At 4am on Friday (24 July) Turkish aircraft launched strikes for the first time on IS positions in North Syria.
The attacks – Turkey’s first military action in Syria of any description since the start of the latter state’s grim conflict in March 2011 – were widely welcomed by the international community, and came with an official announcement that the US would also be allowed to launch anti-IS sorties in Syria from Turkey’s Incirlik airfield.
Less than 24 hours later, the character of the conflict changed again: Turkey announced that along with strikes on IS strongholds in northern Syria, it had also bombed locations in the north of Iraq where the leaders of the People’s Defence Force – the armed wing of the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) – are based.
To say this action might complicate matters in the Middle East is to significantly underplay their potential to spread further mayhem and chaos.
It may also mark a moment at which we must all – Kurd, Turk, Syrian, and indeed everyone connected to the rise of IS and the havoc and mayhem in the Middle East (this decidedly includes those of us in Western states, too) – pause, take stock of where we are, and work out exactly where we place our next steps.
Turkey’s relationship with its own Kurdish populations – and by extension with the Kurdish people of north Syria and Iraq, has been bitter, and generally, violent.
Effectively, it is a battle over identity – at the extremes of each group, the Turks believe Kurdish people should accept they are Turkish, while Kurds believe they should have their own state, entirely independent of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (it should be noted that most Turks – and many Kurds – would settle for something rather less drastic than either, ranging from levels of regional governance for Kurds to a devolved state which could remain part of a wider Turkey).
In the course of their decades-long struggle, it must be accepted that Turkey – which for long periods was ruled by military dictatorships which proved rather better at military than political manoeuvres – has exercised aggression towards Kurdish people at levels which are impossible to justify. During the first Gulf War (when UK news described the Kurds as ‘Marsh Arabs’), Turkish troops opened fire on Kurdish people as they attempted to cross from Iraq to Turkey to evade death at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s army.
On the other hand, the PKK itself was – until a cease-fire between it and the Turkish government two years ago – been less than innocent, attacking and killing people in Turkey in an attempt to unsettle the Turkish government enough that it would ‘give up’ regions in the south and east of Turkey where Kurdish people are in the majority.
Indeed, this is why the PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation not only in Turkey, but also by every other NATO member state, and 13 others (Russia and China have refused to list the organisation as terrorists, despite their alliance with Syria, which has done so).
Nevertheless, as the ‘actor’ with all of the power, and one which has certainly behaved with aggression and repression against Kurdish people, Turkey is undeniably in a position of responsibility: it, rather than the Kurds, could be expected to make the first moves towards a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
In fact, Turkey had been doing so – with encouraging reciprocation by Kurdish groups including the PKK.
Largely as a result of IS activities in northern Syria, and recognising that IS threatened not only Kurdish people, such as those living in the border town of Kobane, but also Turkey itself (IS has stated on several occasions that it intends to destroy Turkey and its government, because Turkey is a secular state, and it claims Turkey’s government is ‘unIslamic’. Some of the most embarrassing public declarations of the government of Recep Erdogan, including that ‘Turkish women should not smile in public’, have come in the immediate aftermath of IS declarations of intended violence against Turkey – fear can make idiots of us all), a ceasefire was called between the PKK and Turkey in 2013.
In fact, though no official agreement had previously been announced, the Turkish government and Kurds within the state had already been moving closer for several years. In Kurdish and Turkish political circles, ‘moderates’ – those who recognised the interests of the other group and hoped for a Kurdish regional/devolved authority – were in the ascendency, and making their preferences known to one another.
Two notable outcomes of this process were the ceasefire itself – and within it the systematic withdrawal by the PKK of its fighters from Turkey to Iraq (where, it should be remembered, they would be far more useful to the Kurdish community, by standing against the IS onslaught, but also where they were on Saturday 25 July, bombed by Turkey) – and the entry to Parliament on 7 June, among a cohort which included 80 MPs from the left wing and pro-Kurdish HDP party, of Dilek Ocalan, the niece of jailed Abdullah Ocalan, a leader of the PKK’s military wing.
The cultural significance of Dilek’s success was enormous: the use of Abdullah Ocalan’s surname – shared of course by Dilek – in public has seen people jailed.
And yet today, less than two months after that election, IS – whose abhorrent behaviour had inspired moves towards peace between Kurds and Turkish people – appears to have thrown the two back to the edge of all-out conflict.
As noted in the last blog on this site, on Monday 20 July, a suicide bomber aligned to IS killed 31 people in the town of Suruc, on Turkey’s border with Syria.
The 31 young people, members of the Socialist Youth Associations Federation, had been planning to travel to Kobane to help rebuild the Kurdish town which had been devastated by IS.
Though early reports suggested that the suicide bomber was a woman, DNA evidence later revealed it was a 20 year-old man, a student named Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, who had travelled in January this year to Syria, trained with IS and returned in May.
As noted, the attack led to Turkey launching its first ever strikes against IS in Syria – and to its first ever public announcement that US aircraft could use one of its airfields to launch their own attacks on IS.
But earlier in the week, it had also inspired the PKK to take its first violent action within Turkey since 2013. In Ceylanpinar, it killed two Turkish police officers in what it called ‘a retaliatory’ attack against Turkey for the Suruc bombing. Little, if anything, in the Kurdish struggle against Turkey is entirely black and white.
(It is worth mentioning here – albeit briefly – that Kurdish people have consistently accused the Turkish regime of actively assisting IS against them. I can only note that not one single piece of evidence has been produced to indicate that this might be happening: not only has IS consistently announced its intention to destroy Turkey – and now, of course, blown people to pieces within the state – Turkey itself has welcomed into its borders the largest movement of Kurdish people in recorded history. More than 300,000 Kurds have reached safety in Turkey since September 2014, part of a total of more than 2m Syrian people to have escaped to Turkey since 2011)
Turkey responded to the bombing – and the subsequent murder of the two police officers – with a large-scale police operation, in which 600 ‘suspected terrorists’ (with alleged links to either IS or the PKK) had been arrested by Saturday evening.
And of course, it bombed not only IS positions in Syria, but also Kurdish strongholds in Iraq.
At this stage, with Turkey on the brink of potential street battles, and Kurdish positions at risk of extensive bombardment by both IS and Turkey: in short, with both Turkey and Kurdish regions on the brink of mayhem which will destroy communities and ruin lives, we must hope that both Turkish and Kurdish people might be able to pause and consider their respective positions.
From a Kurdish perspective, it is to be hoped that the PKK will rethink its statement that Turkish actions in Iraq have ‘destroyed the ceasefire’ it has with Turkey.
Certainly, it is hard to accept a ceasefire which includes air strikes, but should the PKK wish to, it could consider its own killing of two Turkish police officers in ‘retaliation’ for a bombing for which the Turkish state was not in any way responsible as equally detrimental to the same ceasefire: that is, the PKK could open the door to negotiation, with its admission of fault as a small part of a rapprochement.
From a Turkish point of view, this would be a moment to consider the proportionality of its own actions.
It is hard to regard airstrikes on settlements as a reasoned and proportional response to the killing of two people – even though that killing itself was reprehensible and unjustifiable.
Even if the positive response with which Turkey was met for attacking IS was reassuring, and even if Turkey still regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, bombing houses is a massive overreaction, and stands to risk far more than might be gained.
Turkey and the Kurds of Syria, Iraq and Turkey itself, have already proved they can work together for peaceful solutions to their own problems. With IS looming in Syria – and the vast refugee crisis created by the Syrian conflict – Turkey and the Kurds need to work together. Battles at this stage on Turkey’s streets could lead to regional, as well as national, disaster.
It is also an opportunity for us all to step back.
Because the US began launching airstrikes against IS since last summer – in coalition with much of the international community in Iraq, and unilaterally in Syria.
It’s easy to look at IS’ activity – its slaughter of innocents, its burning of prisoners and its filmed beheadings (including of some people I knew and worked with in Libya) – and accept that the airstrikes are ‘right’.
And very few people would seriously suggest that the PKK either poses the same threat, or would sink to the same levels, as IS already does and has.
But while we pause to consider Turkey’s seeming (and not justified) regard of PKK and IS as parallel threats, we might usefully consider something else: why are we bombing IS?
It’s not a question of ‘does IS deserve to be bombed?’: few organisations have ever deserved being attacked more. But one year after the start of attacks on IS, we should perhaps begin to appraise the success of those manoeuvres.
Because IS is still extremely powerful in Iraq and Syria. It is still a major force in the four-way conflict in Libya. It has launched attacks in Turkey and Kuwait, and slaughtered people in every place it operates. In short, airstrikes on IS appear to have had virtually no effect.
I mentioned in an earlier blog that hindsight is no friend to anyone other than those who do not need to predict anything, and I do not write this as a criticism of those who have attempted to destroy IS.
But the experience of the last few years should perhaps lead us to review our consideration of IS. Though it is an extremely successful, ruthless and savage force, it is dissimilar to militias which have arisen elsewhere.
Western forces have already killed its ‘leader’ – and with little discernible effect. Because it is run not as a centrally-guided force following orders from a single point, but as a widespread scattering of extremely well-funded and extremely heavily-armed semi-independent groups, whose local leaders seldom even consult one another about deals done locally, let alone await orders from above.
It is not, despite all military intuition, a highly-ordered international unit (though no-one should believe this means its operatives are poorly-trained or disorganised: they are not), but instead almost the embodiment of chaos: groups – and occasionally even individuals – acting independently of one another, but answering to one name, and under the ‘shelter’ of one flag.
Bombing a location in Syria will not – and has not – prevented deaths in Turkey. Hammering a compound in Iraq has not saved worshippers in Kuwait from death. Airstrikes are simply not working. Neither, it seems, will ground battles (because the only way to win a ground battle would be to kill not only every current IS member – impossible in itself – but also every individual who might decide to act on IS’ ‘behalf’).
This does not mean we should do nothing, but we could use the Turkish intervention as a moment to pause and consider exactly how we can defeat IS.
In Tunisia, the aftershocks of another terrorist attack are also being felt.
On 26 June, a Tunisian student, Seiffedine Rezgui, shot dead 38 tourists on Sousse beach.
He had been trained in Libya by members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia militia organisation (though the training took place an extremely long way, 1,000 miles, from Ansar’s Benghazi stronghold – in Sabratha, Western Libya) and it remains uncertain whether he acted alone, or with local support (eight people have been arrested, but none charged: Rezgui was shot dead immediately after the attack).
In any event, Tunisia’s government has felt the need to act – and to be seen to act – in response.
I have already noted that, just a month after I wrote a piece describing the international community’s recent responses to international crises as ‘pulling up the drawbridge’, the state had offered a grim confirmation by building its own wall and moat along its border with Libya (I also noted that it will only extend along a small fraction of that border, and that Tunisians make up more of IS’ ‘foreign’ contingent than those from any other state). You can see the progress above.
But the state has not stopped there in its enactment of Mediaeval activity to ‘protect freedom’. It has also voted to allow terrorist offences to be punished by death.
The problems with the legislation, passed this week, are many and manifest: it holds the potential to prosecute genuine political protestors as ‘terrorists’ and to prevent defence lawyers from providing an effective defence.
In the defence of the Tunisian Parliament, which has since 2011 achieved some notable successes, it should be noted that the bill was passed with approval from every single political group within it – secular and Muslim politicians alike (the current government is a secular coalition) – with a vote of 174 in favour, ten abstentions and no votes against. This was not the government forcing repressive measures through against the wishes of opposition groups.
But no-one has been killed by the Tunisian state since 1990, meaning that even dictator Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali spent 21 years in power without enacting the death penalty.
Along with renewed conflict between Turkish and Kurdish people, it is hard not to conclude that terrorism is succeeding in wrecking lives, reducing quality of life, and spreading terror and chaos, even in the states where organisations like IS and Al Qaeda have failed to gain a foothold.