If the US and Turkey clash, gates of hell may open further in Middle East

By Ameen Izzadeen
The tension between the United States and Turkey strangely did not find mention in Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday, though the events on the ground are as worrisome as the North Korean missile-and-nuclear issue.
As emotions run high in Turkey, the question that looms is: Will there be a war between the United States and Turkey?
Both the US and Turkey are founder members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). The war of words in recent weeks between the US, a world power, and Turkey, a rising regional power, has stoked fears of yet another gate of hell being opened in the Middle Eastern, where virtually every country is either involved in a war or in a state or war preparedness.
Relations between the US and Turkey have been under strain since the United States, some three years ago, allied with Syria’s Kurdish rebels, whom Ankara has branded terrorists. Washington found Kurds as natural allies in its ‘delayed’ fight against the ISIS. The emphasis on the word ‘delayed’ is because the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia were initially reluctant to take on the ISIS while the terror outfit was making rapid territorial gains in the war against Syrian government troops.
It was only after Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 that the US launched a serious campaign against the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in the backdrop of rising world opinion against ISIS. In both countries, the Kurds were US allies.
Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish separatist rebellion for the past four decades, was alarmed over the growing military relationship between the US and the Kurds. The Kurds form one fifth of Turkey’s population. The Turkish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), maintains close ideological and military links with the Syrian Kurdish group, YPG, which the US has been arming, training and protecting.
For Turkey, the redline came when the US last month set up Kurdish safe zones in Syria, ostensibly as a strategic measure to keep the ISIS on the run. But Turkey, sensing that the US move could be a step towards creating an independent Kurdish state, sent troops to Afrin, a US-protected Kurdish safe zone in Syria’s north.
But it is here that the problem really started between the two Nato allies. Last week, President Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt the military operation, codenamed Operation Olive Branch. Trump warned against actions that “could risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
Further east from Afrin, the United States maintains some 2,000 troops in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Manbij. Turkey, which has deployed some 13,000 troops in Syria, wants to extend the campaign to Manbij – a move that could provoke US counteraction.
According to a White House statement, Trump phoned Erdogan to tell him that the Turkish operation “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria”. But such warnings had no bearing on the Turks, who see any attempt at creating an independent Kurdish state anywhere in the region as an existential threat. For Turks, the Kurdish question evokes memories of their War of Independence in 1920.
Turkey’s war of independence had its origins in attempts by the victorious allied forces to set up an independent Kurdish state from the territory of the defeated Ottoman empire. In terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a referendum was to be held in the Kurdish region for an independent Kurdish state. The Ottoman emperor concurred, but the Turks opposed it. Military chief Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who had set up a rival government in Ankara declared that, if the Allies wanted to scissor up the Anatolian Peninsula, then they’d have to fight to do it. The war with the Allies went on for two years and ended in victory for Turkey. The Ottoman government was overthrown and the republic was proclaimed.
But since then, the Kurds have remained a minority in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, and they have been dreaming of a separate state. The closest they came to a separate state was when, in September last year, Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum for secession, only to suppress the victory in the face of military threats from Iraq’s central government. The Kurds in Iraq, however, enjoy a good measure of autonomy with their own parliament and president.
Since Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey more than a decade ago, the country has been dreaming the Ottoman dream of becoming a regional power. Erdogan came to Qatar’s rescue last year, when Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies laid an economic siege on the tiny but rich Gulf state.
The war in Syria is so complicated that allies turn enemies and vice versa overnight. Turkey is no friend of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who is also fighting the Kurds. But Assad has opposed the Turkey’s military adventure in Syria. All are, however, supposedly united in their war against the ISIS. But in Syria, ISIS and al Qaeda take many forms. Some, with the sobriquet ‘moderates’, are allied with the US troops and are armed and funded by one Gulf state or another.
There were no permanent allies or friends in the Syrian conflict. Every nation involved in the conflict tries to achieve its own national interest. Russia, for instance, at one point was supportive of the PKK when Turkish-Russia relations suffered a nosedive after Turkey shot down a Russian war plane in November 2015. But the following year, Turkey became Russia’s ally with President Erdogan accusing the US of having a hand in the failed military coup in August 2016. Since then, Turkey has supported efforts by Russia to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, much to the chagrin of the US. Turkey has also shown interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Relations between the US and Turkey took a further beating when Turkey arrested a US embassy staff member and the US refused to accede to Turkey’s request for the extradition of a popular Turkish scholar and religious leader, whom Ankara has accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup.
However, in this US-Turkey eyeball-to-eyeball game, the US has apparently blinked. But a victory for Turkey is wishful thinking. For the past three years, the Syrian Kurds, with the US military help, have been running a separate state of sorts in areas under their control. But they are deeply frustrated with the US, for it has abandoned the Kurds in the face of the Turkish offensive on Afrin.
The US behaviour raises a question of trust: Help is there as long as it serves the US interest. This is a key lesson in realpolitik.
Well, the ultimate winners in this game will be Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They can’t be happier at the prospect of two Nato allies in combat. The ultimate losers, as usual, will be the people. More wars mean, more civilian casualties and displacements.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Political analysis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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