Turkey considers the Kurdish issue among the priority threats to its national security. In this regard, the formation of a Kurdish autonomy in the territory of south-east Turkey is perceived by Ankara as an existential threat to internal security, as well as the possibility of such autonomies (and especially an independent Kurdistan) in the territory of neighboring countries (in particular, in Syria, Iraq and Iran) threatens to the Turkey’s external security.
Actually, it is also not clear where tens of millions of Kurds should move to from the territories they have inhabited for many centuries. Are they entitled to any rights and freedoms, or is their sole right to be assimilated and renounce their national freedoms? The ethnic problem is quite complex, and in the Middle East it is also complicated by the burden of historical differences of a conflict nature.
World history from the second half of the 19th century included, without limitation, the Kurdish issue on the agenda of international diplomacy as part of the larger Middle East issue. Naturally, this and similar issues were relevant not to all members of the global society, but by key world stakeholders of the time, after the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–1878.
The Congress of Berlin of 1878 was a political harbinger of the beginning of the political and legal collapse of the Ottoman Empire under due consideration of the interests of the Great Powers at the turn of the 20th century. World stakeholders used the internal problems of the “sick man of Europe” (including the ethnic problem) not so much to ensure and satisfy the interests of the enslaved peoples of the Ottoman Empire, but to ensure their own regional interests using these peoples.
The Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire is a glaring example of how the Armenian people became a victim of external manipulation and internal despotism. The Kurdish issue still remained on the list of unresolved problems, as the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 abolished the decisions of the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 on this issue as well, leaving the Kurds without rights. Subsequently, the Kurdish issue again came into use by external stakeholders to assert their interests in the Middle East (commonly against certain regimes, with varying degrees of success).
Having the experience of a continuous struggle (since 1984) with Kurdish separatism under the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey naturally recognized it as a terrorist organization and is engaged in the uncompromising struggle with it and its political supporters using the capabilities of itsentire security wing.
The capture of the permanent leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya in 1999 (as it happened at the residence of the Greek embassy), and his subsequent life sentence in a prison on the Imrali Island became evidence of the completion of an important stage in Turkey’s anti-Kurdish struggle. This operation was the result of joint activities of the intelligence services of Turkey, the United States and Israel. At that time, Öcalan threatened Turkey and the Western syndicate of energy companies planning to build in the north-east and south-east of Turkey alternative energy communications (oil and gas pipelines) bypassing Russia for the export of Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe, with the escalation of the local conflict and subversive activities. It spelt the death of the PKK leader and the party itself.
Turkey became an important transit territory and a key energy hub. The strengthening of Turkey’s economic sovereignty encouraged the growth of revanchist sentiments in the political pantheon, the generation of new doctrinal concepts (including, but not limited to, Turkish Eurasianism, Neo-Ottomanism and Neo-Pan-Turkism) and the new geopolitics of Ankara, aimed at changing the status of the Turkish state from regional to supra-regional and a member of the “global Club of Great Powers” of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, in such a paradigm, there is no place for the formation of Kurdish autonomy or statehood, which threatens the interests of ambitious Turkey. Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power, and given the weakening of political regimes in neighboring countries, since 2007, Turkey began to conduct military operations involving punitive troops of the intelligence agencies followed by the armed forces on the territory of Kurdish-populated provinces in Iraq first, and then in Syria. The cause for such cross-border operations is always the notorious Kurdish issue, as well as Turkish intelligence data on the military installations of the PKK and the identified plans for the preparation of terrorist actions by the Kurds.
As is commonly known, a large part of the Kurdish population lives in the territory of Iran, neighboring Turkey. However, it is difficult to believe that Turkey is able to take and suddenly bring its punitive groups (much less, armed forces) into the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran to suppress or neutralize “Kurdish militants and separatists.” Tehran will not allow such a violation of its sovereignty by Turkey, and in response to an independent initiative of a NATO member, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will respond with a lightning-fast military operation. The United States, jointly with Great Britain, cannot yet allow even Israel to invade the territory of Iran, let alone Turkey.
The latter indicates that Turkish local and special operations in Iraq and Syria became possible after the fall of the regime of the charismatic Saddam Hussein and the internal crisis against the regime of Bashar Assad. As long as Iraq and Syria remained stable, Turkey would not dare pursue such actions on the territory of these sovereign states. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Hafez Assad would have tolerated such lawless actions by Ankara, since they were capable of dealing with their internal problems, and, if necessary, discussing common regional problems with their neighbors.
However, times change and so do wants and needs. Turkey uses every reason and opportunity to launch telling blows on Kurdish-populated areas in northern Syria and Iraq. A military conflict surely gives rise to retaliatory actions. The latest fact of the death of 12 Turkish soldiers in Iraq at the hands of Kurdish militants became the reason for another military escalation and decisive retaliatory measures by Turkey. The Turks delivered simultaneous strikes in both Iraq and Syria. While military facilities of the PKK are stated targets of the attacks, civilian targets (including, but not limited to, oil storage facilities) also get destroyed.
As things stand now, Turkey is not just waging a war against the PKK (actually against all Kurds – whoever the Turks don’t like, Ankara classifies them as the PKK members and US allies) in Iraq, but is also trying to take military control over important transit communications, as well as oil-related facilities and oil export. A similar picture is unfolding in the northern provinces of Syria, where Turkey is establishing a 30-km “security zone” (or rather, occupation). The goal is to control the transit of oil, as well as to change the ethnography of the border area in favor of the Turkic-speaking Turkomans.
Turkey continues its special operation in northern Iraq against the PKK to the last Kurdish militant. It is not clear how the Turks can tell the difference. This looks suspiciously similar to what Benjamin Netanyahu is doing in his fight in Gaza to the last Hamas militant. Every day, the head of the Turkish Defense Ministry, Yaşar Güler, reports on casualties of military facilities and Kurdish militants, with an increasing list of “victories.” “Our operations will continue until the last terrorist in this region is eliminated,” Güler said.
Some experts (for example, Alina Sbitneva, a researcher at INION RAS) argue that Turkey is defending “its three most important ideological and value concepts” in this context, such as, neo-Ottomanism, militarism and leadership in the fight against the terrorist threat. According to Alina Sbitneva, northern Iraq, where Turkey carries out its cross-border military operations (including oil-rich Mosul), was once a part of the Ottoman Empire. Accordingly, Ankara views the post-Ottoman territory as a circle of its influence, where there should be no threats of terror (and the PKK is a terrorist organization according to Turkey’s definition). Anti-Kurdish operations constitute a part of Turkey’s national security strategy. They were launched in Iraq in 2007, and then repeated in 2015 and 2017. The fight against Kurdish terrorism presupposes militarism (otherwise how to fight against it), and therefore Ankara is developing cross-border operations entering the territory of Iraq and Syria.
It is obvious that Turkey is concerned about the Kurdish resistance and the plans of Kurdish entities along the perimeter of its borders. A special area of Turkey’s indignation is the US military cooperation with Kurdish military structures and field training exercises conducted by the Americans to train Kurdish units. However, Ankara’s desire to recognize the post-Ottoman space as an area of its engagement and influence with maintaining any military cross-border operations to strengthen Turkey’s status, is a bad match with the standards of international law.
If President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “war crimes” and “genocide (massacre)” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, then it is hardly worth engaging in the similar violations of international law against the neighboring sovereign states of Syria and Iraq, as well as their Kurdish communities.
The intensification of Turkey’s massive attacks in Iraq may have negative consequences in the format of bilateral Turkish-Iraqi relations, which they have only recently begun smoothing out (for example, negotiations between the foreign ministers of the two countries, Hakan Fidan and Fuad Hussein, on a new level of cooperation in the field of security and intelligence, water supply to Iraq and the resumption of trade in Iraqi oil through Turkey).
Iraq today is divided into three parts, such as Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. At least the latter two could not enjoy such Turkey’s activities on Iraqi territory for the reasons of the fight against “Kurdish separatism and terrorism.” Moreover, if Ankara accuses Washington of military support for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, which the Americans use against local regimes, the United States may impose a new veto on military supplies to Turkey (for example, the likes of F-16 fighter jets).
That means that Turkey, which demands Israel to cease hostilities in the Gaza Strip, should set an example of a peace-loving state, and not create alternative threats of military escalation in the Middle East. Apparently, the desire to extend its influence to the post-Ottoman space may never be realized, as the peoples and countries of this space most likely have a position that is not in tune with Ankara on this issue.
Alexander SVARANTS, Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”