The Turkish-US-Kurdish conundrum
The problem in a nutshell: Erdoğan despises the Kurds, who make up about one-fifth of his population. His biggest fear is that they will break away from Turkey under the guise of autonomy and self-governance, and carve out a country of their own with the neighbouring areas they currently inhabit in Syria, Iraq and Iran.
He insists that those Kurds fighting across his border in Syria are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This party is regarded by most in the international community, including the US, as a terrorist organisation.
By Erdoğan’s reckoning, not only has Washington been aiding a group that it lists as a terrorist organisation, but it is also risking a major confrontation with a long-time ally.
However, for six long years the US has been aiding these Kurds, who have served as its foot soldiers in the fight against Islamic State (IS).
Now that IS is largely defeated and the war in Syria is winding down, the Kurds, understandably, want to continue ruling the areas they’ve risked their lives to liberate. The American administration feels some obligation to help them, despite Erdoğan’s accusations that they are terrorists.
Experts warn that the issue could blow up and result in a new war in Syria – a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey. Both are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and have the two largest armies in the alliance.
Events came to a head earlier this month, after the Trump administration announced that it was helping to establish and train a new, 30 000-strong force along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. Comprising mostly of Kurds, its aim would be to prevent a resurgence of IS or al-Qaeda factions in Syria.
Washington is trying to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where disenchanted Sunni fighters broke away to join terrorist groups after the overthrow of former president Saddam Hussein.
The Americans are rightly worried that the same could happen in Syria – that either IS will re-emerge or armed, battle-hardened extremists will establish new groups or militias.
From Washington’s perspective, a local, indigenous border force is the best answer to preventing this, while also making sure that there is no room for Iran to capitalise on America’s withdrawal.
The bottom line is that the US wants out, and the idea is to leave the Kurds in charge.
But Erdoğan is having none of it. He’s convinced that such a force would only embolden the Kurds and result in a hostile autonomous region across his border which could be used as a launch pad for attacks against Turkey.
When he ordered his military into northern Syria a few days ago, he insisted it was in response to fire emanating from the Kurdish enclaves there. His soldiers said they were responding in “legitimate” self-defence.
To be fair, Erdoğan has been battling terror attacks within his own country for years.
The Americans need to make a tough decision: Do they let their faithful Kurdish partners – who are appealing for assistance against Turkish military power – down? Or, do they confront Erdoğan head on and potentially throw the region and NATO into upheaval?
None of this is particularly good news for Jerusalem. For starters, Erdoğan’s latest crisis with NATO is leading Turkey to turn even further away from the West towards Russia and Iran. Already, Ankara and Tehran are working more closely together than ever, particularly in Syria.
Until recently, regional rivalry between the two countries – and their support of different sides in the Syrian war – were major obstacles to their forming a united front. But a recent rapprochement, not least of all because of growing problems between Ankara and her Western allies, saw them announcing shared intelligence and military co-operation.
While Iran has oil (and potentially nuclear weapons), Turkey has political influence and is strategically located on the world map. Both are big countries with large populations and are concerned about Kurdish minorities within their borders.
All of this works nicely to Iran’s advantage and her designs on Syria.
Tehran wants to entrench herself deeper in that country and, according to Jerusalem, is setting up advanced missile factories, which pose a direct threat to Israel. There are concerns that a war could be triggered between Israel and Hezbollah, Shiite militias or even Lebanon.
What many in Jerusalem now fear is that, as Turkish forces move into northern Syria, Iranian influence will soon follow.
Already Tehran has a foothold in southern Syria, where Iranian bases are estimated to be less than 50km away from the Israeli border. That influence could now extend to northern Syria as well.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned that Iran was planning to bring 100 000 more fighters to Syria, in addition to the 125 000 it has already deployed there on the side of the Assad government.
To this end, the Israeli Air Force admits to carrying out more than 100 strikes against Iran-related targets in the country to prevent Iranian deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
The conundrum is this: In the same way Israel fears the prospect of Iranian forces in Syria on her border, Turkey regards the prospect of Syrian Kurds on her border much the same way. Just as Israel says it won’t permit it, Turkey is making clear she won’t permit Kurdish forces near her border either. So, if one is sympathetic to Israeli concerns, one needs to understand the Turkish ones.
But understanding doesn’t mean a solution is easy to come by, and in the interim, Iran’s influence in Israel’s northern neighbour is steadily growing.
Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.