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Turkey Strikes Back

On Wednesday night, for the second time in the last six months, Turkey invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, prompting a late-night consultation with its allies in Brussels over a perceived threat to its sovereignty and security. Last time, it was over the Syrian Air Force’s downing of an Turkish F4 reconnaissance plane, which Ankara maintains was hit by a surface-to-air missile in international airspace after apparently straying briefly into Syria’s. This time, it was because the Syrian Army fired three mortar rounds into the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five civilians and injuring eight others.

Turkey’s immediate response to what appeared to be an “errant” attack was to engage in reprisal shelling of undisclosed Syrian air bases and outposts, which, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed several soldiers. However, following NATO’s perfunctory rhetorical support for its member state, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then invoked Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution, which, according to the parliamentary motion that subsequently passed, grants him “one-year-long permission to make the necessary arrangements for sending the Turkish Armed Forces to foreign countries.” Erdogan’s deputy promptly explained that this measure was “not for war” but for deterring further cross-border violence. The prime minister’s assessment was somewhat less varnished. “We are not interested in war,” he said on Friday, “but we’re not far from it either.” As of this writing, more mortars have fallen on Turkish soil, in Akcakale and Hatay, and Turkey has responded with reprisal shelling for six consecutive days.

The interesting thing to note about the war powers bill was that it was dated September 20th and originally meant for deploying forces to Iraq’s Qandil Mountains to flush out militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the US, and the EU all designate a terrorist group. The bill was only revised last week to include Syria after the Akcakale attack. There were certainly other factors that influenced Turkey’s responses last week, including the rising Sunni-Alawite sectarian tension in the southwestern city of Antakya, temporary home to the bulk of some 120,000 Syrian refugees and untold scores of rebel fighters. But, as so often in Turkey, the Kurdish question is the prism through which the country’s foreign policy must be filtered.

 

Those who doubt Ankara’s willingness to resort to military measures over the PKK’s real or perceived threat to Turkey’s national security should read the latest report by the International Crisis Group, which found that violence between the Turkish military and PKK has reached levels unseen since the 1990s. More than 700 people, including militants, soldiers and civilians, have been killed in the last 14 months. For Erdogan, this escalation, coinciding as it does almost exactly with Syria’s rebellion, is no accident, but rather the deliberate retaliation by Assad for Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition. Erdogan has previously indicated his willingness to intervene in Syria if the PKK starts using Syrian territory as a base of operations for attacks on Turkish targets. And Turkish intelligence has accused Assad’s security forces, acting in concert with Iran, of purposefully allowing the PKK/PYD to establish its own autonomous zone in northern Syria, not least by assassinating or kidnapping moderate Kurdish political rivals.

In 1998, Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Agreement, which stipulated that Syria wouldn’t allow “any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey.” Syria recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization, proscribed the group and its affiliates, banned the “supply of weapons, logistical material and financial support to and the propaganda activities of the PKK on its territory,” and expelled Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s founder, who had been hosted in Damascus for a decade (he was captured in Kenya in 1999 and extradited to Turkey). About a third of the PKK’s total fighting force are Syrian nationals, and the group’s Syrian branch or “affiliate,” the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is today a source of consternation not only for Turkey but for other Syrian Kurdish groups.

Over the last few months, about 1,000 PKK militants have relocated from their stronghold in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq to Syria to do “political work” with their PYD counterparts. Kurdish flags have been raised in other border towns, visible from Turkish villages. More troubling to Ankara, though, is the advent of PYD militias known as the People’s Defense Units, which have begun running their own security details in the Kurdish districts of Aleppo and Hassakah provinces, sometimes with the acquiescence or obliviousness of the Turkish-backed rebel brigades, but sometimes in open conflict with them.

These security details have putatively been coordinated within the framework of a new power-sharing agreement signed last July in Erbil between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella organization that consists of 15 moderate Syrian Kurdish parties. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, was godfather to the agreement, which he conceived of as a way of avoiding Kurdish infighting in favor of a unified Kurdish effort to consolidate an autonomous region in northern Syria. The idea was to replicate the model of the KRG in Iraq in advance of the Assad regime’s collapse in order to strengthen the Syrian Kurdish bargaining position with whatever post-Assad government eventually emerged. Turkey doesn’t look favorably on Kurdish autonomy to the south, as this might lead its own Kurdish population of 15 million to agitate for the same. But according to a forthcoming report from the Henry Jackson Society, there’s a graver threat: that the Erbil Agreement appears to have been used as a pretext for a PYD power seizure in Syria.

For one thing, in all of the Kurdish cities or areas in Syria where Assad’s forces have withdrawn and the Kurds have established their own de facto municipalities—Afreen, Amude, Derik, and parts of Qamishli, the capital Syrian Kurdistan—it’s the People’s Defense Units maintaining the checkpoints and performing the street patrols. Syrian Kurdish soldiers who defected and fled to the KRG—where they were then trained up as a police force by Barzani’s paramilitary forces—have been blocked from re-entering Syria by the PYD, which desires a strict monopoly on Kurdish security, in express contravention of the Erbil Agreement.

It probably doesn’t help that the PYD and KNC distrust each other. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, the former head of KNC, told me not long after the agreement was inked that “the PYD has used the language of threats, intimidation and violence against the Kurdish activists and peaceful demonstrators.” KNC members have accused the PYD of kidnapping Mustafa Jumu’ah and assassinating Nasiradeen Piro, both senior figures in the KNC’s Azadi Party. These are allegations the PYD strenuously denies, as its leader, Salih Muslims, continues to insist that the failure to fully implement the Erbil Agreement lies with the KNC. Whatever the case, a unified Syrian Kurdish community is easier for Ankara to deal with than one showing perilous signs of fracture that might given way to fratricidal conflict.

 

Because Turkish public opinion is against all-out war with Syria and President Obama has dismissed imposing a no-fly zone over the north of the country, Erdogan is left with the weaker option of pinprick intervention. After the F4 plane incident, Turkey imposed a de facto no-fly zone inside Syria by stationing troops and anti-aircraft along the 560-mile border and scrambling fighter jets to chase away Syrian attack helicopters that approached within three miles of it. Following last week’s activity, Erdogan might now dispatch Special Forces into Idlib and Aleppo to join with FSA units there to further attack or neutralize Syrian military installations. The FSA has an impressive history of hitting air bases in these provinces, usually with the collaboration of regime sympathizers, but very likely also with the help of Turkish intelligence, which has been training up rebels in the use of sophisticated weaponry at two “nerve centers” in Adana and Istanbul. According to one Turkish news portal citing “reliable sources,” the Assad regime has ordered its military to maintain a distance of more than six miles from the border. If true, this diktat from Damascus could established the buffer zone Turkey wanted, although it will likely prove difficult to enforce given the Syrian military’s trouble maintaining Assad’s orders in the field.

At all events, Turkey’s once touted “zero problems with the neighbors” foreign policy has thus given way to a beefed-up neighborhood watch. And analysts who once argued that Turkey would never go to war with Syria, much less do it alone, are now faced with the increasingly likely prospect of war, however gradualist or euphemistically defined. This owes not to any particular “appetite” in Erdogan, much less his constituency, but to the inevitable regional consequences of the Syrian crisis, which many of us in the interventionist camp warned a year ago would come to pass if the Assad regime was allowed to remain in power. 

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