Once again, the Kurds are betrayed

Western support for Turkey's assault on the Kurds is a familiar treachery.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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For a while, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria were useful to the West. They were prepared to do what intervening, rhetorically grandstanding Western states were unable to do – fight the Islamic State (IS). Yes, the likes of Cameron and Obama could talk big on IS; they could call it an ‘imminent threat to every interest we have’; they could deem it the most ‘serious threat we face’. But, while railing against IS allows Western leaders to evoke what they lack domestically – authority, moral purpose, cojones – that very same lack stopped them from following through on the rhetoric, stopped them from acting on the grand phrasemaking, stopped them lending the postures substance. And so it has been left to others to do the fighting, and the dying – to do, that is, the very thing Western leaders seem incapable of doing: risking lives for something.

Because this is exactly what the Kurds have done – in Iraqi Kurdistan with the Peshmerga fighters prominent, and especially in Syria with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to the fore. They and their affiliates have risked their lives to resist and even roll back the tide of black-clad nihilism, and the US and its Western allies have supported them and even praised them. As well they would. They did what the West could only gesture towards with high-altitude bombing missions and drone attacks: they took on and, at points, defeated IS. Foreign Affairs magazine estimates that since international airstrikes started in September 2014, the Kurds have regained about 25 to 30 per cent of territories lost to IS in Iraq and have retaken the city of Kobane, plus many more villages, in Syria, forcing IS to retreat to its strongholds of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Al-Hasakah.

But, now that a hitherto quiescent Turkey has responded to the IS bomb attack that killed 32 in the south-eastern town of Suruc by launching airstrikes not only against IS in Syria, but also against Kurdish positions in Iraq, all that has changed. The US has sided with fellow NATO member Turkey against IS, and, as a result, against the Kurds, too. The West is betraying the Kurds, once again: a familiar historical occurrence. The White House went so far as to reiterate its classification of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a ‘terrorist organisation’ and to state that Turkey had the right to defend itself against attacks by Kurdish rebels – this despite the fact that in Syria the US has been relying on the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its People’s Protection Units, to be its ‘boots on the ground’.

This US-led volte-face, in which the Kurds, so long used by the West as a bulwark against IS, have been blithely, callously cast to the Turkish wind, is typical of the blundering, moral and political incoherence of contemporary Western intervention. Once again, shallow posturing and clueless meddling combine to barbaric effect. Today’s allies are tomorrow’s enemies, and vice versa. Two years ago, Syrian president Bashar al Assad was bad guy numero uno, and the assorted army renegades and Islamists operating under the catch-all title of ‘the Syrian rebels’ were to be supported with arms and big statements. A year later, and Assad is himself fighting against the West’s current bad guy numero uno, IS, which, alongside assorted al-Qaeda franchises, were the principal recipients of Western anti-Assad largesse – as IS’s numerous US Humvees and rocket launchers testify.

The Kurdish case is even more pronounced. In late January, for instance, the People’s Protection Units and the Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan helped defend the key north Syrian town of Kobane against IS. The siege lasted 134 days and resulted in the deaths of 459 Kurdish soldiers (plus 1,075 IS fighters). US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters at the time: ‘We congratulate [Kobane’s] brave defenders. We’ll continue to support [the YPG and the Kurdish Peshmerga] as we look to the coming weeks ahead. This is an important step in the first phase of a long-term campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS.’

Words – and weapons – are cheap, it seems. Fast forward five months, and the US, far from supporting the YPG or the Peshmerga, is helping to bomb the Kurds in the back. Of course, the US is claiming that this is not the case. It claims it is working with Turkey to eliminate IS, and will now be able to launch air raids from the strategically convenient Incirlik airbase near the Syrian border. But in return for the use of the airbase, the US and NATO have given a tacit thumbs-up to the Turkish strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq, regardless of the fact that the PKK is affiliated with those very same Kurds the US and NATO have been supporting in Syria. As Mehmet Ali Tugtan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, put it: ‘It’s not like the Americans have approved Turkish strikes against the PKK. But for the time being, they are tolerating them [in return] for continuing Turkish cooperation against the Islamic State.’

The practical problem with America’s cosying-up to Turkey in return for a place to station fighter planes is that the Turkish state has hardly proved itself a bastion of anti-IS resistance. For too long, in fact, it seemed content to use IS against what it perceives to be the greater threat, its own Kurdish population and, especially, the PKK. Hence during the Battle of Kobane, Turkey stopped Turkish-Kurdish fighters crossing the border into Syria to help their comrades. Until IS bombed Suruc earlier this month, IS was treated as a useful enemy for Turkey. And perhaps it still is. As many critics have pointed out, the Turkish state can clamp down on Kurdish attempts to claw back greater autonomy in, if not outright independence from, Turkey under the pretext of a campaign against IS. Some have gone further still to argue that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose own power base was weakened by his Justice and Development Party’s relatively poor performance in the recent Turkish elections, is trying to win back supporters on a wave of anti-terrorist and anti-Kurdish nationalism.

While this is speculation, one thing is certain: the West’s shallow, commitment-lite interventions show a stunning disregard for the political realities of the conflict. It is as if the Middle East is little more than a stage on which Western leaders strike poses that vary from one night to the next. But that doesn’t make the effects of Western action any less deleterious. It is continuing to screw up the region, encouraging and supporting the Kurds at the same time as it is selling their souls to the Turkish state in return for greater air power. And in doing so, an already brutalising region-wide conflict is made just that little bit nastier, and just that little bit more unpredictable. Just ask the Kurds.

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

Picture by: Credit: Ahmet Sik / Stringer

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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