The current struggle against Islamic State defies the old rule of multi-sided conflict, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Turkey is the enemy of my enemy, Islamic State. Therefore, Turkey is my friend. Thus, the United States has welcomed Ankara’s recent decision to become actively involved in the battle against IS, sending its own bombing missions and allowing U.S. access to its territory for air strikes against IS.
So far, so good.
But the Kurds, who have been fighting IS on the ground longer and harder than anybody, are also my friend. Yet, to Turkey, the YPG, military offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, is an enemy. Turkey views gains made by YPG near its borders as a threat to its own national interest. Any territory carved out by armed Kurds could become the basis of a Kurdish state next door, which is anathema to Turkey.
That is why Turkey has begun attacking Kurdish targets along with IS. Indeed, it is a question whether Turkey agreed to join the fight against IS only as a cover for its true agenda — destroying, or at least containing, the Kurds.
As a result, one of the latest casualties in this baffling, horrendous situation is that the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK has apparently dissolved in the wake of Turkish bombing of PKK camps in northern Iraq. Last month, the PKK declared it was stepping up attacks after accusing Turkey of violating a ceasefire that has held since 2013.
On Sunday, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in the streets of Istanbul to urge peace between Turkey and the PKK. “The Turkish claim they are fighting Islamic State … but in fact they are fighting the PKK,” PKK leader Cemil Bayik told the BBC.
“They are doing it to limit the PKK’s fight against IS. Turkey is protecting IS.
“[President] Erdogan is behind IS massacres. His aim is to stop the Kurdish advance against them, thus advancing his aim of Turkishness in Turkey.”
Turkish officials deny that the real target is not IS but PKK, insisting that it is waging a “comprehensive battle” against IS.
On Monday, the situation was inflamed further as two people were shot at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul and at least eight people were killed in a wave of separate attacks on Turkish security forces.
In the midst of this chaos, America must formulate some kind of policy. It makes one long for the simple, halcyon days of the Bush administration’s war on terror, when Osama bin Laden was the enemy, and any enemy of his was a friend of ours.
Supposedly, according to media-quoted analysts, U.S. policy is to enlist Turkey’s help in driving IS out of northern Syria. That will enable Syrian opposition forces to move into the area, effectively creating a buffer zone with the Kurds on the outside where they can’t threaten Turkey.
If the Kurds lose out in this grand strategy, that’s acceptable to Washington, according to Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
“The American and Turkish position from the beginning of the conflict has not been that different,” he said. “The U.S. is not going to choose the PKK over Ankara — ever.”
Let’s just hope the Kurds don’t get wind of this.
To be sure, all the above is a gross oversimplification. The entanglement of age-old religious, political and ethnic conflicts in the region is not amenable to an official briefing or a editorial. In fact, it would take years of study to begin to comprehend what’s happening there. And even then, it would be impossible to predict which way the thing will turn in the next few months. The most the experts can do is to make an educated guess and hope for the best.
This provides little or no comfort to those caught in the fighting. What can it help them to know, or suspect, that their fate as orphans or refugees, as victims intentional or unintentional, of one side or another, was the result of the imperfect calculations of policy planners and target selectors hundreds or thousands of miles away?
Those who are putting their lives on the line to defeat terrorism, and those who are aiding them in the struggle, can only do the best they can. They are mortal beings with mortal limitations, operating in a theater of cruelty.
May Hashem help to wipe away the forces of evil, speedily and soon.