buffer against Iran’s Shia axis to the south, which stretches across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. President Erdogan is now putting all this at risk, and has put tanks on the streets of Turkey’s Kurdish cities while Turkish tanks idle alongside Kobani, which if or when it falls will become an Isis hub smack on Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria. [....]

Turkey’s leaders are right to keep insisting that the Assad clique is part of the problem. The Assad regime is one of the two stones grinding the mainstream rebellion – the other being Isis – and it is hard to see Syria’s Sunni majority being re-energised and carrying the fight to Isis unless the Assads are pushed out.
[JW: Gardner is essentially right, but there's something a little odd about his reference to "the mainstream resistance". That phrase refers to the less poisonous tendencies in the anti-Assad rebellion, the so-called "moderate" rebels. The problem is that right now it is not at all clear that they really are "mainstream," precisely because they have been ground to pieces since 2011 between the Assad regime and its supporters, on the one hand, and the more poisonous jihadi forces in the anti-Assad rebellion, on the other. That has been a tragedy. But whether or not it's too late to reverse this process is an open question.]
But that is hardly today’s business. Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu, who lead an increasingly Sunni supremacist party whose dog-whistle sectarianism is coming out into the open, give the impression they regard Isis as a lesser evil than either the PYD/PKK or Assad.

Of course Turkey cannot resolve the Isis problem by itself. But under its present policy it risks reigniting conflict with the Kurds, and Isis is likely to use its territory for reprisal attacks against the coalition anyway. Meanwhile, its partners, in Nato and the US and in the EU, will be telling Mr Erdogan he really has to choose which side he is on – and Isis is not just closing on Kobani, it is getting close to Baghdad.
The title of Gardner's piece suggests that the Turkish government's "cynicism over Kobani siege will rebound against Erdogan". In a just world, that would be true. In the real world we actually live in, that may or may not happen. What's more important is that plenty of other people will suffer from the consequences of Erdogan's policies.

—Jeff Weintraub