Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan haunted by spectre of Kurdish state

The recent Kurdish victory, under international coalition protection, against the Islamic State group in Tel Al-Abyad has let loose nightmares for Turkey’s president, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

“We will not allow another Hama!” The Turkish president said this on numerous occasions, and never wastes an opportunity to repeat it again. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have forgotten or is just pretending to forget that while the massacre he referred to was committed by Hafez Al-Assad in the 1980s, it reoccurred decades later, in the same city and elsewhere, at others’ hands. The predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani, before it was rescued in September last year, serves as a vivid illustration of the brutality that takes place beneath his very nose. On top of this there is the other tragic consequence: the millions of refugees that have fled into his country and the generally negative repercussions this is having politically, economically, socially and culturally.

Some, both at home and abroad, have been bold enough to accuse him of complicity. His regime had a remarkable flare for remaining mute and looking the other way as hundreds of foreigners made their way through Turkey and across the border to join this or that extremist Islamist organisation. More significant is the material and logistical support it gave to those takfiri jihadists in order to sustain the war against Bashar Al-Assad. Concrete proof of this was recently exposed by Cumhuriyet newspaper that published video footage of freight loads of weapons that had been uncovered beneath crates of medical supplies and humanitarian aid that were being conveyed by trucks on their way to the border crossing at Hatay. The trucks were being escorted by Turkish intelligence guards.

The unmentioned rationale behind this lay in the desire to uproot the activists, militias, political entities and people of the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli. It would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Firstly, it would exact revenge against them for siding with the regime in Damascus and the Baath Party, which Erdogan regards as his own personal enemies. Secondly, it would halt their spread and restrain them from giving any further thought to creating an independent entity reflecting their cultural and ethnic identity in an area next to the border with Turkey.

This dilemma, in the opinion of some observers, served to justify the actions of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) to ward off the spectre of partition. Now, however, the term “spectre” no longer seems appropriate as that prospect appears on its way to realisation as people not just in Qamishli but across much of northern Syria and beyond Syrian borders unite in the face of an existential danger. This should have sounded some alarms in decision-making circles in Ankara to the effect that the triangle extending from Kobani into northern Iraq and southeast Turkey is on the verge of completion.

A number of developments support this contention. Prime among them are the reverberating victories that Kurdish freedom fighters have scored on the ground, most notably in Tel Al-Abyad, the border town that had served as the main crossing point for jihadists and supplies. This was the second major defeat that the Islamic State group incurred since it proclaimed its “caliphate” last year. By having secured control over this crossing, the Kurds have increased their ability to control areas bordering southeast Anatolia where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is highly influential and where it is preparing to eliminate, some say, ethnic groups that have lived in that area for centuries.

In an important statement to the press on his way back from Azerbaijan on 13 June, President Erdogan said, “There is an opinion that holds that the Arabs and Turkmen are being targeted in Tel Al-Abyad and that 15,000 of them have fled to Turkey. Then members of the Democratic Union Party and PKK moved into the places that were vacated. This is not a good sign. This means that an entity is taking shape that can threaten our borders. Everyone needs to bear in mind our fears concerning this.”

In tandem with that demographic change in the portions of Syria liberated from the Islamic State, the Kurdish space in general has experienced two highly significant and influential achievements. The first is Kurdish success in the recent general elections in which they surpassed the 10 per cent threshold and, for the first time in modern Turkish history, secured 80 seats in parliament. Southeast Turkey, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds live, has thus received a major political and moral boost. This has precipitated fears and concerns among certain shades of the political spectrum that hold that surely it is no coincidence that after hundreds of thousands of Turkey’s Kurds voted for the JDP in 2007 and 2011, they have now decided to vote for some of their own, fielded by the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP).

To complete the picture, a delegation described by Sabah newspaper as “thoroughly Kurdish”, as it consisted of representatives of the HDP, the Democratic Society Congress and the Regional Areas Party, paid a visit to their kinfolk in Irbil and Suleimaniyeh in northern Iraq. They also met with members of the political bureau of the Kurdistan National Federation, including Saadi Ahmed Pira, the former secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, wife of PUK leader and former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. Developments concerning their fellow Kurds in Syria were certain to have figured in their talks. After all, they all aspire to the realisation of their long held dream for a national entity they can call their own, a dream that is a nightmare for Erdogan, heir to the Ottoman Empire that fought against it for 30 years and whose army is still alert to all possibilities that might threaten the country’s territorial integrity.

Turkish alarm has been triggered by the gains won by the fighters of the Democratic Union Party, headed by Saleh Muslim and said to be a wing of the PKK, in Tel Al-Abyad. These forces were supported by Washington, even though the PKK is on its list of terrorist organisations. It is not difficult to find an explanation for this. It is a form of punishment of Ankara for refusing to take part in the international coalition that the US has been leading for more than a year against the Islamic State group.

Turkish decision-making circles believe that the coalition’s aerial bombardments were the main reason why Kobani was saved. Now the coalition’s fighter planes are serving as the Kurdish air force as their soldiers on the ground secure control over Tel Al-Abyad. So wrote Hurriyet newspaper last Friday, adding that it is no secret that the US has no objection to the establishment of a Kurdish state, or at least would do nothing to prevent this. Hints from Washington of a possibility of removing Turkey from NATO lend weight to this view.

Will Turkey, which has amassed 15 per cent of its ground forces along the border with Syria, intervene to expel what it calls “secessionists and their followers” from the border area, as it did in northern Iraq in the 1990s? The option does not appear very feasible, if only because this time, the Europeans and the Americans will never allow it.

So what options are open to Ankara?

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