Bloodstained sliver of sand
Everyone can see that Erdoğan’s military adventure has added to the chaos in Syria. But should the left in Turkey tail the Kurdish movement? Esen Uslu gives his opinion.
Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall collapsed, signalling the ‘end of history’ to some. But since then a 564-kilometre-long wall has been erected along the Turkey-Syria border.
Like the Green Line wall dividing Cyprus into two and the Israeli wall encircling the Palestinian communities, the Syrian border wall epitomises our times - and history since the 2011 Arab spring. The logic of that history was expressed by Donald Trump, in his great and unmatched wisdom: “We’ve secured the oil,” so “let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.”
Actually the border protection wall was not considered enough by the Turkish authorities to protect their “legitimate security concerns” (if we are to use the byword of international diplomacy) and a further 32-kilometre-deep safe zone was required. Hence further raids into Kurdish territories in Syria.
Nobody in European diplomatic circles asks what those ‘concerns’ are, but they repeat the old line: ‘Turkey has suffered immensely from terror.’ The public stance of its Nato allies remains unchanged, even though the Syrian Democratic Forces are no longer regarded as a terror organisation. In fact, the SDF has now acquired the reputation of an effective fighting force against Islamist radicalism and a staunch ally of the west.
There is not the slightest evidence to suggest that the Kurdish freedom movement has been involved in cross-border attacks into Turkey. While the repressive internal operations of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan created not a little resentment, they were met with futile resistance and sometimes unwise counterstrikes. However, in Turkey the main thrust of Kurdish politics has been fighting and winning elections. It is clear that Kurds in Turkey are not prepared to accept Ankara’s dictates, yet the Erdoğan regime is still trying to ‘pacify’ the Kurds within Turkey’s borders by force of arms, supported by draconian legal measures. Elected Kurdish mayors have been removed from office by administrative decree - only to be charged with ‘terrorism’ and thrown into jail.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkish army has occupied a 50-kilometre-deep zone and built encampments to guard all important highway junctions. Bombing raids and intelligence-led “surgical strikes” against Kurdish militants are a daily occurrence, praised by the government-controlled media. But meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government under Masouni Barzani is standing by and watching. It is keen to increase its cooperation with Erdoğan, who, it hopes, will help rid it of the troublesome Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a possible alternative to its rule.
The Erdoğan regime was dismayed when the Islamists it helped finance were overthrown by popular opposition. Behind the scenes it had been acting as a channel for the funds and material supplied by the Gulf states and, when those efforts proved insufficient, Erdoğan resorted to military intervention. After Islamic State emerged as a serious force, he supported it. When the IS thrust reached as far as the Kurdish town of Kobanê on the Turkish border, Erdoğan himself predicted it would fall within a couple of days.
However, it did not fall, and Kurdish forces pushed IS away from the town towards the western bank of the Euphrates river, where it occupied the important town of Manbij. But Kurdish forces were a thorn in the flesh of the Erdoğan regime - which has no “legitimate security concerns”: only the desire to stop the formation of any Kurdish autonomous entity ruled by democracy. Had it been a zone to be ruled by a Barzani-type regime, that could be accommodated. But if there were elected councils, direct democracy, involving the participation of Arab and Turkoman local people, that is unacceptable - that is what Erdoğan fears. But now he is supported by a US-backed military force in the shape of the SDF.
The Erdoğan regime’s Syrian adventure was transformed into open aggression, invasion and occupation of Syrian lands with a view to incorporating them into Turkey. It opted for a ‘salami approach’, grabbing land slice by slice. Two previous operations had brought it a sizable chunk on the western edge of the Syrian border, and also enabled it to establish 12 bases in Idlib province, which helped provide security for the remaining strongholds of Islamist radicalism.
However, that was not sufficient to satisfy Turkey’s appetite - after all, Kurdish forces were in control of a long stretch of the border and the land behind it, including oilfields, and they enjoyed the support of the US administration. For the last year the target has been to occupy a 32-kilometre strip to the south of the border in order to control the M4 highway. In this way the oilfields would perhaps become a target for future military action, with the principal towns along the border occupied by Turkey.
The US administration and military were dead against this, but the private diplomacy between Trump’s White House and Erdoğan’s palace, thanks to the ‘three sons-in-law’, provided the green light needed by the Turkish armed forces. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was acting as a roaming envoy to the Middle East, while Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Erdoğan, is Turkey’s finance minister. Finally Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, Trump’s business partner in Turkey, is the son-in-law of media tycoon Aydın Doğan - both have been close friends, helping to fix things between the US and Turkey. Yalçındağ was appointed chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council after his predecessor was accused of bribing Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor.
Their recent activities are remarkable - they include the sanctions-busting activities of the Turkish regime in collusion with Iran, and the following cover-up of the Halkbank scandal. Halkbank, the state-owned bank, the second largest in Turkey, was involved in laundering the proceeds from the import and export of IS oil. They also tried to cushion the blow of sanctions when Erdoğan opted to buy a Russian air defence system, thus calling into question the strategic boundaries of Nato.
Their magic worked this time too, but, Trump being Trump, at the last minute he threw a spanner in the works by writing an insulting letter (an unprecedented act in genteel diplomacy) to Erdoğan, asking - not telling - him to stop the cross-border raid. So, with Congress snapping at his heels, Trump opted to cut his losses and decided to heed the Pentagon advice to deploy a token force working together with the Kurds in the oilfields region, while leaving the bloodstained land under the joint control of Turkey and Russian-Syrian government forces as a ‘safety corridor’.
As a result, now the border zone is looking more like a jigsaw puzzle rather than a secure area. The Turkish and Russian military organise joint patrols, which are limited in duration and scope, while two towns are controlled by Syrian Islamist forces, including ex-al-Qa’eda and IS fighters, and other towns are under the control of Russian and official Syrian forces.
While these diplomatic and military moves were happening, the ‘national interest’ saw the mainstream ‘opposition’ parties follow Erdoğan’s lead. To date there have been no effective attempts to oppose the Syrian adventure. While the loyal ‘opposition’ parties have melted away, the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) remains isolated and subject to repression, because of its vocal criticisms. The main bulk of the left has crumbled too - abandoning the Kurdish movement, when solidarity is most needed. This has created such a rift that it will take quite a long time to heal - if it can be.
The rise of a mix of nationalism and Islamism - with all the entailing xenophobia, anti-western and anti-democratic sentiment - could give the Turkish bourgeoisie its long-desired unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Turkish adventurism in Kurdish lands has been accompanied by another expansionist move - the drilling for oil in the contested waters off Cyprus. That brought together Israel, Greece and Egypt as a bloc against Turkey. Eventually the European Union decided to impose sanctions on Turkey, and called upon the US to follow suit.
That exacerbates Turkey’s economic worries. And any setback in his Syrian adventure may be the beginning of the end for Erdoğan’s regime. As for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is experiencing some serious divisions. Two alternative parties are being formed by the former prominent AKP members.
Developments over the next couple of months could be very interesting indeed, but I am afraid that a left, which fails to act in unison with HDP, looks as though it will remain watching on the sidelines.