The West’s Partners in Syria and the Risks to Turkey

Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 June 2017

Aftermath of a TAK bombing in central Istanbul, Turkey, 7 June 2016

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) issued a threat against Turkey on Tuesday, at the very moment the U.S.-led Coalition was announcing the commencement of the operation to evict the Islamic State (IS) from its Syrian capital, Raqqa, in alliance with the TAK’s mother organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This underlines some of the challenges confronting the Coalition as a result of a half-decade of short-sighted counter-terrorism policy in Syria and a regional posture that tilted away from traditional allies.

The full 700-word statement from TAK can be found here; the key parts read:

Those who are as blind as to think they can end a people’s cause for freedom with stale methods are those in political, economic, and military collaboration with the Turkish state. As the Turkish hegemons … with nothing but brute force in their hands show their divide from humanity with their actions, for us they become reasons to fight. All the world should know that the Turkish state is our enemy, which we have sworn to end. The treatment of our people in Kurdistan is our reason for war, revenge and action. … We are warning those who think Turkey is a safe country for investment and tourism: All cities, megapolitan and metropolitan areas, tourist spaces are our war zone and our actions will be more intense than before. The decision for war has been made, an army of sacrifice has been founded.

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by most Western states, the European Union, and NATO for the atrocious conduct of its insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s against a brutally repressive de facto military government in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Since 2003, the PKK has tried to conceal its operations by operating in other countries through various fronts, notably the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, whose armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is the U.S.-led Coalition’s primary ally against IS.

TAK claims to have broken away from the PKK, but this is absurd on its face. The PKK has pursued its own members across half of Europe to murder them for dissenting from the leadership and has never allowed independent Kurdish groups to operate in its areas of influence. The reality is that TAK operates a specialized unit of the PKK to give the PKK deniability for its attacks on urban areas of western Turkey, including suicide bombings against civilians, timed invariably to reduce pressure on the PKK in eastern Turkey or otherwise advance the PKK’s interests.

As Metin Gurcan has explained in detail, that “the TAK is best understood as a semi-autonomous proxy of the PKK that operates at arm’s length …[,] advancing the interests of the PKK without jeopardizing improvements to the PKK’s international reputation since the participation of the YPG (the Syrian branch of the PKK) in fighting the Islamic State in Sinjar, Kobani, and in areas north of Raqqa.”

While very little information is available on the exact structure of TAK, Cemil Bayik (Cuma), the co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the structure through which the PKK coordinates its transnational operations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and Duran Kalkan (Selahattin Abbas), a member of the KCK/PKK executive committee, are believed to have had a key role in TAK’s founding. At present, “the PKK supports the TAK ideologically and provides it with personnel, logistics, financing, and overall strategic direction, but PKK leaders only learn about outcomes from TV reports,” Gurcan reports, citing Turkish security officials. A general instruction is given—perhaps by Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), a KCK executive currently in Syria directing the PYD/YPG project from behind the scenes, and the man believed to oversee the TAK—and the details (how, when, and what to attack) are left to the TAK.

This set-up allows the PKK to have the military benefits of the TAK’s attacks without the public relations cost, and to simultaneously gain politically. The PKK holds itself out as the “moderates” to be dealt with on favourable terms over the long-term, and in the short-term (and in private) it can offer to turn off the TAK’s terrorist attacks in return for concessions.

Husayn is just one link in what Gurcan describes as a “growing military training and logistical support base for the TAK” in Rojava, as the YPG/PKK calls the areas it controls in Syria.

It is a truly bizarre situation the West has gotten itself into, supporting the premier security threat of a NATO ally, an organization on its own terrorism blacklist, while denying that is what is being done—the U.S. insists that the PYD/YPG and PKK are separate organizations—in the hope of defeating the terrorists of IS.

The option of working with Turkey and local Arabs to liberate Raqqa was eschewed; it would have needed more time and that was judged politically unacceptable. The expedient option of the YPG/PKK was chosen. This is likely to prove a grievously mistaken decision that not only sets up a long-term threat to a NATO ally but sacrifices the sustainability of IS’s destruction for the short-term appearance of the jihadists’ defeat. Still, that decision has now been taken, the Raqqa operation is underway, and mitigation is the best that can be done.

It would benefit everyone for the U.S. to make stern representations to the PKK, informing them that support will be withdrawn in Syria if they begin a fresh campaign of terrorism against Turkey through the TAK. If this and other measures toward settling the dispute in eastern Anatolia are taken, perhaps we can avoid the extension of the PKK-Turkey war onto Syrian soil and the creation of conditions that IS and other jihadists can capitalize on.

2 thoughts on “The West’s Partners in Syria and the Risks to Turkey

  1. Pingback: Defining Freedom Fighters and Terrorists in Syria (and Beyond) | Kyle Orton's Blog

  2. Pingback: Is Britain Cracking Down on PKK Terrorist Activity? | Kyle Orton's Blog

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