Turkey’s support for IS against the Kurds exposes flawed US strategy

From the second floor of the local Teacher’s Union building in Ceylanpinar – a quiet border town in Turkey’s southeastern Sanliurfa province – one has a clear view over its Syrian counterpart Ras al-Ayn, or Sere Kaniye as it is known in Kurdish. The two towns used to be one until an unlucky stroke of a pencil on a regional map in the early 20th century decided that the border between the remnants of the Ottoman empire and French-controlled Syria would run right through it. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, which was signed in 1916, carved up the Middle East and determined the different national borders that still exist today, thus sowing the seeds of many of the conflicts that have rocked the region in the past century and continue to haunt its population to this day.

The presence of a border gate has determined the fate of the two sister towns. Political and armed forces on both sides have gone out of their way to achieve and maintain control over the crossing – with guns and rocket launchers in Sere Kaniye, where different factions of the Syrian civil conflict continue to battle each other, and with vote rigging and intimidation in Ceylanpinar, where Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed a much contested victory in a 2014 municipal election.

“The AKP wanted to be in control of Ceylanpinar because it’s such a strategic place on the border,” said Mustafa Simav, the co-president of the local branch of the national pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (DBP), before adding that he believes that the Turkish government is more afraid of the Kurdish people than of the Islamic State (IS). With this statement, the local politician gets at the heart of the matter that has allowed IS to grow into the specter it is today, and that has obstructed the efforts of one of the most effective fighting forces in the battle against the jihadi juggernaut: the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/J) that now control large swaths of northern Syria.

While the US-led coalition continues to drop bombs on IS positions across Iraq and Syria in a halfhearted attempt to stop the jihadist advance, Turkey, as one of the West’s key partners in the region and home to NATO’s second-largest army, has thus far failed to take a firm stance in the conflict. Moreover, judging by some accounts, it has actively supported the fascist forces of IS in allowing volunteers to freely cross the border into Syria, treating their wounded commanders in Turkish hospitals and allowing the jihadists to use Turkish sovereign territory as a base to launch attacks on Kurdish positions across the border.

Sere Kaniye Under Attack

For years, Sere Kaniye has been a battleground where different parties to the Syrian conflict – government troops, the Free Syrian Army, Al Nusra Front, IS and the YPG/J – have been fighting each other for control of the strategically important border town. The most recent fighting occurred between IS and the YPG/J, when the former launched an offensive against a number of villages under control of the People’s/Women’s Defense Forces 20 kilometers to the west of town. The IS attacks started after the jihadists were defeated in the battle for Kobani, a Kurdish-dominated town in northern Syria, which they had besieged for 134 days before beating a hasty retreat in late January.

According to Abdurrahman Celik, head of Ceylanpinar’s Teacher’s Union and a MP candidate for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the upcoming June elections, the defenders of Sere Kaniye are fighting two enemies at the same time: IS and the Turkish state. “It is clear that the Turkish government is supporting IS,” he said, recalling the announcement earlier in March by the governor’s office of Denizli, a region in central Turkey, that it was treating an IS commander in a local hospital, as a case in point. Celik believes that the government-run refugee camp situated on the tightly controlled premises of the TIGEM state farm, close to Ceylanpinar and hugging the border with Syria, is the site where most of the aid for the jihadists is crossing.

The local DBP co-president Simav adds that the location is being used as a training camp for potential jihadists, basing his claims on the eyewitness reports of security guards working in the camp. Unfortunately, his statements are difficult to verify because the camp is off limits for visitors except for the privileged few who manage to obtain the prime minister’s personal permission.

If the statements by the two local politicians are true, it wouldn’t be the first time the Turkish border town is used as a base of support for jihadists fighting in Syria. “I remember the time when Al Nusra was attacking Sere Kaniye [in mid-2013],” said Aynur Dogal, Ceylanpinar’s former manager of the multipurpose community center before being fired for her ideological opposition to the AKP after the party took control of the municipality. “Every morning around 8-9 o’clock, we saw long bearded men crossing the border in the center of town, to go and fight in Sere Kaniye for the day before returning back at the end of the day. It was like a regular 9 to 5 job for them.”

Turkey’s Covert Support for IS

Turkey’s alleged support for the IS attack on Sere Kaniye and a number of villages on the border of the autonomous Cezire canton in the extreme northeast of Syria is especially controversial now that the US-led coalition has begun to target jihadist positions in the vicinity. Whereas the AKP’s control over Ceylanpinar and the surrounding terrain – especially the TIGEM farm area – makes it very hard for independent observers to verify any of the rumors, many instances of earlier Turkish support for IS have been well documented by local activists and independent media channels.

Most striking are the confessions by a defected IS communication technician who claimed that he had put his superiors in contact with Turkish officials on numerous occasions, and that at one point he and his fellow fighters were transported in buses across Turkey to attack Sere Kaniye from the Ceylanpinar border crossing after which he surrendered to the Defense Forces. Besides this confession, cases have been documented of Turkish soldiers allowing aspiring jihadists to freely cross the border, of shipments of construction material passing to IS-controlled areas, of Turkey facilitating the smuggling of oil from the occupied territories, and even that it has provided the jihadists with intelligence in the form of satellite images and other data.

As DBP co-president Simav said, the Turkish state is more afraid of the Kurds in northern Syria who have carved out a number of autonomous regions for themselves – collectively known as “Rojava” – than it is of the militants of the Islamic State. The close links between the People’s Democratic Union (PYD), the Kurdish-dominated political party that is leading the social revolution in Rojava, and the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state has been engaged in a violent conflict that has cost the lives of more than 40,000 people over the past 35 years, are one of the main reasons for Turkey’s antagonistic stance toward Syria’s Kurdish population and anyone who aids them.

A Bottom-Up Social Revolution

The Rojava revolution, as it has since become known, was launched in the summer of 2012. Syria’s Kurds – who had suffered under the repression of the Assad regime as well as from discrimination by their Arab neighbors for years – decided to stay on the sidelines when the Syrian revolution kicked off in February 2011. Their refusal to join the Syrian opposition forces in their fight against Bashar al-Assad has led to many accusations of the Kurds cooperating with the regime. However, when analyzing the events of the past years, it becomes clear that the Kurds – together with other ethnic groups living in the north – have followed a strategy that had them concentrating their energy on building an alternative to the centralized, capitalist state model rather than expending time and energy on trying to destroy it.

“The main motto of the revolution is democratization and joined participation,” said Cegerxwin Polat, an activist and doctor with the recently founded Mesopotamia Health Assembly in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of north Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey). “The Rojava revolution is an attempt to create an alternative way to organize the whole production process,” he added, stressing that participation in the process has to be voluntary and that the necessary changes have to be implemented from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down.

The key values of the revolution, which are inspired by the ideas of the imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan, are horizontal democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability. In the early years of the PKK’s rebellion against the Turkish state, the group was fighting for an independent Kurdish state founded upon Marxist-Leninist ideals. After his capture in 1999, Öcalan, in part influenced by the work of the American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, shifted his focus – and with it that of the entire Kurdish freedom movement – to a project which he termed “democratic confederalism.” No longer was an independent state the ultimate goal, but rather a decentralized confederation of local, autonomous communities that would be controlled from the bottom-up by a leveled network of popular assemblies, neighborhood councils and people’s congresses.

The Syrian Kurds’ adoption of Öcalan as their ideological leader and the formation of the PYD as a sister-organization of the PKK have led the Turkish government to approach the Kurdish movement in Syria as a terrorist organization that poses a threat to its national security. It fears that a successful revolution in Rojava might inspire its domestic Kurdish population to aspire to a similar type of autonomy, which would mean that Ankara would lose direct control over about a fifth of its territory. While the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government is ongoing, the latter is actively trying to quell all developments that might provide the PKK with any kind of leverage at the negotiation table.

US’s Hidden Agenda in the Battle Against IS

The alleged Turkish support for IS on the one hand, and the successes of the YPG/J and their allies in halting the jihadists’ advance on the other, have created an uneasy situation for the anti-IS coalition in general, and for the United States in particular. If one of the United States’ key allies in the region is actively supporting the very same enemy the United States is trying to defeat, what does this say about its current strategy to fight back the militants of the Islamic State?

For many Kurds and their sympathizers in the region, the situation is very clear. Even though the airstrikes by the US-led coalition have facilitated the victory of the YPG/J in Kobani, and continue to aid the different forces combating IS in the Rojavan countryside and across Syria and Iraq, few have any doubt what the United States’ agenda is actually about.

“The US is using the Middle East as a battlefield to invigorate their position as the gendarme of the world,” Polat said. He believes that it is precisely the US’s decades-old involvement with Middle Eastern affairs that has turned the region into the bloodbath it currently is. “The very reason why the war between the YPG/J and IS is asymmetric is because of all the US weaponry that has been captured by the jihadists,” he added, referring to the large quantities of weapons, armored vehicles and military equipment with which the United States has flooded the region. Besides the warehouses, arsenals and armories that were plundered by the jihadists after their victories over the Iraqi army in Mosul, Kirkuk and other places, IS also managed to acquire large numbers of weapons through the Western-backed “moderate” rebels in Syria who either sold their arms or simply joined IS ranks.

The irony of the United States now spending billions of dollars to fight against a monster it created is not lost on the Kurds. Even though the airstrikes by the US-led coalition are welcomed almost unanimously because of their decisive role in the many battles where the Defense Forces are fighting off tanks, Humvees and rocket launchers with little more than AK-47s and a determination to protect their home and hearth, there is a ubiquitous suspicion of the true intentions of the Western forces. “We will accept humanitarian aid, but no weapons and soldiers,” said Polat, echoing the opinion of many activists and officials in the region. “Even though the US support has helped us to combat IS, it hasn’t indebted the Kurdish people in any way – and we’d like to keep it like that.”

The One, True Solution

If the United States and its allies are genuine about their intentions to combat IS and bring democracy to the region, there are a few crucial steps that have to be taken. Pressure has to be exerted on Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq to end their boycott of Rojava; Turkey’s plan to install a buffer zone in northern Syria cannot be allowed to pass since it would bring de facto control over the Kurdish regions into Turkish hands, which would mean the end of the social revolution; the PKK has to be removed from the US terror list because it has proven itself to be one of the few regional forces that can successfully beat IS and follows a genuine pro-democracy agenda.

Finally, dropping bombs on IS will only incite more anger, attract more anti-imperialist fanatics to join their ranks and allow them to play the victim card, presenting themselves as being involved in a monumental battle of good versus evil, of David versus Goliath. To successfully combat IS, it is necessary to cut off their life support, meaning putting pressure on those countries – more often than not close US allies – where most of the financial, logistical and ideological support for the jihadists is coming from: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan.

Admirably, amid all the carnage and destruction, a sparkle of hope can be found. In the words of Mümin Agcakaya, ex-guerilla and coordinator with the Rojava solidarity platform: “IS has brought pain and suffering, but it also has brought the Kurds together and has showed the Middle East what the Kurdish project is all about. We’re not just fighting against IS, but more importantly, we’re fighting for a different way of life, for a stateless society. What we’re trying to do is to build the biggest democracy in the world.”

This article was originally published at Truth Out.

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