Mustafa Denktas had twin sons. One of them, a Kurdish militant, was killed fighting the Turkish army in 2012. Denktas was still in mourning when news arrived three weeks later that the other son had met the same fate.
Back then Turkey’s war with separatist Kurds, however bloody and protracted, was essentially a domestic issue. Now it’s an international conflict. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his army into Syria last month, he wasn’t just striking a blow against Islamic State: a second goal was to stop Kurds from creating a de facto state.
That’s the element of Erdogan’s Syrian gambit that poses the biggest political risks. It threatens to ensnare his soldiers in a civil war that’s already lasted 5 1/2 years, and drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies — especially the U.S., which considers the Syrian Kurds an ally against Islamic extremists. When Moody’s Investors Service cut Turkey’s rating to junk last week, it cited “the persistence of geopolitical threats” among other reasons.
Erdogan is trying to stem a tide that turned more than two decades ago, when war in Iraq left Kurds in charge of that country’s oil-rich north. Since 2011, civil war has given a similar opportunity to Syrian Kurds, who now control of much of the territory along the 900-kilometer border with Turkey. Among the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state of their own, the Kurds can now glimpse a viable one.
‘Sooner or Later’
Talking with Denktas, a local official in the Turkish frontier town of Suruc, gives a sense of how Kurdish aspirations have widened across borders.
“My sons didn’t die for nothing,” he said, his eyes straying to their portraits on the wall. “The Kurds in Syria who shed their blood against Islamic State won’t retreat in the face of Turkish threats,” Denktas said. “Sooner or later, the Kurds will have their own state in the Middle East.”
Not if Erdogan can help it. The Turkish leader has repeatedly warned against Kurdish ambitions. Now his army is in a position to stop them, even if doing so casts a shadow over relations with the U.S., which has been arming the Syrian Kurds. “They constitute a threat to our country,” Erdogan said of the militias in an interview last week. “By giving them weapons, you’re strengthening this threat.”
Part of the dispute is about who’ll fight Islamic State on the ground. The U.S. says the Kurds are doing a good job. They held up the jihadists at the border town of Kobani in 2014 and then, over weeks of attritional combat, pushed them back — while Turkish soldiers a few miles away stayed out of the battle.
Democratic candidate and election frontrunner Hillary Clinton said during this week’s presidential debate that the U.S. must “support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out ISIS in Raqqa,” the Syrian city where Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate is based.
There was no mention of Turkey, which is also now volunteering for that task.
The Syrian Kurds aren’t really focused on Islamic State, they’re “busy trying to carve out the lands across our borders for themselves,” Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to Erdogan, wrote in Sabah daily this month. Turkey’s offensive is “showing the Americans that now there is a much more efficient and effective force” available to finish off the jihadists, he wrote.
Bottom of Form
That force, thousands strong, is on the move deeper into Syria — headed for the Islamic State strongholds of Dabiq and al-Bab, but also threatening to besiege Kurdish forces in Manbij. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told France 24 that the drive will extend at least 45 kilometers (28 miles) beyond the border, creating a “de facto safe zone” for rebel fighters and refugees across 5,000 square kilometers.
The “safe zone” is a long-cherished project, and Erdogan has told the Kurds to pull their fighters out of it. Turkey views their militias as terrorists with links to the PKK, an armed group that’s fought for autonomy in Turkey for three decades. The conflict has left about 40,000 people dead.
Erdogan once looked like he might be the leader who resolved it. He broke a taboo by starting a dialog with the militants, and eased restrictions on Kurdish-language teaching and broadcasting.
As Kurds advanced in Syria, and a Kurdish party in Turkey enjoyed an electoral surge, Erdogan’s line hardened. Now the war with the PKK is back in full swing. Authorities have also purged more than 10,000 teachers for alleged links to the group, and removed at least 28 elected Kurdish mayors.
One of them was in Suruc, where Denktas serves on the municipal council. A giant Turkish flag now hangs on the facade of the town hall, which has been surrounded by armored police cars and steel fences since the government took it over. Local Kurdish politicians were sitting on the sidewalk to protest.
Denktas said a rapprochement with the Kurds will spare Turkey’s army from a bloody engagement. “Then, Kurds can fight Islamic State in Syria, instead of Turkish soldiers,” he said. “I lost my sons, and now I am working to stop this bloodshed.”
Erdogan shows no sign of preferring that path. His Syrian intervention hasn’t yet triggered any political backlash among the Turks.
But it has tied the fate of Turkey’s Kurdish problem to the increasingly tangled conflict in Syria. Turkey now has an army there; so does Russia, which supports Erdogan’s bitter rival, President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. has special forces there; so does Iran. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funneling money from outside. All attempts at diplomacy have broken down. There’s no obvious end in sight.