Around five years ago I recall seeing a ‘Newsnight’ feature on female fighters of the Kurdish guerrilla army, the PKK, and I shamefully admit to being distracted by the fact that they were all stunning-looking women, each resembling a young Bianca Jagger in combat gear. I appreciate this is an exceedingly trivial reaction to a serious story on a serious subject; the PKK has been a bloody thorn in the side of Turkey for decades. But it was probably the last time I watched a report on the troubled fault-line between Europe and the Middle East and came away from it feeling anything other than despair.
Since 1984, the Marxist-Leninist group known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (AKA the PKK) has been engaged in a persistent armed struggle against the Turkish authorities. Although regularly denied by the organisation itself, the motivation behind the PKK’s paramilitary activities has been given as a desire for a separate independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The campaign has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the last four decades, and the aborted coup to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan from his throne in 2016 not only presented the Turkish President with wider powers to imprison his enemies, but also enabled him to publicly associate those of pro-Kurdish sympathies with the hated PKK, thus vindicating his authoritarian stance.
Erdogan was also uncomfortable with the Kurdish-Iraqi alliance against ISIS forces in Northern Syria. The PKK have launched many an attack from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and the realisation that the Kurds and Iraqis had combined into a formidable fighting force to take on an international enemy fed into the Turkish President’s paranoia that the Kurdish cause in Turkey would be further legitimised. For one thing, Erdogan and his party are Sunni Muslims, whereas the Iraqi forces in Syria are Shia; for another, the prospect of armed Kurds having both US and UN support in their incarnation as the Popular Protection Units (AKA the YPG) further weakened his argument, as did the YPG troops working alongside American comrades
Of course, things have changed over the past week. True, it can’t have been easy for Turkey over the last eight years with Syria as a neighbour, so a degree of anxiety regarding events on Turkey’s doorstep has been understandable. But from all accounts, YPG Kurds were doing a good job at preventing ISIS from encroaching closer to home, and US armed assistance was deemed vital to keeping the enemy at bay. Then President Trump, publicly declaring his weariness with Team America: World Police, decided to abruptly withdraw US forces from the region, a decision that left the YPG to not only fend for itself against the remaining ISIS insurgents, but to be confronted by the might of a Turkish Army overseen by a man convinced any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a PKK solider.
Trump’s sudden announcement could be regarded as an acknowledgement on the Donald’s part that there are bigger battles to be fought on home soil as impeachment proceedings provoked by the Biden/Ukraine affair progress; but it has inspired unprecedented expressions of opposition from within Republican ranks. Even the slavishly pro-Trump mouthpiece of Fox News has this week seen previously obedient Presidential cheerleaders publicly air their disgust at what is viewed as America abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria. Of course, the mud-slinging of American politics will hardly trouble Erdogan, who wasted little time in launching an instant incursion into Northern Syria following what he perceived as Trump’s green light. Erdogan was never going to make a move that might risk spilling American blood, but now he has no such worries. And so a situation that was far-from stable has been destabilised even further.
Like most ongoing and seemingly never-ending conflicts, the Turkish-Kurdish grievance has a vintage of centuries rather than decades; it is rooted in ancient enmities stretching back to the Ottoman era, though the establishment of the modern state of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI was the foundation stone of the PKK cause. Kurds have always seen themselves as second-class citizens in the eyes of their Turkish overlords, and Erdogan’s attitude in flexing his military muscles almost parallels Putin’s desire to recreate past glories – something that places Kurds back in their traditionally subservient role.
Purely by coincidence, I happen to be currently reading ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that has bugger-all to do with an extinct English county, but begins with the chaos during the Turkish destruction of the ancient city of Smyrna in 1922 – a Greek enclave burnt to a cinder at the end of the Greco-Turkish War, with an estimated death toll ranging from 10,000 to 100,000. Most of the victims were Greek and Armenian. An early example of how warlike Turkish appetites remained intact despite the redrawing of the Middle Eastern map, the tragedy of Smyrna to outsiders a hundred years on is reduced to little more than a footnote in a saga that has added innumerable atrocities since; but it serves as a reminder of how far we haven’t travelled in a century.
The YPG alliance with Arab militias, along with accompanying American air-strikes, has successfully expelled ISIS fighters from a quarter of Syria; given the collective name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – apologies for all the acronyms), this essential bulwark against Radical Islam has nevertheless left a depressingly familiar tide of refugees in its wake, most of whom Erdogan plans to house in a safe-zone ‘corridor’ he intends to establish across a vast expanse of 480km. Following the overnight removal of their US allies, the SDF has good cause not to share Erdogan’s optimism of a safe-zone along the Turkish-Syrian border; declaring it has been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Trump’s decision, the SDF predicts the Turkish President’s safe-zone will instead become a ‘permanent warzone’ reversing the hard-won victories against ISIS. Some of the images that have emerged of the region in the media these past few days appear to confirm that bleak prognosis.
At one time, I’ve no doubt I would have written something about this days ago. But like many in the west, I suspect there is an inevitable fatigue surrounding so much of what we see from the Middle East; when nothing ever appears to improve, the natural conclusion to come to is that nothing ever will, and all you can do as a detached observer is shrug your shoulders and leave ‘em to it. It seems President Trump has come to the same conclusion, though, unlike the rest of us, he was actually in a position to affect events to a degree, and he has done precisely that this week – in the worst possible way. In response to the outrage his move has provoked, Trump has backtracked a little, threatening to ‘totally destroy and obliterate’ Turkey’s economy should the incursion into Kurdish territory involve any action the President regards as ‘off limits’. But one can’t help but wonder what the limits are now.
© The Editor