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There are countries where a single problem can explain almost everything that is wrong with their domestic and foreign policies. Turkey’s predicament on the Kurdish issue is just such a case. Ankara’s historical failure to find democratic solutions to Kurdish ethnic demands has shaped a deeply insecure and chronically irrational Turkish political culture.
Nearly one hundred years after its founding, the Republic of Turkey is still obsessed with fear and trauma from its decades of founding. Where others see the Kurdish demands for decentralization, federalism, and minority rights to be addressed, Ankara sees terrorism and the beginning of an intractable, bloody disintegration.
When it comes to Kurds, almost no problem within the country or outside its borders escapes this Turkish mental eclipse. From military incursions into northern Syria to becoming president Recep Tayyip Erdogan from reformer to autocrat, or from Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s to Erdogan’s chances of winning another presidential election by dividing his opponents – Turkey’s Kurdish plight contains all the answers.
For those who pay attention, the end of the Turkish-American strategic partnership has also come because of the Kurds. As a legacy of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish nationalism has always been deeply suspicious of Western intentions. The American wars in Iraq, each of which resulted in even greater Kurdish autonomy, exacerbated this Turkish uncertainty, bordering on conspiracy theories, with the creation of a Greater Kurdistan under American protection.
But for most Turks, it was in Syria that the Kurdish-American conspiracy turned into a prophecy. American military cooperation with the Kurdish militias proved simply intolerable for Ankara. The situation was aggravated by the specific affiliation of the Syrian Kurdish group, which Washington decided to arm.
The PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a Kurdish paramilitary group in Turkey recognized as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington. Desperate to fight ISIS * using effective ground forces, the Pentagon has decided that it has no better option than to unite with the Syrian wing of the PKK, the PYD, or the Democratic Union Party.
Ankara was told that this was a temporary and tactical partnership, devoid of any long-term strategic dimension. But, to Ankara’s disappointment, the United States’ support for the Syrian Kurds continues to this day, despite severe turbulence (Turkish-American relations – S. D.) under the administration Swap… More recently, on September 15, just days after the desperate evacuation of American troops from Kabul, CENTCOM Commander General Frank Mackenzie visited northeastern Syria to convey some sense of US confidence in its Kurdish allies.
One may ask why there is such interaction between the United States and the Syrian Kurds. Wasn’t Turkey, the second largest army in NATO, the best option for Washington in fighting ISIS? The short answer is no: ISIS does not pose the same existential threat to Turkey as it does to the PKK. In any event, CENTCOM commanders did not tolerate any reminders that Turkey extolled NATO’s mandate, including its continued contribution to the war in Afghanistan that Washington just ended. They knew very well that Ankara welcomed the infiltration of jihadists into Syria by opening its borders wide. This was a Machiavellian move on the part of Erdogan more than a manifestation of ideological camaraderie. After all, these jihadists were the most effective fighters against Turkey’s main enemies in Syria – the regime Assad and secular Kurdish nationalists.
Enters the stage S-400
Today, at least at first glance, it is a thorn in Turkey’s Russian missile defense system that seems to have undermined Turkish-American strategic relations. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will see that Erdogan’s decision to acquire the S-400 was also a direct result of strategic imperatives associated with fighting the Syrian Kurds. Ankara was deeply alarmed by Kurdish autonomy and territorial conquests in northern Syria, and any Turkish cross-border military invasion to stem the Kurdish tide required Moscow’s blessing.
After all, Russia had “boots on the ground” and owned the skies of its client state. Green light Putin Erdogan has always carried a high price with him, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015. Frustrated by the lack of tangible NATO support, Erdogan not only apologized to Putin, but, as expected, kissed the king’s ring.
The process, which was supposed to end with Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles, began in 2016 – at a time when Erdogan seemed particularly vulnerable. He had just survived a bizarre coup d’état that summer, in which F-16 fighters bombed the outer walls of the Turkish parliament and its presidential palace. While the White House Obama it took days to express support for Erdogan, Putin called him on the night of the failed coup to offer his support. Desperate to regain his credibility and show some renewed sense of power, Erdogan ordered a military offensive in northern Syria next month.
Operation Euphrates Shield was the first in a series of three major Turkish military incursions into northern Syria between 2016 and 2019. All these major ground operations required a thorough elimination of conflicts with Moscow. The latter, in 2019, also required coordination with Trump’s chaotic White House. Although Trump initially gave the green light, he later changed his tone and threatened Turkey with harsh sanctions. Such disagreements on the American front have made Turkish-Russian coordination all the more important for Ankara. But in this strange partnership, where Ankara and Moscow have supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, Putin has always prevailed and has never been shy about playing tough.
In February 2020, when 33 Turkish military personnel were killed in airstrikes in Idlib province – the last hotbed of anti-government resistance in Syria – Erdogan had to pretend that Russia had nothing to do with it. He simply was not interested in escalating military tensions with Moscow. The same dynamic continues to this day. On a number of issues – from Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas to Turkey’s agricultural exports and tourism revenues – Putin is in full control. But it is in Syria that Erdogan is most vulnerable. If tomorrow Russia starts bombing the province of Idlib, home to three million people, Turkey will face at least a million Syrian refugees at its borders. At a time when Turkey is already hosting four million Syrian refugees and public opinion blames the government for the burden, Erdogan is in no mood to jeopardize good relations with Putin.
Erdogan was recently in New York and had high hopes for a meeting with the American president. Rejected BidenErdogan defended his decision on the S-400 in an interview with CBS ‘Face the Nation’ on the grounds that Turkey is a sovereign country that does not need Washington’s permission to pursue its national security interests. What he naturally didn’t mention was that he owed Moscow a debt.
A few days later, after a closed-door meeting with the Russian leader in Sochi, Erdogan praised Russia and personally thanked Putin for their positive agenda on issues ranging from nuclear energy to military-industrial cooperation. Not surprisingly, Putin looked completely satisfied with his meeting with Erdogan.
After all, the sale of the S-400 to a NATO country that is currently excluded from the advanced F-35 fighter program and is subject to US military sanctions is no small feat for Moscow. If I were Putin, for this situation I would express my gratitude for Turkey’s insecurity on the Kurdish issue.
Author: Omer Tashpinar – Omer Taspinar – Professor of Security Studies at the National War College (National Defense University), Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Associate Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (Johns Hopkins University) in Washington, DC.
Fields in which he specializes include Turkey, Kurdish nationalism, political Islam, American foreign policy, the Middle East, the European Union, and Muslims in Europe.
Translated by Sergei Dukhanov.
Publication source here.
* “Islamic State” (ISIS) is a terrorist group whose activities on the territory of Russia are prohibited by the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation