October 10, 2015–Many readers will have heard of the horrors in Ankara today, where bomb blasts ambushed protesters gathering to march for peace. The marchers represented Turkish progressive political factions and the majority-Kurdish political group People’s Democratic Party, HDP by its Turkish initials, which is a united front grown from the Kurdish national movement. The toll from the bomb blasts–already nearing a hundred with twice that number of wounded–is the largest in recent Turkish history. As needed to be said after the appalling attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdromedaire this past January, “We are all Kurds now!”
This is especially true for Americans. Evolving events in the Middle East are placing Americans–all Americans–in a false position and light.
Americans deplore the violence and political insanity in Syria, making so many of its citizens refugees to flee the country. United States policy on Syria has been to encourage the departure of its leader Hafez al-Assad, helping to arm rebels who fight him. But our main activities in Syria right now, including the most vigorous military activities conducted by the U.S. today, are aimed at the rebel group ISIS/ISIL that, like us, opposes Mr. Assad. We also oppose other anti-Assad groups because we view them as linked to Al Qaeda. The net effect is to prolong the Syrian war, increase the toll of dead, lengthen the casualty lists, and generate more refugees.
Washington deplores the rise of Russian action in Syria. Vladimir Putin’s government has put boots on the ground and actually sent troops, tanks, and planes to Syria. Like us, the Russians say they are against ISIS. But their attacks have aimed primarily at the rebels we support, including those of the Kurdish minority, others trained by the CIA, and the broad range of anti-Assad rebels. If pressed the Russians will say they are merely carrying out long-standing commitments to the government of Syria. In that, at least, there is some consistency.
Back to the Kurds. Not so many months ago the ISIS rebels were pressing against Kurdish settlements that lie up against Syria’s border with Turkey. American airpower was important in holding back the ISIS attackers, and U.S. diplomatic pressure on Turkey helped in that nation’s decision to permit Kurdish volunteers from Iraq to march to the aid of their compatriots in Syria. The United States wanted Turkey in the fight against ISIS.
Now, the Turks. For longer than anyone cares to remember the Turkish government has considered its Kurdish minority as an enemy. The on-again, off-again conflict between Turkey and the Kurds a few years ago had seemed to have become muted. The HDP party, in fact, formed to create an avenue to incorporate Kurdish interests in the Turkish political discourse, and potentially offered a vehicle to integrate the two communities in important new ways. In June elections the HDP scored an upset, for the first time recording enough votes for Kurdish candidates to enter the Turkish national assembly.
Enter the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Several things about the Turkish government need to be noted. Number one, it has been losing the hearts and minds of its citizens. Its record of malfeasance and corruption has soured many Turks on Erdogan’s leadership and even his personal honesty. Ankara has been experiencing what Americans might call a “Watergate period,” in which a succession of revelations have ripped away the cloaks hiding the dark underbelly of the government. But so far Erdogan’s power has been enough to keep a grip, purging the police and military, and putting down the public demonstrations. Nevertheless, the June elections signaled his fragility, and another national vote is scheduled for next month.
Now to the security service. The National Intelligence Organization (MIT by its Turkish initials) appears to be under Erdogan’s solid control. Where Turkish intelligence had once been considered a military entity that is no longer true. Nearly 40 percent of MIT personnel were military assignees as of 1990. Today that figure is less than 5 percent. However, in Turkey the military had played a praetorian role and attempted to mediate between political factions. No longer. Mr. Erdogan’s political party was exceptional in Turkish politics for dispensing with a secular approach and openly siding with Muslim religious tendencies.
In terms of United States policies, Erdogan’s proclivities had no operational meaning until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. Ankara no doubt appreciated that Washington’s desire to bring Turkey into its coalition for action on Syria gave it a certain freedom of action. The Erdogan government declared against ISIS. But most of the air strikes it carried out were against Kurds. Cooperation in helping the Kurds besieged along the border was desultory. And MIT? The Turkish spooks have variously been reported as running guns to ISIS, arresting border police who blew the whistle on that action, and even helping ISIS fundamentalists to get their prospective recruits from Turkey into Syria.
Early this year MIT warned of ISIS attacks against foreign embassies in Turkey. Toward summer there were several terrorist incidents in border towns, again attributed to ISIS. Ankara is already laying a basis for claiming fundamentalists carried out these bombings. But ISIS benefits from making attacks inside Turkey only to the degree its actions help the Erdogan government. If Turkish intelligence has been covertly assisting the fundamentalists they would be foolish to carry out actions that enrage Turks. More likely is an MIT-designed move to rekindle animosities between Turk and Kurdish ethnicities and blame it on the Syrian fundamentalists.
The United States, having encouraged Erdogan’s government to enter the Syrian conflict, now has its hands tied as the Turkish leader manipulates the ethnics and, in fact, objectively behaves in much the same way as Putin’s Russians whom President Obama loudly denounces. Stay tuned to what Washington has to say now. And American citizens need to say, “I am Kurd too!”