Erdoğan’s twin strategy
Turkey’s ‘game-changer’ has exposed the illusions of sections of the left, writes Yassamine Mather
On July 24, the Turkish air force started the bombardment of PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) positions in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, following claims that Ankara would fight Islamic State and the PKK simultaneously in Iraq and Syria.
A bizarre claim, as the PKK and its Syrian wing, the YPG (People’s Protection Units), remain by all accounts the only forces capable of combating IS in this area. According to PKK officials, two of the group’s positions, north of Dohuk and north of Irbil, were hit, ending the two-year ceasefire. By July 28 it was clear that the United States and Turkey had agreed plans to create a buffer zone in northern Syria and, as White House spokesman Alistair Baskey had declared, the US supported Turkey’s aerial bombardment of PKK positions: “Turkey has the right to defend itself against terrorist attacks by Kurdish rebels … Turkey is a Nato ally of the US”.1
The Turkish government is claiming that air raids against both IS and the PKK are game-changers that will open a corridor for other Syrian opposition groups (including, one assumes, Al Nasr, which is currently supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia).
All those on the left who have called for, or supported the PKK/YPG’s quiet acceptance of, US military intervention in the region should be thoroughly ashamed. The US involvement was never about helping innocent Kurds, Yazidis and other victims of IS aggression: otherwise it would not support Turkey’s “game-changer” attacks against the PKK/YPG.
At a time when some were under the illusion that the US, having signed a nuclear deal with Iran’s Islamic republic, had finally made a decision to seriously combat IS - and at a time when Kurdish forces close to the PKK/YPG in Syria and Iraq were making some progress in weakening or at least slowing down IS’s advances in the region - we are back to where we were a few months ago, with the world hegemon clearly determined to maintain the status quo: the failed states in Iraq and Syria are too weak to confront the brutal jihadists, and US current policy is certainly not aimed at defeating IS.
Ironically all this has coincided with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states finally waking up to the threat posed by their former protégés. Last week Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 431 IS activists, most of them Saudi citizens. According to Saudi authorities, some of those arrested were preparing suicide attacks in the country’s eastern provinces (where the Shia minority live); others were said to be behind a number of militant websites used in recruiting IS jihadists. It is difficult to believe that in a dictatorship like the Saudi kingdom, where people are arrested merely for writing a blog or driving a car (if they are female), the authorities had previously been unaware of the activities of these IS activists.
There is clearly a change, however minor, in Saudi policy towards IS. After years of keeping “snakes in their back garden”2 to threaten Shias in Iran and Iraq and Alevis in Syria, the Saudi authorities have finally realised that the monster they helped create now poses a danger to the kingdom itself, and its allies in the Persian Gulf.
At the same time a report in the US journal Foreign Policy Report quotes Stephen M Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard, who states that IS is in the process of state-building and challenges the widely held view in US that “its evil ensures its eventual destruction”.3
Walt reminds us that the group now controls large parts of Iraq, including oilfields and cities such as Mosul, as well as large parts of Syria. Walt and a growing number of US academics and politicians point out that almost a year after American airstrikes started it is clear that “only a large-scale foreign intervention is likely to roll back and ultimately eliminate the Islamic State”. However, as both the US and Turkey insist that they will not use land troops in Syria, it could be that the so-called Turkish “game-changer” ends up facilitating an IS victory, at least in Syria and northern Iraq. According to John E McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, “If you add everything up, these guys could win … Evil isn’t always defeated.”4
It is true that, in contrast to the corrupt Shia government in Baghdad and the dictatorial regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, despite its violence and barbarism, IS presents itself as a force against corruption and disorder - here there are parallels with the Taliban, who gained power in Afghanistan on the basis that despite their brutality they were supported by some Afghans because they were seen as a force that would bring order and stability.
It appears that Washington is considering various options, and one of them could be living with IS - at least until the next change in foreign policy.
Let me remind readers how we got here. In the summer of 2013 the US and the UK coalition government were considering bombing Syria, in order to depose the Alevi dictator, Assad - a move that would no doubt have benefited IS as one of the two main opposition groups attempting to overthrow him. Back then in September 2013 we heard reports of a “high-noon stand-off near the Levantine shore” - five US destroyers were said to be “pointing their Tomahawks towards Damascus”.5
By June 2014, this policy was reversed and we saw an American-led intervention against IS, culminating in the air raids that began in August 2014. Sections of the international left have defended these interventions, accusing the opponents of US military intervention of dogmatism - apparently by opposing US intervention we had failed Kurdish fighters in their hour of need …
Throughout the last few years I have argued against those who hold such illusions. As we witness yet another twist in this terrible story, I take no pleasure in reminding readers of my warnings. So what were the arguments in support of US intervention both in the international left and amongst supporters of the PKK and YPG?
1. US military intervention was a humanitarian intervention and, given the barbaric attacks against Kurds, Yazidis, etc, we should welcome them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, all imperialist interventions claim to be ‘humanitarian’ and none of them are. In this particular case, it is clear that US interests have dictated the obvious zig-zags we have witnessed. Whose ‘humanitarian’ interests prevailed in 2013? It certainly was not in the interests of the secular opposition in Syria. In 2014 the main aim remained the policy of maintaining the corrupt Shia government in Baghdad, while weakening or ending Assad’s rule in Syria: that is why US air raids targeted IS in Iraq, while supporting Saudi and Turkish interventions in direct or indirect support of jihadi groups. And now, in 2015, what is paramount for the US? Saudi, Turkish and Israeli interests or the plight of the Kurdish people?
2. We were told it is legitimate for the left to exploit the contradictions between imperialist powers - Lenin did so in agreeing to board that famous sealed train provided by Germany before the Bolshevik revolution.
But Lenin continued to oppose both sides in World War I - the fact that Germany believed it was in its interests to allow him access to Russia does not make it true. But, leaving that aside, the contradictions between two major imperialist powers, such as tsarist Russia and the German empire, cannot be compared with relations between the US and Islamic State. The latter is an armed group of maybe a few tens of thousands of fighters - a by-product of al Qa’eda, itself, in part, created by the US. IS owes its existence to funds and arms that have poured from some of America’s main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. If the US had any intention of defeating IS, it would have frozen the bank accounts operated by the group. It would have penalised contributors to IS funds and those who were involved in any financial or trade deals with it, as it did in the case of Iran.
To sum up, here we are not dealing with inter-imperialist conflict. Saudi Arabia, IS’s main sponsor, remains the main ally of the west in the region. Meanwhile, IS is an insignificant force, compared to the might of the world hegemon. Turkey, a member of Nato, had no major issue with the US, even when it was allowing IS jihadists to cross freely into Syria. Talking of ‘contradictions’ between US and Turkey or US and Saudi Arabia was always a joke.
3. Another argument put forward is that the YPG is so strong that it will not be compromised by accepting support in the form of US air raids.
Again, not true. Larger, more significant organisations - indeed states - have been compromised once they agreed to act in concert with imperialist interests. The YPG had a large following in Syria, but, by accepting/cooperating with US air raids, it joined a long list of Kurdish organisations that have fallen into the trap of believing that the enemy of their enemy is their friend. A trajectory that has led to countless divisions between Kurds based in different countries.
4. Last, but not least, there is the familiar argument about modernity and backwardness. According to this argument, IS is a backward, reactionary force, compared to modern capitalism (encapsulated by US imperialism) - Marx and Engels have been quoted for pointing to the progressive aspect of capitalism, compared to feudal obscurantism.
Again, this is nonsense. First of all, political Islam is a modern phenomenon. For example, it is not just the tactics used by IS that are modern: it and its antecedents have only existed for a couple of decades. It recruits young Muslims in the west, relying on their alienation from society, while in the Muslim world it is based on a complicated combination of envy and hatred of the west. In addition, as I have emphasised, that beacon of progress, the US, is in alliance with some of the most backward, obscurantist states in the region. So telling us that this is a war between modernity and backwardness is an insult to the intelligence.
The future of the Middle East looks bleak. Turkey’s “game-changer”, supported by the US, is mainly aimed at destroying the PKK/YPG and overthrowing Assad in Syria, while weakening Islamic State. Who knows? Maybe academics talking to the Foreign Policy Journal know more than we do, and the US administration is even considering the possibility of coexistence with an actual IS state. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that Iran’s Islamic republic will continue supporting Assad and Hezbollah, as part of its attempts to ensure its own survival.
All this is a recipe for more regional power rivalry and civil wars, disguised as a Shia-Sunni conflict, and the victims will continue to be the peoples of the region: Arab, Persian, Kurd, Druze, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, Balouchi ...
2. Quote from Hillary Clinton: www.ndtv.com/world-news/snakes-in-your-backyard-wont-bite-only-neighbours-hillary-to-pak-573412.
3. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/10/what-should-we-do-if-isis-islamic-state-wins-containment; www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/middleeast/isis-transforming-into-functioning-state-that-uses-terror-as-tool.html?_r=0.