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The Real Story Behind Turkey's US-Backed "War On Terror"

A quick Google search for the phrase "Turkey joins ISIS fight" reveals that generally speaking, the media is doing its best to pitch Ankara’s newfound willingness to engage Islamic State militarily as a kind of come-to-Jesus moment for the Erdogan regime.

Here’s the official line, excerpted from the NY Times:

Turkey plunged into the fight against the Islamic State on Thursday, rushing forces into the first direct combat with its militants on the Syrian border and granting permission for American warplanes to use two Turkish air bases for bombarding the group in Syria.

 

The developments ended a longstanding reluctance by Turkey, a NATO member and an ally of the United States, to play a more aggressive part in halting the Islamic State’s expanding reach in the Middle East. American officials said it carried the potential to strike Islamic State targets with far greater effect because of Turkey’s proximity, which will allow more numerous and frequent bombings and surveillance missions.

 

Turkey, a vital conduit for the Islamic State’s power base in Syria, had come under increased criticism for its inability — or unwillingness — to halt the flow of foreign fighters and supplies across its 500-mile border.

 

Up to now, Turkey has placed a priority on dealing with its own restive Kurdish population, which straddles the Syrian border in the southeast, and in the toppling of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whom the Turks blame for creating the conditions in his war-ravaged country for the rise of Islamic extremism.

 

But now that extremism has increasingly menaced Turkey, where 1.5 million Syrian war refugees have also been straining the country. A series of Islamic State attacks on Turks, including a devastating suicide bombing a few days ago that officials have linked to the extremist group, may also have helped accelerate the shift in Turkey’s position.

 

The agreement was sealed on Wednesday with a phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Obama, another administration official said.

 

A senior Defense Department official said recent Islamic State attacks on Turkish targets had played an important role in Turkey’s decision to join the fight against the militant group directly. "Attacks in Turkey are part of the catalyst for them to think about how they get in the game," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But while the attacks may be "part of the catalyst," skeptics (count us among them) doubt whether they are a large part.

In fact, even the most mainstream of news outlets are unable to completely obscure the fact that Turkey’s ISIS "offensive" may amount to nothing more than a smokescreen, as Erdogan launches a renewed effort to crush the PKK and nullify opposition gains won at the ballot box early last month when, for the first time in more than a decade, AKP lost its parliamentary majority.

Coalition building efforts since the election have gone largely nowhere, and in what amounted to a sure sign that some manner of crackdown was likely just around the corner, Erdogan warned on June 21 that "if politicians are unable to sort [it] out, then the people are the only recourse" - a nod to his right under the constitution to call new elections.

Critically, AKP doesn’t need much to push them back over the top in terms of regaining their majority in parliament. Consider the following from WSJ:

Turkey’s government—which lost its parliamentary majority last month— bills its new two-front war against Kurdish militants and Islamic State as a much-overdue reaction to terrorism. But, on the third front of domestic politics, this violence could also help President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party regain control.

 

In the June 7 parliamentary elections, Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost its majority for the first time in 12 years, and has been in coalition talks since. If these negotiations fail in coming weeks, Mr. Erdogan has said he will send the country back to the polls.

 

A rise in nationalist feelings amid the bloodshed and an unfolding crackdown on the government’s Kurdish political foes could bolster AKP’s chances in such a new election, many analysts say.

 

A two-percentage point shift from the last election could restore AKP’s absolute majority, making concessions demanded by its potential coalition partners on press freedom, corruption prosecutions and foreign policy unnecessary. This could also allow Mr. Erdogan to proceed with controversial plans to turn Turkey into a presidential republic and solidify his personal power.

The last passage there is critical.

AKP needs but a two percentage point swing in order to pave the way for Erdogan's power grab and there's no better way to stoke a renewed sense of nationalism and turn voters away from HDP than to invent a conflict and then trot out a few casualities as proof of what can happen when Kurdish "terrorists" are emboldened by a victory at the ballot box.

Given this, one could be forgiven for casting a wary eye at the rather convenient series of events that has now culminated in Ankara going back to war with the PKK. Here's a recap: 

NATO representatives met in Brussels on Tuesday after Turkey made a rare Article 4 request which compels treaty parties to convene in the event a member state is of the opinion that its "territorial integrity, political independence or security" is being threatened. 

 

That’s the case in Turkey, where the security situation has rapidly deteriorated over the past two weeks following a suicide bombing in Suruc (claimed by Islamic State) and the murder of two Turkish policemen in the town of Ceylanpinar (at the hands of the PKK, which claims the officers were cooperating with ISIS). Ankara responded by launching airstrikes against both Islamic State and PKK.

So, ISIS launches a suicide attack and the PKK (whose Syrian affiliate YPG is battling ISIS just across the border) retaliates by killing two Turkish policemen, an event which gives the government an excuse to tighten the screws on the Kurds with virtual impunity under the guise of stepping up its efforts against ISIS.

Better still, the ISIS red herring has allowed Ankara to effectively obtain NATO's blessing for a brutal crackdown on its Kurdish political rivals. To wit, from Salon:

The choreography attaching to the accord authorizing Turkey’s entry into war as a combatant is, as often, so careful and predictable as to be self-evident. On Sunday Ankara announced that it had requested a meeting of NATO ambassadors to consider its new circumstance. The outcome was obvious from the first.

 

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Norwegian secretary-general, suggested Monday that Turkey was unlikely to get "any substantial NATO military support."

 

This was a straw man: Material support is not what the Erdo?an government wants. In its fight against ISIS and the Kurds—against both, note—it wants “solidarity and support from our NATO allies,” as the foreign ministry in Ankara later made clear.

 

Legitimacy, in other words. And it got it Tuesday in Brussels, where Stoltenberg announced, "We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey."  See the problem? Not “united against ISIS," but "united in condemning terrorism."

 

Erdo?an understood. Within hours he declared that no peace process with the Kurds is possible—and then urged parliament to strip legislators with ties to the PKK of immunity from prosecution. An Istanbul source wrote Tuesday afternoon to say that some sitting parliamentarians have already been arrested.

So there you have it - mission accomplished. Erdogan has now secured Western support for his effort to nullify an election result he did not like. 

Of course the most interesting part of the story is that, as noted here on Wednesday, many have long suspected Turkey of cooperating with ISIS and indeed, US Vice President Joe Biden admitted last year that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Islamist rebels in Syria that metamorphosed into Islamic State. Specifically, Biden said the following at a question-and-answer session at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government on October 2 of last year:

"What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were (Jabhat) Al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world."

Biden would later apologize in a phone call to Erdogan and The White House was quick to disavow "any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria."

But Biden's apology came across as hollow precisely because in all likelihood, his comments were spot on, with the only irony being that the US did precisely the same thing in terms of "supplying and facilitating" the Syrian "oppposition" and indeed, perhaps that's why the Obama administration was so quick to apologize (it's the whole "throwing stones in glass houses" bit).

 Now let's jump back to the PKK and the Kurds for a moment. Consider the following from Al Jazeera:

"When AK party lost [its] absolute majority [in parliament] on June 7, while HDP won, getting over the 10 percent barrier, the results showed how people started seeing that not every Kurd is a terrorist,"  Ilya U Topper, an Istanbul-based analyst on foreign affairs and democracy for the M'Sur, a Spanish media outlet added.

 

He noted that HDP was able to perform so well in June's elections because there was peace.

 

"Two years of peace make people forget bloodshed and give them hope. Now we are back to square one. Kurds are 'terrorists' again," he said. "If elections are repeated, HDP might fall under the barrier and AK party will achieve [an] absolute majority in the elections. The big question is why the PKK accepted that game."

And that is a very good question.

Why would the PKK, whose political affiliate had just won a major victory at the ballot box, suddenly decide that now is the time to break a fragile cease fire, likely knowing that doing so would imperil further political gains and legitimacy for HDP?

Perhaps the answer lies with Erdogan, who may have known that given YPG's fight with ISIS and given the PKK's suspicions regarding Ankara's connections with Islamic State, all it would take is one ISIS-linked suicide attack to set off a chain of events that would culminate in NATO backing a renewed Turkish offensive against the Kurds, which would in turn help Erdogan undermine HDP's popularity ahead of new elections. And perhaps ISIS is more than willing to play along if it means YPG will be weakened in the process.

In the final analysis, Turkey wants Assad out of Syria and that means backing anyone and everyone who is willing to help make that happen (including ISIS) with the exception of the PKK, who Ankara is keen on crushing especially after June's election results. So now, Turkey will use ISIS as an excuse to procure NATO support for a politically motivated rout of Kurdish "terrorists". The West will hope that ISIS will suffer more damage than YPG, Turkey will hope that PKK and, by extension, YPG will suffer more damage than ISIS, and everyone - Ankara, Washington, ISIS, and PKK - will hope the when the dust (and blood) finally settles, Bashar al-Assad will have met a Gaddafi-esque end. 

And all for what, you ask? All for this:

"In 2009 - the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria - Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter's North field, contiguous with Iran's South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets - albeit crucially bypassing Russia."