by Stephen Bryen
Turkey has confirmed that it has attacked the Kurdish militia operating in Syria, a significant and dangerous provocation not only against the Kurds but one that can draw the Russians into a formal alliance with the Kurds. Even worse, it can derail any political process and throw Washington into even more confusion.
The attacks were not severe and the Kurds considered them largely irrelevant. Apparently Turkish forces opened fire twice with machine guns, causing no casualties or significant damage. It is likely that the Turks, who probably hoped to get a response from the Kurds, were preparing to escalate the fighting, but were thwarted when the Kurds just ducked.
So what will happen next? And what’s behind Turkey’s obsession with the Kurds?
For some months now Turkey has been waging renewed war against the Kurds. Much of the fighting has been on Turkish territory, but some of it spilled over into Iraq. When the Kurdish-Syrian border town of Kobani was taken over by ISIS, the Turks refused to let any supplies get through to the Kurds, and just watched as Kurdish civilians and militia were hit by stronger ISIS forces. It wasn’t until quite late in the game, and much destruction, that the US Air Force gave some help to the Kurds fighting for their survival. The Turks, quite clearly, wanted to see them all dead.
Turkey’s obsession with the Kurds comes about because of the large restless Kurdish population in Turkey. Kurds probably make up a quarter of Turkey’s population, with the largest population centers in Turkey’s east and south-eastern areas. The most important city dominated by Kurds is Diyarbakir, which actually is the heart of Kurdistan as once promised to the Kurds by the Treaty of Sèvres.
That treaty, signed on August 10, 1920, was between the allied powers and representatives of the then-Ottoman government of Turkey at the conclusion of World War I. It was the same treaty that set the French Mandate over Syria and the British mandate of Palestine. That deal was refused by the Turkish Grand National Assembly that was led by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. To further confuse matters, the Turks themselves were divided over what constituted Kurdistan, and in any case the Sèvres treaty was not implemented. Had it been, a truncated Kurdistan would have been carved out of Turkish territory, forgetting the sizeable Turkish populations in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia.
We do not know if there is, as yet, any formal arrangement between the Kurds and Russia, although Kurdish resistance to ISIS is important because the Kurds can engage ISIS and by so doing help the Syrian regime in its battle against ISIS. It is important that President Putin pointed to the Kurds as an important ally in what he calls the fight against ISIS terrorism.
The Turkish provocation against the Kurds, by opening fire inside Syrian territory, is very dangerous not only because Turkey may try and commit even more significant forces in future against the Kurds in Syria, but also because it will rise in the Kurds a strong suspicion that the United States may be behind the Turkish military attacks. In fact, no one knows what Washington thinks about this, but it is clear the US is in a badly compromised position because it has put US Air Force resources in Incirlik in order to fight ISIS. The arrival there of both F-16’s and A-10 ground attack aircraft could play a role against ISIS, but it could also be a staging ground to try and topple the Assad regime. In effect, Incirlik is a dangerous pivot and the Obama administration’s behavior toward radicals in the Middle East is highly suspect. Even more to the point is the Obama administration’s support for the Erdogan government and Washington’s complete silence while Kurds are being ruthlessly suppressed and slaughtered by Turkish government military and police forces.
Above all the Turkish provocations against Syria serves to undermine the progress that may yet be made in finding an acceptable political solution for Syria. Putin has opened the door very wide to try and find a solution, and he dragged Assad to Moscow to drive the point home. His Foreign Minister is in dialogue with Washington and with some of the important European players who badly want a political solution to blunt the overwhelming refugee problem that threatens European unity and is starting to blow away moderate European governments, as just happened in Poland. More than that, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has telephone President Putin and, while not yet worked out, there is a good chance there will be a meeting of the two leaders in Moscow before January. This is not the first overture made by Saudi Arabia, who need protection from Iran far more than they need to try and topple Assad in Syria. But for it to have a chance to work, a constructive United States has to stay in the game. Unless the US stands up to Turkish military action against the Kurds, Turkey is going to get Kerry and Obama into a terrible mess with the risk of general war.