NATO again goes to war against Kurdistan

February 12, 2021
Turkish forces began their attack on Gare during the early hours of February 10, attacking PKK positions with fighter jets and United States-built Cobra and Sikorsky helicopters. Photo: ANF News

Turkey has opened a new front in its ongoing war of annihilation against the Kurdish liberation movement, this time targeting the mountainous Gare region of northern Iraq that serves as a base area for forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkish forces began their operation during the early hours of February 10, attacking PKK positions with fighter jets and United States-built Cobra and Sikorsky helicopters.

The helicopters were said to be deployed from the south of Gare, indicating that their flight did not begin in Turkey, but from within the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. This fact points to the complicity of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani in supporting Turkey’s objectives.

At the time of writing, the colonialist forces of Turkey are being dealt heavy blows by the resistance of the PKK’s People’s Defence Forces (HPG) and Free Women’s Units (YJA-Star).

Several Turkish communist parties that are active in the Peoples’ United Revolutionary Movement (HBDH) alliance — which the PKK is the largest component of — have also signaled that they are either engaged in, or are willing to fight in defence of, the guerrilla areas known as the Medya Defence Zones.

Although the particular nature of the attack by Turkish military forces was not known prior to the start of the operation, some form of military assault had been expected for weeks.

The Kurdish freedom movement and its supporters have been warning of an impending attack on either the city of Derik (al-Malikiyah) in northern Syria or Shengal (Sinjar) in northwestern Iraq.

The fact that Gare was chosen instead of Derik and Shengal does not mean the possibility of aggression against other parts of Kurdistan is off the table.

Gare was a safer bet in terms of preventing reactions of opposition from western powers, many of which have been frustrated by an array of Erdoğan’s domestic and international moves in recent years.

It is one thing to attack a force deemed to be a terrorist organisation by scores of western countries, which is the case for the PKK. It would be quite another to once again attack northern Syria, where several western countries have drawn a distinction between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and PKK. The same could be said to be true of Shengal, where the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) operate. Of course, Turkey nonetheless sees both the YPG and YBS as mere surrogate names for the PKK.

Nevertheless, Kurdish forces are vigilant that the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be hell bent on a campaign of annihilation to commence this spring.

Turkey’s diplomatic charm offensive

Key to understanding the run up to the Gare attack is the diplomatic offensive that Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar engaged in over the course of the past month.

Akar visited Erbil on January 19 for a meeting with officials of the KDP. The KDP is one of two ruling parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraqi Kurdistan, and has proven far more amenable to pressure from Ankara to take part in a fratricidal war against the PKK than the Sulaymaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Already, years before this latest bout of aggression, the KDP had been aiding Ankara in its ongoing war. Turkish military bases have been constructed on territory controlled by the KDP, and KDP military forces were seen moving military equipment into Gare last year.

Part of the backdrop for Akar’s visit to Erbil was the so-called Sinjar Agreement, a disgraceful contract drawn up by the KDP and the Iraqi central government on the status of Shengal in October.

The agreement stipulates that an unelected mayor of the KDP be appointed, superseding the Yazidi autonomous government of the region. It also calls for the disarming of the YBS and any other militias that do not have official status. None of these topics were discussed with the local population.

However, it has been said that Akar’s urging of Baghdad to support a military operation against Sinjar may have fallen flat. Whether this was the calculation behind not attacking Sinjar remains to be seen — such an attack could still be forthcoming.

Crucially, Akar then visited Berlin just one week before the Gare assault began, for a meeting with his German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Ostensibly, the working meeting revolved around the Turkey-Greece gas dispute, in which Germany has positioned itself as a mediator. However, this appeared a secondary motivation for Akar, given the frenzied speculation of war drums beating over Kurdistan.

Kramp-Karrenbauer was full of praise for Akar and Turkey, pointing out that the meeting was a “special and good signal among allies” and that “Turkey is and will remain an important NATO partner”.

Germany previously said it opposed Turkey’s 2018 invasion of Afrin in northern Syria, as well as the 2019 occupation that saw the cities of Girê Spî‎ and Serêkaniyê captured by Turkish-backed forces of the Syrian National Army. Kramp-Karrenbauer even called for an international peacekeeping force following that latter invasion that could include German troops, but this idea was rather quickly dropped.

However, Germany only opposed these Turkish war efforts in words. Much of Turkey’s ground invasions were carried out by weapons supplied by German companies, most notably Leopard 2 tanks manufactured by Rheinmetall. In 2018 — the year of the Afrin occupation — German arms exports to Turkey totaled US$268 million, roughly one-third of all German weapons exports.

Therefore, Akar was likely testing the temperature at his Berlin meeting, trying to assess to what degree — if any — Germany would oppose an attack on Sinjar or Derik.

It is not clear if these lines of assault were discussed in any detail. What does seem feasible, however, is that Germany would have no real issue with a large-scale assault on PKK forces, given that Berlin still criminalises the PKK and many of its affiliate groupings as terrorist organisations.

This underscores something quite fundamental, which is that at the end of the day, a war waged by Turkey is a NATO war. Even if a country like Germany opposes a particular operation in writing, it is still culpable, not least because it refuses to stop selling arms to Ankara.

Questioned on this late last year, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said: “I do not find the demand of an arms embargo against Turkey strategically correct. It is not easy to do this against a NATO partner. We saw that NATO ally Turkey easily bought missiles from Russia because it could not buy from the US.”

This statement was made after it was abundantly clear to the world that Turkey had already used such armaments in league with Salafist elements — some who used to fight for the Islamic State — against Kurdish forces.

What about the role of the US?

In addition to the German-manufactured weapons in Turkey’s extensive arsenal (Ankara is the second largest army in NATO), some observers of the newest phase of the war will find the Cobra and Sokorsky helicopters familiar as part of the US military’s arsenal.

The US has supported Turkey in its war against the PKK since the beginning of the group’s armed struggle, in August 1984. This hasn’t changed one iota even after the US began the process of offering tactical military support to the YPG in northern Syria beginning in early 2015.

A fresh attack on northern Syria by Turkey would be the first to take place under the newly inaugurated administration of US President Joe Biden. Some analysts have posited that such an attack is less likely under the Biden administration than it was under former president Donald Trump, given that Biden furiously opposed Trump’s decision to pull US troops from Syria.

However, on closer inspection, the new administration doesn’t exactly appear to really love its so-called “partners” in the YPG, at least when it appears they operate for their own interests and not those that overlap with the US’s regional ambitions.

Biden’s new Secretary of State is Antony Blinken, who penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times back in January 2017, entitled “To Defeat the Islamic State, Arm the Syrian Kurds”.

This title is rather instructive, given that the content of the article shows exactly zero concern for the broader concerns of the Kurdish nation, but only about the demise of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

In one revealing section, Blinken wrote how “keeping the Syrian Democratic Forces focused on Raqqa keeps it away from the Turkish-Syrian border — and any effort by Syrian Kurds to join the area they control in a contiguous Kurdish region or state. Turkish troops entered Syria to prevent the emergence of such a state.”

There appears here to be a degree of understanding on Blinken’s part of what makes Turkey tick, empathising with Ankara and wanting to see that their desires are met — even if they come at a cost to the Kurds’ right to a homeland and self-determination.

Blinken also made reference to Turkey’s rush to take al-Bab and how the US should assist them in that endeavour so as to prevent the YPG from advancing on the city.

If we recall that there was no opposition by the US just over a year later to allowing Turkey to ethnically cleanse Afrin, we can see that Blinken’s view — that the YPG need not be too strong or control too much territory — seemed to be shared by the State Department at that time.

Later in the same NYT article, Blinken wrote that “Trump should double down on support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, including helping find the group’s leadership holed up in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains.”

These two points — Blinken’s desire to oppose a “contiguous Kurdish region” and opposition to the PKK — are hugely important when taken together. There can be no discussing the internal politics of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) without addressing the wider region, and vice versa.

Blinken signalled in 2017 that he is onboard with precisely what Turkey is attempting to move forward with now: an enlarged war against the PKK, coupled with an attempt to geographically separate the progressive Kurdish forces that are ideologically aligned.

This doesn’t mean the US would necessarily agree with an attack on Derik, but there appears to be no opposition to a buffer zone, or to keeping the YPG as far away from Turkey as possible, even if it means that the local Kurdish population must do without their self-defence forces.

The key is that the YPG — and the SDF by extension — be managed by outsiders. As I have written previously, the US wants a strong SDF, but frankly not too strong.

As far as Blinken seems to be concerned, SDF need not really operate in Kurdish areas at all, but should be pushed further into traditionally Arab territory, something that hardly sounds different than Trump proclaiming the Kurds “have a lot of sand to play with”.

Turkey, seizing control of Derik, would aim to deprive the YPG of its logistics corridor that leads to PKK-held territory across the Syria-Iraq border. This corridor is rather close to the Gare mountains, which reveals a lot about why Turkey has chosen to settle on an operation there for the time being.

Shengal is also part of a plan for making sure that there is no “contiguous Kurdish region” — or to be more specific, a PKK-affiliated region.

Some analysts have pointed out that Derik and Sinjar under Turkish occupation could form a so-called “Sunni corridor”. Such a corridor would completely shut off the PKK from Syria, making the job complete that not only Turkey — but also the US — wants to do in delinking northern Syria from Qandil.

Stand against another NATO war

It should be clearly and categorically stated, without any confusion: Turkey’s war on the Kurdish liberation movement is a NATO war. In this current phase, Turkey seems to enjoy the unwavering support of their NATO allies for a potentially huge assault against the PKK.

However, it doesn’t matter whether there is at certain junctures ambiguity or even opposition on behalf of some countries within the alliance on a particular phase of the war (for example as has played out in northern Syria). It doesn’t alter the fact that when Turkey is at war, so is the alliance.

The KDP is also culpable in Erdogan’s colonialist and expansionist project. Their participation is particularly dangerous, because it provides Ankara with the ammunition to make an argument that they aren’t necessarily fighting against Kurds because they are Kurds, but only against terrorists.

For our part, as socialist internationalists, solidarity remains the order of the day. It is the unfortunate reality that for many communist and socialist organisations in the west, Kurdistan is not a readily understood arena of struggle. Even with the popularization of the Kurdish movement in recent years since the oncoming of the Rojava Revolution, the wider dynamics often appear slightly murky.

Many are undoubtedly influenced by a widely peddled framework that portrays Kurds as merely pawns of imperialism who lack agency. This not only drops the ball entirely in trying to navigate the politics of the region, but fails to understand that if anybody in the region understands what imperialism means, surely it is the Kurds who have suffered since the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923.

If we want to oppose colonialism, we stand with the Kurdish liberation movement. If we want to oppose chauvinism and national oppression, we stand with the Kurdish liberation movement. If we want to oppose NATO and its imperialist conquests, we stand with the Kurdish liberation movement.

To this end, let us stand with the forces who are being attacked for deciding to exercise their right to self-determination, and for daring to paint a portrait of a world where the darkness of yesterday is washed over by the beautiful colours of tomorrow.

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