Why Turkish troops are in Syria

Issue: 158

Ron Margulies

The peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement reached what everyone thought was its peak in January 2015. It was to die a painful death within two months.

At the time the peace negotiations had been going on, with ups and downs but generally in a favourable direction, for more than two years, and this was creating a general sense of optimism and progress, a more relaxed political atmosphere in the country. Representatives of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had visited Abdullah Öcalan (the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK) in prison and announced that he had largely completed a “Draft on Peace and Democratic Negotiations” and that he and representatives of the state had agreed that it constituted a framework on the basis of which negotiations could proceed. At the end of February a truly extraordinary meeting was held at the prime minister’s office in Istanbul, attended by HDP representatives, deputy prime minister Yalçın Akdoğan and interior minister Efkan Ala. With the media present, a ten-point protocol—clearly the “draft” referred to by Öcalan—was read out by Sırrı Süreyya Önder, HDP member of parliament for Istanbul. This was the pinnacle of the peace process and the nearest the country has ever been to a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish question.

It was, however, all in vain. Within days Erdoğan rejected the protocol, claiming (utterly unconvincingly) that he had no previous knowledge of it and that no such agreement could be reached. After a few months of confusion, two policemen were killed in the south eastern province of Şanlıurfa at the end of July. The government claimed they were killed by the PKK, the Turkish army started operations against Kurdish guerrillas, and the peace process was well and truly dead.

There was much discussion at the time about which of the two sides had sabotaged the negotiations and why. This was a hectic time for Turkish politics, not only in terms of the Kurdish issue. General elections were held in June 2015, with Erdoğan’s AKP getting 40.9 percent of the vote. This was impressive, but failed to give them the necessary parliamentary majority to set up the next government on their own. Astonishingly, the HDP got 13.1 percent, breaking through the 10 percent threshold and gaining 80 members of parliament. This ate into the AKP’s vote in the Kurdish provinces and was the main reason for its relatively low vote: in the previous general election, in 2011, AKP’s vote had been 49.95 percent. The government thus lost one fifth of its support in the June 2015 elections. Erdoğan staunchly resisted all calls for a coalition government, and finally called a second general election in November that year.

The war in the Kurdish provinces started about two months after the June election, and by the time voters went to the polls in November, the peace process was but a distant memory. The government regained the votes it had lost in June. Many argued that Erdoğan had restarted the war precisely to whip up nationalism, galvanise his supporters and win the election. This is too simplistic. In fact, the end of the peace had roots that went much deeper than Erdoğan’s political ambitions. They went all the way to Syria.

What Rojava means for the Turkish state

The northern parts of Syria and Iraq, all along the long border with Turkey, are inhabited mainly by Kurds. When the Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq was set up in the 1990s with support from the United States, Turkey did not like it, but there was little they could do about it. The fact that the Kurdish administration, under Masoud Barzani’s leadership, has not been hostile to Turkey made it easier to swallow, and relatively good relations were established. However, from the point of view of the Turkish state, the establishment of a second Kurdish state across the Syrian border is a different matter altogether. If such a Kurdish state were to become an internationally recognised reality (rather than the current sort of de facto-state which may or may not survive in the long term, depending on how things are finally resolved in Syria), it would mean that all of Turkey’s southern border, from the Mediterranean to Iran, would have a Kurdish entity on the other side and, more importantly, Turkey would be neighbours with the PKK along most of this border. Moreover, any kind of independent Kurdish state would have a profound effect on Turkey’s own Kurdish population. (This is also the reason why Turkey strongly opposed the referendum for independence held in Northern Iraq in September 2017, in spite of friendly relations with Barzani.)

As the Syrian Revolution turned into a bloody war in 2012, with ISIS gradually taking control of large parts of the country, President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his forces from the north, avoiding a fight with the Kurds and leaving the region in their hands. The area, known by the Kurds as Rojava (Western Kurdistan) was organised into three cantons: Jazira in the east, Kobani immediately to its west and, separated by a corridor controlled by ISIS, Afrin, the smallest of the three, in the west. Turkey’s nightmare seemed to be turning into reality. Then, in September 2014 ISIS launched an attack on and besieged Kobani, the main city of the central canton, within walking distance of the Turkish border. The Kurds resisted with very considerable help from the United States, and the fighting lasted for more than six months. There were times when Kobani appeared to be on the verge of falling but, in the end, ISIS were beaten back and expelled from all the Kurdish areas. Though the determination and heroism of the Kurdish fighters was undeniable, American aerial bombardment was a major factor in determining the outcome of the war.

Through the siege of Kobani, it was clear that the Turkish government had its fingers crossed, hoping that ISIS would resolve this problem for them by destroying the possibility of a Kurdish state emerging in Syria. Turkey’s Kurdish population, by contrast, had its eyes and hearts fixed on Kobani, and agitated for Turkey to help the Kurds there, at the very least by opening the border so that the civilian population could escape and help could be sent to the fighters. As the government refused, the HDP called for demonstrations on 6 October 2014. The huge demonstrations lasted for two days and turned violent, resulting in 46 deaths. These events would have confirmed Turkish fears of the effect Syrian developments could have on Kurds in Turkey.

The Kurdish victory in Kobani made things even worse for Turkey. The Kurdish forces (the People’s Protection Units, YPG, attached to the Democratic Union Party, PYD, closely affiliated to the PKK) were not only victorious, but now also widely admired internationally, and even more closely allied to the US. Though the PKK is branded a “terrorist organisation” by the US and the EU, the YPG gained great prestige as the one effective force in the area that could fight ISIS successfully. It was armed by the Americans and, having pushed ISIS back, expanded the area under its control beyond strictly Kurdish areas and led the assault that ended with the capture of Raqqa from ISIS in 2017. This infuriated the Turkish government which argued with Washington, in vain, that the US should not arm a “terrorist organisation” and that if troops were needed to take Raqqa the Turkish army should do the job.

The invasion of Afrin

The developments in northern Syria were seen as anathema to the interests of the Turkish state, by the government, the main opposition parties and the military. It seems certain that by the time Öcalan’s ten-point protocol was read out at the prime minister’s office in February 2015, the government, or at least Erdoğan himself, had already turned against the peace process and there was no longer any question of further negotiations with the PKK. Stopping the PKK from making further gains in Syria was now the overriding goal of all Turkish policy, domestic and foreign. There was, however, one major problem: the US would not allow Turkey to send troops into Rojava, or do anything else which would damage the YPG’s ability to fight ISIS.

Thus unable to interfere directly in Syria, Turkey chose to end the peace process and restart the war against the PKK within Turkey. It has to be said that developments in Rojava also led to a change in PKK politics. In the glow of excitement over their success in Syria, they attempted in late 2015 to take control of a number of towns where they were strongest and enjoyed the greatest popular support in Turkey. The Turkish state, however, is a different kind of animal than the Syrian. The response to the Kurdish move was immediate and brutal. The army went into the areas in question with all guns blazing, bombing and utterly destroying whole districts. One report, by the Human Rights Foundation, estimates that 310 people died, and thousands were left homeless. In the months that followed, thousands of HDP members were arrested, including several of its members of parliament, many of its mayors, and the immensely popular co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş, who had been a candidate and got 10 percent in the presidential election of 2014.

In January 2018 Turkey finally got the chance to do what it had long been wanting to. Relations with Washington had been deteriorating steadily and remained very strained over the issue of US support for the YPG. Any Turkish incursion into the two eastern cantons was still out of the question. However, talks with Russia had clearly borne fruit. The Russians were effectively in control of Afrin, the small, westernmost canton, and gave Turkey the green light for an invasion. The Turkish air force began to bomb Afrin on 20 January, and ground troops followed a few days later. The confrontation between the US and Russia over which would have the final say on the future of Syria had opened up a space for Turkey to put its boot in. The Kurds of Afrin were left on their own.

One more minor actor has now directly joined the global and local inter-imperialist rivalry that has turned Syria into a bloody and tragic nightmare. It is by no means certain that Turkey can get anything other than a bloody nose as a result of its military involvement. But there is no doubt that much suffering still awaits the Kurdish population of the region.

Ron Margulies is a writer and journalist, now of course unemployed, and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) in Turkey.