'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Tuesday, September 1, 2015
PATRICK COCKBURN - Turkey duped the US, and Isis is reaping the rewards
The real losers of the Turkish bombing campaign are the
Kurds, the only force to have effectively resisted the jihadis in Syria
The disastrous miscalculation made by the United States in
signing a military agreement with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds becomes
daily more apparent. In return for the use of Incirlik Air Base just north of
the Syrian border, the US betrayed the Syrian Kurds who have so far been its
most effective ally against Islamic State (Isis, also known as Daesh). In
return for this deal signed on 22 July, the US got greater military cooperation
from Turkey, but it swiftly emerged that Ankara’s real target was the Kurds in
Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Action against Isis was almost an afterthought, and it
was hit by only three Turkish airstrikes, compared to 300 against the bases of
the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
President Barack Obama has assembled a grand coalition of 60
states, supposedly committed to combating Isis, but the only forces on the
ground to win successive victories against the jihadis over the past year are
the ruling Syrian-Kurdish Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Supported by US air power, the YPG heroically defeated the Isis attempt to
capture the border city of Kobani during a four-and-a-half month siege that
ended in January, and seized the Isis crossing point into Turkey at Tal Abyad
The advance of the Syrian Kurds, who now hold half of the
550-mile Syrian-Kurdish border, was the main external reason why Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered the US closer cooperation, including the
use of Incirlik, which had previously been denied. The domestic impulse for an
offensive by the Turkish state against the Kurds also took place in June when
the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 per cent of the vote in
the Turkish general election, denying Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development
Party (AKP) a majority for the first time since 2002. By strongly playing the
Turkish nationalist and anti-Kurdish card, Mr Erdogan hopes to win back that
majority in a second election on 1 November.
There are signs of a growing understanding in Washington
that the US was duped by the Turks, or at best its negotiators deceived
themselves when they agreed their bargain with Ankara. Senior US military
officers are anonymously protesting in the US media they did not know that
Turkey was pretending to be going after Isis when in practice it was planning
an offensive against its 18 million-strong Kurdish minority.
Further evidence of misgivings in Washington came last week
with an article in The New York Times entitled “America’s Dangerous Bargain
with Turkey” by Eric S Edelman, former US ambassador to Turkey and
under-secretary for defence policy, who is normally regarded as a neo-con of
good standing. He accuses Mr Erdogan of unleashing “a new wave of repression
aimed at Kurds in Turkey, which risks plunging the country into civil war” and
he goes on to suggest that this might help the AKP win back its majority, but
will certainly undermine the fight against Isis. He says: “By disrupting logistics
and communications between the PKK in Iraq and the PYD in Syria, Turkey is
weakening the most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State in Syria:
In fact, there is growing evidence that the Turkish
government has gone even further than that in weakening US allies opposing Isis
in Syria, Arab as well as Kurd. For several years the US has been trying to
build up a moderate force of Syrian rebels who are able to fight both Isis and
the Syrian government in Damascus. The CIA-run initiative has not been going
well because the Syrian military opposition these days is almost entirely
dominated by Isis, which holds half Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat
al-Nusra, and the equally sectarian Sunni Ahrar al-Sham.
But in July, the US plan to create such a moderate force was
humiliatingly knocked on the head when Jabhat al-Nusra attacked and kidnapped
many of this US-trained force as they entered Syria from Turkey. It now seems
certain that Nusra had been tipped off by Turkish intelligence about the
movements of the US-backed unit known as “Division 30”. Turkey apparently did
this because it does not want the US to have its own surrogate in Syria.
According to an investigation by Mitchell Prothero of the McClatchy news
organisation, citing many Syrian sources in Turkey, the Turkish motive was to
destroy the US-run movement, which was intended to number 15,000 fighters
targeting Isis. Its disintegration would leave the US with no alternative but
to train Turkish-sponsored rebel groups whose primary aim is to topple Syria’s
President Bashar al-Assad. The article quotes a Syrian rebel commander in the
Turkish city of Sanliurfa, 30 miles north of the Syrian border, as saying that
the Turks “don’t want anything bad to happen to their allies – Nusra and Ahrar
al-Sham – along the border, and they know that both the Americans and the
Syrian people will eventually recognise that there’s no difference between
groups such as Nusra, Ahrar and Daesh.”
How does Isis itself assess the new US-Turkish accord? Its
fighters may find it more difficult to cross the Syrian-Turkish border, though
even this is uncertain. But it will be relieved that its most effective enemy
in Syria, the PYD, will in future be restrained by Turkish pressure. Its PKK
parent organisation is coming under sustained attack from Turkish forces in
south-east Turkey and in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq.
The destruction of one of the most famous temples at Palmyra
by Isis last week, and the decapitation of the site’s most famous archaeologist
a few days earlier, are a show of strength and acts of defiance very much in the
tradition of the Islamic State. The aim is to dominate the news agenda, which
can easily be done by some spectacular atrocity, and thereby say, in effect,
“you may hate what you are seeing, but there is nothing you can do to stop it”.
And this is demonstrably the case not just in Syria but in
Iraq. Isis captured Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq on 17 May and
Palmyra five days later on 22 May. In neither case has there been an effective
counter-attack. Isis is still winning victories where it counts, and faces no
real threat to its existence.
The US campaign against Isis is failing and the US-Turkish
deal will not reverse that failure and may make it more complete. Why did US
negotiators allow themselves to be deceived, if that is what happened. No doubt
the US air force was over-eager for the use of Incirlik so it would not have to
fly its planes from Jordan, Bahrain or carriers in the Gulf.
But there is a deeper reason for America’s inability to
confront Isis successfully. Ever since 9/11, the US has wanted to combat
al-Qaeda-type movements, but without disturbing its close relations with Sunni
states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Gulf monarchies. But it
is these same allies that have fostered, tolerated or failed to act against the
al-Qaeda clones, which explains their continuing success.