Not A Good Time To Be Turkish – Turkey, the Kurds, and the Syrian Civil War

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This is not a good time to be Turkish.

Or, for that matter, a Kurd.

Perched on the edge of one of the two defining conflicts of the modern age, to be either Turk or Kurd is today not only to be attacked by IS, and threatened by the overspill of other armed participants in the Syrian Civil War, but also to be at war – in effect – against your own longest-held enemy.

It would be enough, perhaps, to unite even the Turkish and Kurdish people, were it not that the Kurd’s greatest enemy is the Turk, and the Turk’s, the Kurds.

On Wednesday evening, during the Ankara rush hour, a bomb exploded, killing 28 people and injuring 61 more in the Turkish capital.

Within hours, a second explosion had taken place at a Turkish cultural centre in Stockholm, Sweden, close to where a Kurdish man had been shot dead days earlier for attending a peace rally, and the following morning, a third, in South East Turkey, which killed six soldiers on a road linking Diyarbakir to the district of Lice.

The Ankara car-bombing was carried out by Abdulbaki Sonmez, 27, a Turkish Kurd and a member of Kurdish organisation ‘Kurdistan Freedom Hawks’.

But in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Turkish government actually named a man – Salih Necar, a Syrian Kurd – as the bomber, and alleged that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), in collaboration with the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, was responsible. Neither were.

And what was if anything even more worrying was that the leading Kurdish resistance groups in Turkey and Syria denied the attack was carried out by Kurds.

To understand the context, it is necessary to go back a little way. Not as far back as the moment of Turkey’s creation from the exhausted pillars of the Ottoman Empire, when the Kurds voted to be part of the new state, nor as far back as when the novelty and excitement fell away, leaving those Kurds disappointed and angry that they had accidentally swapped a chance to be an independent nation for a bit-part in another state’s story.

And we need say little more about what followed than that the PKK led in response an active military campaign against the Turkish government, in which many Turkish civilians were killed, or that in the same conflict the Turkish government responded in kind – most often out of proportion to what had ‘sparked’ the latest reaction – and killed many, many innocent Kurds.

But we do need to pause in 2013, because that is where Turkey’s battle with the Kurds – and the Kurdish battle against Turkey – also paused.

By this time the PKK was listed by NATO and the EU as a terror organisation (Turkey is of course a NATO member, but one should note that even if one agrees with the PKK’s aims – an independent Kurdish state – its policy of killing to achieve them puts it on the same page as the PLO and IRA. Not all terrorists are the same terrorist, but it must be possible to sympathise with an aim, but condemn killing in its name or pursuit), its leader Abdullah Ocalan had been imprisoned (he was originally sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment as part of Turkey’s attempt to join the EU), and the Syrian conflict was already in its third year.

The latter – and its associated potential threats to Turkey – is often cited as the motivation for the talks which began between Ocalan and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and it almost certainly played some part.

But equally important were the facts that the PKK was losing support among Turkey’s Kurds, who were becoming increasingly tired of a war they seemed unlikely to win, and were moving towards other options, including a devolved Kurdish region in the South Eastern region of Turkey, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds are based.

Turkey, also weary of a seemingly endless war against a foe its military could not easily identify (or, alternatively, could identify only by targeting all Kurds, a policy which drove opposition to the Turkish government still further) was also ready to welcome – or at least consider – a political solution.

In short, after years of war, people began to talk, as they always do. The moderates had come into the ascendency, and even those who had favoured the bullet seemed prepared to try an alternative.

The process was not swift, but both sides stopped firing on one another, followed by the PKK sending its military operatives to Northern Iraq, and Turkish forces being drawn back from major cities such as Diyabakir in the South East.

Erdogan and Ocalan began negotiations – all of which took place at Imrali, the prison island on which Ocalan is still incarcerated.

Progress was limited – though for Turkish and Kurdish people, the cessation of violence was an immediate and definite positive – but some was significant.

One major achievement was the Kurdish political movement’s growth, and in June 2015, it was part of a coalition with the HDP – Turkey’s main Socialist political party, it won 13.745 per cent of the national vote, including sweeping the board in the Kurdish South East of the country.

The election results also set up a moment which symbolised the political and social progress made as a result of Kurdish and Turkish rapprochement.

Even before the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish police had arrested and prosecuted people who had used the honorific ‘Sayin’ (meaning ‘esteemed’) with his surname. When the new parliamentarians took their places after the June 2015 election, 28 year-old Dilek Ocalan, Abdullah’s niece, was introduced as an HDP Member of Parliament in the state’s main legislative house, she was addressed as ‘Sayin Ocalan’.

That introduction took place on 23 June. In a little less than a month, the progress it represented – and all that had led up to it – was destroyed.

On 20 July, at 12pm local time, 33 people were killed and 104 injured in a suicide bombing at Suruc, Southern Turkey.

Suruc is not a large town, and nor is it historically an important strategic or trading point. But it is only a few miles from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which had been retaken by Kurdish forces after it had been overrun by IS.

The embarrassment of the defeat was too much for an organisation as insecure and spiteful as IS to take, and as a result it targeted a gathering of students and other young members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed and/or the Socialist Youth Associations Federation, who were travelling to Kobani to help with rebuilding work.

IS claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz, a 20 year-old Kurd from Adiyaman, a Turkish city less than 75 miles north of Suruc itself.

But the results of the bombing went far beyond even the deaths of 33 innocent people, and the maiming of 104 more.

Because in ‘response’ to it, the PKK re-started its military activity in Turkey.

On 22 July, the bodies of two murdered police officers were found in Ceylanpinar, in the same province of Suruc. The PKK claimed responsibility, stating that it had killed the men because the Turkish government was responsible for the Suruc bombing.

The first thing to note is that the Turkish government was certainly not responsible for the bombing, and not even in the sense the PKK later claimed, that it had ‘done too little’ to prevent IS entering Turkey, or had ‘funded’ IS.

We will come to the second accusation later, but on the first – which was the first claim the PKK made in the wake of the Suruc bombing and murder of two Turkish police officers – is insupportable.

The Turkish border with Syria is porous. It is 511 miles long and is almost all desert. But even if it were possible to police every inch of it (and it is not) it is in this case irrelevant.

The man responsible for the bombing, Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz, was a Kurd, with full Turkish nationality. He crossed the border exactly as anyone of Turkish nationality would do – and with the added imperative of being a Kurd at a moment when IS’ activities in Syria made being a Kurd extremely dangerous.

Even if the PKK did not know who had blown up and killed young men and women at Suruc, it could not have used that state of ignorance to justify the murder of two people who certainly had not played any part in it.

Sadly, this was not the last mistake – or indeed massive overreaction – made in the wake of Suruc.

Because the Turkish government responded with a nationwide series of arrests of high-ranking Kurdish and left-wing political activists (600 people were arrested. The government claimed it was arresting people with links to IS, but the vast majority were left-wing or Kurdish activists, with no evidence of ever having been involved in any way with IS), and on 24 July launched attacks on Syrian Kurdish positions (though without entering Syrian airspace) and Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq.

This was an unjustifiable course of action for a state which claims to be (and in many other ways certainly is) a responsible and respectable nation.

And in effect, the peace and progress between Kurds and the Turkish establishment had been destroyed by something neither had done.

As I noted at the time, the outcome of Suruc for IS could hardly have been any better.

In exchange for a handful of explosives and one expendable life, the terror group had not only killed 33 people, maimed 104 more, and made a powerful international statement to potential foes and allies alike, but it had also reopened one of the longest-running conflicts in the world, simultaneously causing its most successful opponent in Syria – and its most powerful potential enemy in the Middle East – to become embroiled in a war of their own.   

Returning to the PKK’s second allegation (made only after the Turkish attacks on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq, but made in reference to Suruc), that Turkey was ‘funding’ IS, the evidence here is also extraordinarily weak.

First, a piece of circumstantial evidence: IS is on record as intending to invade Turkey, snatch a large amount of the state for itself and ‘kill all of its Parliament’ – in the latter case because IS believes (insupportably) that anyone who takes part in a democratic process is a traitor to Islam (this is the same reason it has also threatened to ‘destroy’ Hamas in the Palestinian territories). IS is not a friend to Turkey.

Secondly, it is worth considering that the only other organisation or state anywhere on Earth to have seriously claimed that Turkey ‘supports IS’ is Russia.

It is no coincidence that these claims were made following the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkey on 24 November 2015. The aircraft in question was flying in Turkish airspace – though it was there for only an extremely short period; some sources say just 17 seconds – and was in fact flying South and West, to a region of Syria where IS has absolutely no presence. Whatever reason Turkey shot down the jet, it was not in defence of IS*.

(*this is not to ‘defend’ Turkey’s actions on 24 November. For more on the event – and the possible motives behind it – visit this post)

Nor was its ‘evidence’ reliable.

Russian politicians repeatedly stated that Turkey was funding IS, and that Turkey was buying oil from IS, and the two most widely-shared photographs to ‘prove’ these claims were extensively shared by Russian state media (including Russia Today, known in the UK as RT) and social media posters.

The problem is, neither actually showed what it was claimed to. In the first, the brother of Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is shown posing in a room with several men. The claim is that these men are ‘leaders’ of IS in Syria, with the implication that this photo came at the conclusion of a meeting between them and/or that they are friends and meet socially.

In fact, the image does show the brother of Recep Erdogan, but the other men with whom he is posing and smiling for the camera are the owners of an Istanbul restaurant, having a shot taken with the President’s brother for their own promotional reasons.

Almost as worrying as the Russian state’s belief that this would serve as ‘evidence’ of any kind, is that so many people, when presented with an image of four smiling men, were willing to accept immediately that the image contained the brother of the President of a large and established state socialising with ‘leaders of’ one of the world’s worst terror groups – a group which has confirmed it wishes to invade Turkey and kill its politicians.

The other image widely used to ‘prove’ allegations by Russia that Turkey is buying IS oil, and therefore supporting it by handing over cash for something the group has stolen, is an image of a number of oil-transporting vehicles, badly burned and damaged, in a desert setting. The claim was that these vehicles were attacked in Russian airstrikes on IS-held parts of Syria, and were set to travel to Turkey.

No evidence was ever presented to show that the tankers actually were ever supposed to go to Turkey, or that they had ever been there. It’s also worth noting that fewer than ten per cent of Russia’s strikes on Syria have targeted IS positions, so had it managed to foil an IS-Turkey oil deal, it would have been an incredible fluke.

But neither point is as important as the fact that this photo does not show IS-owned vehicles in Syria, which were set to carry oil to Turkey. In fact, the image is of vehicles in Afghanistan, which had been struck by NATO airstrikes.

Not only were the vehicles not IS-owned, or ‘on their way to Turkey’, they had also not been struck by Russia, and were not even in Syria.

But the claims did have some – albeit small – basis in fact. The first published report suggesting any connection between Turkey and IS was prepared in October 2014 and were publicised in a speech by the US under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen.

Mr Cohen announced that ‘it was possible’ that ‘some of the oil’ bought by Turkey (as the wealthiest Middle Eastern state which is a net purchaser of oil), Iraqi Kurds (who have extremely limited access to legitimate oil markets due to the Iraqi state’s refusal to recognise them as a ‘people’ in their own right) and the Syrian regime, could have been sold to them ‘by middlemen… acting on behalf of IS’.

Of course, the idea that Turkey might be the unwitting purchaser of oil from middlemen it did not know were acting on IS’ behalf is significantly different from claims that Turkey is ‘buying oil’ directly from IS, or in fact deliberately ‘supporting it’ at all.

And not only did the Russian allegations change the speculation of an innocent but unfortunate occurrence into a deliberate act of state-sponsorship of the world’s most-hated terror group, it also completely missed out the similar suggestion that its ally Assad, and the West’s ally the Kurds, could be doing exactly the same thing.

But Turkey is a major power in the region, had shot down a Russian aircraft, opposes Russia’s ally the Assad regime and borders Syria, posing a geographical as well as ideological threat to Assad, so perhaps, for Russia, truth is less important than impact when trying to smear an opponent.

From a Kurdish perspective, however, the allegations came from a different motive as well as a different source.

Because the Kurds do have direct experience of conflict with Turkey, and in 2014 suffered a series of attacks from IS in North Syria and parts of Iraq (as indeed did many other Syrians and Iraqis), seemingly without any international assistance or support.

For the people of Kobani and its surroundings, literally metres from the Turkish border, it is easy to see how this feeling of abandonment, closeness to Turkey and history of conflict with the Turkish government could combine to create a feeling that Turkey was deliberately ignoring Kurdish people’s slaughter.

But matters were a little more complicated at that point. Because Turkish troops could not enter Syria by order of Assad, who had stated that any movement of armed groups across his borders would be regarded as an act of war (as noted, the Turkish city of Gaziantep, just 74 miles from Aleppo, has 1.8m residents).

Simultaneously, Turkey was acting to help. It had opened its borders to refugees from Syria – many of them Kurds. In September 2014, the largest movement of Kurds in recorded history, around 140,000 left Kurdish Syria and entered Turkey.

So although Kurdish concerns about Turkey, and their anger and horror at what they saw was their abandonment, were entirely understandable, they were not entirely correct.

And post-Suruc, and particularly following Turkey’s shelling of Kurdish positions in Syria, those fears – never dispelled – now appear to have come true.

But Turkish fears have also been realised. The state has been on increased alert since Russian bombing of Syria began, as the increased air power this delivers to Assad represents a clear threat to Turkey – at least in Turkish eyes.

In October, suicide bombings on a peace rally in Ankara killed 102 people and injured 400 more. They were carried out by Yunus Emre Alagoz, the brother of the Suruc bomber, and Omer Deniz Dundar. It seems clear that the bombing was another IS strike, but no group ever claimed responsibility (most likely because the damage done to Turkey and the Kurds by not claiming responsibility was on this occasion far greater than any benefit IS might gain from carrying it out).

The PKK claimed – in all seriousness – that the Turkish government was responsible.

On 12 January this year, an IS operative blew himself up in Sultanahmet Square – a popular tourist destination in Istanbul, bordered by the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – killing 12 tourists.

And at the same time, Turkey’s open borders policy, which has enabled almost 2.7m people in Syria – 2.2m of them now living in Turkey – to escape war, terror, victimisation, starvation and torture in Syria, has been alleged to be the cause of IS’ strength in Syria itself.

Post-Suruc, everything between Turkey and its Kurdish population has changed. In turn, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds – many who have close connections across the border – have been and are being attacked by Turkey, while Turkey itself fears attacks in any and all of its cities, from its own South East, or from the states it shares borders with to its South.

In the moments after the Ankara, Stockholm and Diyarbakir attacks, the Turkish government blamed the PKK and Syrian Kurds, the PKK stated no Kurds had been involved in any of the three, and Western commentators speculated on IS’ involvement.

None were correct. The three bombings were carried out by Kurds, but not Kurds attached to the PKK, while Turkey continues to shell Syrian Kurdish positions, and with its campaign against Kurds within its own borders.

The major beneficiary, as always, is IS. The Russians and Assad also gain relief from the diversion of the Turkish government’s attention from them.

The only people who really lose in the Kurdish and Turkish conflict, are Kurds and Turks. By coincidence, it is completely in the power of both to stop attacking one another, and return to the progress they had made before Suruc.

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