Turkey faces the unintended consequences of its regional meddling

[From A World To Win News Service.]

24 September 2012. A World to Win News Service. Turkey is playing a central role in the U.S.-led campaign to bring down Bashar al-Assad. Now it is being confronted with the possibility that instead of strengthening Turkey’s influence in the region, the weakening of the Syrian regime may create the most serious challenge the Turkish government headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced so far.

 Until only recently the two regimes were close allies. One of the points of unity between Assad’s Baathist Party and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was their opposition to the Kurdish movement in both countries. Not only do Kurds in the two countries have strong historical ties, a significant number of Kurds in Syria are from families that fled repression in Turkey, and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), though based in Turkey, includes many Kurds born in Syria. Now  Assad is “playing the Kurdish card”,  trying to use the Kurds to threaten Turkey.

 Following are excerpts from a lengthy article in issue 60 of Haghighat, the publication of the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) entitled “The development of Syria’s civil war and the possibility of its spread to neighbouring countries, and the perspective of the formation of a state of Kurdistan”.

Women fighters from a Kurdish militia at a roadblock in North-East Syria.

The civil war between the two reactionary sides in Syria has gone through another turning point. The Bashar al-Assad regime has pulled back its troops from five Kurdish cities in northern Syria and largely left control of this region to Kurdish forces, especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in Turkey. 

 Turkey has threatened to attack Syria militarily in response to PKK attacks launched from Kurdish areas in Syria. In mid-August U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Turkey to review possible scenarios for regime change in Syria. U.S. officials reaffirmed Turkey’s importance as a “strategic partner in the region”. One of the most important agreements is to leave the key institutions and military apparatus of the Syrian state intact.

 The existence and configuration of Syria, like that of Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, are the outcome of the way the colonial powers France and Britain drew borders as they gobbled up the collapsed Ottoman Empire after World War One. Today, too, underlying the civil war in Syria is the confrontation and contention of big powers such as the U.S., Russia and the European countries over the Middle East. They are fighting to redivide control of that region among themselves – an event that could lead to re-drawing the borders of Syria. Russia has stubbornly supported the Assad regime in order to preserve its influence in the Middle East and its status as a powerful country.

 The position of the U.S. as the dominant superpower in the Middle East and also the present stability of the Turkish regime depend on their role in this dangerous battlefield. In the Middle East walls are being shaken and we should not assume that the outcome of these events will be written by the present masters of the Middle East. 

 Turkey is caught between internal fissures and its role as a regional gendarme

 Turkey sees itself as the architect of a new Syria and ultimately a new Middle East, a role assigned by the U.S. From a base camp built near Adana, a city in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, the Turkish regime is closely monitoring developments in Syria and training, militarily and politically, the forces opposed to the Assad regime known under the umbrella name of “the Free Syrian Army” (FSA). The camp is in Incirlik, where the U.S./Nato/Turkish air base is located. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also active in this project. Turkey controls the camp and is the main coordinator and sponsor.

 At the same time, Turkey’s concern that it may not be able to control the situation in Syria is not unfounded, because of the support for the Assad regime by some of the world’s most powerful countries such as Russia and regionally strong countries such as Iran. Their attempts to sabotage Turkey’s project is gathering momentum. Moreover, Jihadi Salafi groups have quickly grown and raised their black banners on the gates and in the centres of many towns and cities. According to reports, the Salafis, with their superior armament and financial support, have been able to put themselves at the head of a movement that includes other Islamic and secular forces.

 The U.S. and Turkish governments recognize the FSA as the sole “representative of the Syrian people”, but they have not been able to bring the Salafi forces under its command. (International Herald Tribune, 31 July 2012) The FSA is not formally a religious group, but uses an Islamic discourse in its call for Syrians to overthrow the Assad regime.

 The PKK’s growth in Syrian Kurdistan

 Another factor seriously challenging Turkey’s role in the Middle East is the increase in PKK activities in Syria’s Kurdish regions. In July and the beginning of August, following the pull-back of Assad’s military forces from Kurdish cities in northern Syria, fighters and cadres close to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan) moved in and took control of those cities, raising the Kurdistan banner and putting up Ocalan’s pictures on the front of governmental offices. This took Turkey’s government and ruling party by surprise and made it very nervous. On the other hand, Kurdish people in Turkey took to the streets to celebrate it as a victory. There is a rumour that a Kurdish autonomous republic may be declared in northern Syria.

 The Turkish press wrote that: “in the absence of Assad’s forces, PKK has taken advantage and is filling the power vacuum.” It is said that Assad withdrew his security and military forces based on an agreement between the Syrian government and PKK that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) would be allowed to take control of these cities. [Also see International Crisis Group report no. 219, 11 September 2012]

 At the same time, PYD forces were also able to reach an agreement with Massoud Barzani (the head of Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq) and, in unity with the Kurdish National Council, formed an organization called the “High Council of Kurds” trained and supported by Barzani forces) that has taken control of Kurdish cities in Syria. The Turkish regime was outraged by this unity between the Kurdish National Council and the PYD, which it had previously warned against. 

 A Turkish newspaper wrote that “PYD representatives hurried to meet with the head of northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, in Erbil, and agreed to run the Kurdish region in Syria in a partnership with the pro-Barzani KNC. The Erbil agreement signed on June 11 between the KNC and the Council of Western [Iraqi] Kurdistan formed a joint leadership to run the Syrian cities taken by the PYD…

 “As soon as the agreement was signed and before the coalition administration was formed and the Barzani-trained pro-KNC forces made their way to northern Syria, the PYD supporters took the initiative and in a prior agreement with the Syrian regime took control of the area. Now the PYD’s rule is fully established, and PKK flags and Abdullah Ocalan’s portraits are spread all over the government administration offices.” (Today’s Zaman, 31 July 2012)

 In reaction to these events Turkey threatened to send its military into Syrian Kurdistan. In order to create public opinion, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the PKK of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad to invade Syrian Kurdistan. At the same time PKK stepped up its military activities in the Hakari region of south-eastern Turkey. This situation has increased the internal political pressure on the Tayyip Erdogan regime. Even those who used to criticize Erdogan for his “recognition” of Kurdish rights are now criticizing him for not seriously following the plan for a compromise between the regime and the PKK.

 In a word, the intensification of civil war in Syria suddenly and greatly amplified the role of Kurdish forces in the unfolding of events in the region.

The great game and the “Kurdish card”

 What has made Kurdistan a key issue in the Syrian civil war is the perspective of the formation of a Kurdish state in the region. According to some Middle East analysts, this could play a central role in redrawing the present borders of the Middle East. No matter its intentions, Turkey has paved the way for the emergence of this situation. In fact, it is in relation with these developments that we should consider the following events:

 The first event was the take-over of the Kurdish cities in northern Syria by the Kurdish forces as detailed above. The second was the relocation of big oil companies such as the U.S.’s Exxon-Mobile and Chevron, France’s Total and Russia’s Gazprom from southern Iraqi oil fields to the oil fields under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government and the signing of new contracts with this government, independently of the central Iraqi government. The third is the resumption of major PKK operations in the city of Shamdinly in Turkey’s Hakari province bordering Iran and Iraq, taking the war between PKK and the Turkish government to a new level of intensity.

 On the first event: Previously there was speculation in the Middle Eastern press that Bashar al-Assad might retreat to the Nasiriyah Mountains and form a small state whose core support would come from Alawites and other minority ethnicities, while the FSA forces backed by Turkey and Nato would form a Sunni state. But there was no mention of a “Kurdish mini-state” in Syria until PYD took control of Kurdish cities in northern Syria. In reaction to this event Erdogan declared that Turkey will not tolerate the existence of “terrorist forces” on its borders and proclaimed that a “red line”. After this incident the U.S. announced its strong opposition to the disintegration of Syria – even though the U.S. and Turkey were intervening in the just struggle of the Syrian people to deliberately turn it into a religious and ethnic civil war.

 After this event, Turkey warned the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (which it happened to be allied with) that it would not accept the acts that have taken place and will not tolerate the formation of a Kurdish state on its borders. Turkey asked Barzani to help suppress PKK forces in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu quickly travelled to Erbil to talk to Barzani. During this visit Barzani, who usually appears in a business suit when meeting with foreign visitors, this time appeared in traditional Kurdish clothing.

 Then Davutoglu went to see the Turkmen governor of Kirkuk (one of the biggest cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, a third of its population is Turkmen and not Kurdish). The Davutoglu message was that Turkey will use its influence in Iraqi Kurdistan to destabilize the Kurdish Regional Government.

 On the second event: Big oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil (the largest private oil company in the world) have signed six oil exploration contracts with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Following that, last July the U.S.’s second largest oil company, Chevron, took 80 percent control of two oil fields. In August the French oil company Total and Russia’s Neft (owned by Gazprom) also signed important oil contracts with the KRG. A Turkish newspaper wrote that “four oil companies that are among the world’s ten largest have opened shop in Erbil”. (Today’s Zaman, 6 August 2012) 

 The KRG has been seeking to pave the way to independence for a long time. Turkey had already started to buy oil from it directly, bypassing the central Iraqi government. The oil company Genel Enerji, based in Turkey and owned mainly by Turkish shareholders, has started working with the KRG in exploring for oil and pumping oil from established fields in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to some political observers and analysts, this is the first step of a process aimed at converting the now autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq into a separate country. (See “Big Oil’s Unwitting Bid for Kurdish Statehood” by Marin Katusa  on www.caseyresearch.com)

 In the last few years Turkey’s government has repeatedly bypassed the central government of Iraq and established direct economic, political, security and military relations with KRG, such that Turkey has become the largest foreign economic power in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time Turkey decreased its opposition to the formation of any independent Kurdish state.

 But despite the AKP’s confidence in the KRG’s trustworthiness, developments in Syria changed the whole equation. Control of the Syrian Kurdish region by Kurdish forces would mean another autonomous Kurdish region on Turkey’s borders. In only a week, the length of Turkey’s borders with Kurdish-controlled areas went from 400 kilometres to 1,200 km. The potential for the creation of a larger Kurdish state with a massive oil income, right on Turkey’s borders, along with the possibility of the formation of a state of Greater Kurdistan, exerts massive pressure on the political and economic structure of the Turkish state. Since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey by Kemal Ataturk, the oppression of the Kurdish nation has been one of its pillars 

 In the last ten years the Turkish bourgeoisie has tried to create an atmosphere of allowing the Kurdish bourgeoisie to partly share political power, and permitted some reforms in the sphere of culture and language to reduce the contradiction between the masses of Kurdish people and the government. But this contradiction continues to operate and the Kurdish bourgeoisie is not satisfied with what has been given.

 The third event: PKK forces have found an opportunity to intensify the armed struggle against the Turkish regime. In the last few years PKK’s policy was to negotiate with the AKP government. For a time it called a cease-fire and took part in municipal and parliamentary elections through its legal parties. During the same period Turkey arrested around six thousand PKK activists who were working with legal organizations such as the Peace and Justice Party. Mayors and members of parliaments were among those arrested. Many of the prisoners are the members of PKK’s municipal organization called the Union of Kurdistan Communities, which has influence in municipal administration, including tax collection and the courts.

 Even though PKK has an extensive mass base and is named the Kurdistan Workers’ Party,  in fact it represents the Kurdish bourgeoisie because it expresses the outlook and programme of that class. The leader of this party, Ocalan, has repeatedly emphasized that PKK’s aim is not to weaken Turkey but to restore the power of the Ottoman empire, adding that Turkey could not achieve this without unity with the Kurds (which really means the unity of the Turkish and Kurdish bourgeoisies). The PKK position on Middle Eastern issues is to support the U.S.’s projects. It considers itself part of an axis of friends of the U.S. Of course, the Erdogan regime sees itself as the head of such an axis. After Ocalan was imprisoned in 1999, he repeatedly expressed these points in the monthly articles that he used to write from prison, which were published in Turkey’s press. It is worth mentioning that he has stopped writing these articles in the last few months, and there is a rumour that he has been transferred from prison to house arrest and that the government is negotiating with him.

 Although the Turkish economy has been somewhat successful by current standards, with the emergence of a well-off middle class, and its AKP regime is presented as a model for other Middle Eastern countries, its internal structure is vulnerable. Its role as a regional gendarme for the imperialists is exerting ever more pressure on this structure, and this so-called stable regime could face a legitimacy and even revolutionary crises. The changes in the structure of Turkey’s  big bourgeois class have not yet been quite reflected in the political sphere. It is true that the Kurdish bourgeoisie has not failed to benefit economically and has control of part of the internal economy, but it hopes that by achieving an independent state or autonomy it can gain admittance to the club of Middle Eastern big bourgeoisies. All these forces are in political and military struggle with each other.

 Now the policy-makers and analysts of the region’s reactionary regimes and those of the imperialist powers are grumbling that Assad is “playing the Kurdish card”. But the question for us here is this: What opportunities does the situation in Kurdistan present? Will Kurdish communists and revolutionary intellectuals raise an internationalist and revolutionary voice against the whole game in which Kurds are a “card” to be played? The domination of bourgeois leadership in the Kurdish people’s struggle has not and will not achieve anything better than what we have seen with the KRG in Iraq.

 The world order is in great turmoil and that is excellent!

 The intensification of the contradictions of the capitalists system has given rise to people’s struggles and rebellions against imperialism and the political structures dependent on imperialism (the regimes in the oppressed countries). However, without revolutionary communists leading the proletariat and oppressed peoples with the aim of seizing political power and establishing new socialist societies, these rebellions cannot become revolutionary uprisings that would threaten the existence of the capitalist system  The “Arab Spring” is a reflection of that situation. The imperialist powers and local reactionary classes are doing everything they can to channel these rebellions to suit their interests.

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