Turkey invaded Kurdish-administered northeastern Syria last week after President Donald Trump essentially green-lighted the operation in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many supporters of the president’s decision say he was right to “restore balance” to the U.S.-Turkey partnership, that the United States has no business in Syria, and Washington’s partnership with the Kurds was unwise, especially given the links between Syria’s Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey—a U.S.-designated terrorist group. But as Islamic State prisoners go free and hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Christians and Yazidis flee Turkey’s bombardment, how true are the assumptions driving Trump’s turn toward Turkey?
1) Is Turkey’s Perspective on Syrian Kurds Valid?
“There is a legitimate security concern for Turkey here,” The Washington Institute’s Soner Cagaptay told PBS Newshour as the Turkish military began their bombardment of Kurdish and Christian towns and villages in northeastern Syria. The Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran and Princeton University’s Michael Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The U.S. chose to support the Syrian wing of the PKK, which the Turkish public holds responsible for decades of warfare and tens of thousands of deaths. The PKK represents a grave threat to the Turkish Republic, and Turks across the political spectrum loathe it.”
There is a difference between understanding Turkey’s perspective and accepting it as legitimate. Turkey and Turkey’s supporters in the State Department and U.S. think tanks have been unable to point to a single terrorist attack from northeastern Syria into Turkey in recent years, ever since the Kurds established their self-governing entity. But Erdoğan shapes public opinion with an iron grip over Turkey’s media and a willingness to imprison any who dissent. To suggest that “Turks across the political spectrum” loathe the PKK exaggerates, as it ignores those who signed peace petitions as well as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which maintains overwhelming support among Turkey’s Kurds. While PKK terrorism and insurgency have embittered many Turks, many politicians have recognized the need for a negotiated settlement. Indeed, President Turgut Özal was leaning that way before a heart attack felled him. Erdoğan, too, reached out to the PKK when he thought it might win him Kurdish votes. By beginning secret negotiations with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan after years of Turkey declaring his irrelevance, it reinforced the idea that only Öcalan could deliver the Kurds.
2) Do the Syrian Defense Forces have PKK links?
Abdullah Öcalan spent years in Syrian exile before fleeing to Kenya, where Turkish commandos captured him. Öcalan is a prolific writer and a symbol of Kurdish nationalism. He remains the most popular Kurdish leader across Turkey, Syria and Iran; and is also admired among Iraqi Kurds, even if they are organized more tribally. Kurds in these areas do not hide their sympathy toward Öcalan. But sympathy and communication does not necessarily equal meaningful links. Northeastern Syria has its own government and its own interests quite distinct from PKK central. Put another way, the PKK has spawned or inspired offshoots, but it would be an exaggeration to read into them central control. Largely out of deference to Turkey and U.S. demands, Kurdish authorities inside Syria removed most photos of Öcalan in recent years, even if some faded billboards remain. To label all PKK offshoots as indistinct from the PKK flies in the face of evidence and history.
3) Is the PKK Marxist? Are Syrian Kurds Marxists?
The PKK began as a Marxist group in the heyday of the Cold War. Öcalan’s followers, however, said he has shed the Marxism of his youth. But as he outlines his “democratic nation solution,” he seems to repackage his earlier teachings, leaving doubt about whether or not he has truly abandoned the Marxist dialectic. “European democracy is a class phenomenon with limited popular content, and it is under the oligarchic control of the bourgeoisie,” he declared. He has also blamed both the military repression the Kurds have faced as well as the “federalist collaborationist solution” implemented in Iraqi Kurdistan upon “the upper-class elements of capitalist modernity.” Those most prone to cite PKK Marxism as reason not to ally with Syrian Kurds, not by coincide, those who never visited northeastern Syria to see the Kurdish experiment firsthand. Across the region, markets—not Marxism—thrived. Kurdish administrators say they would intervene to prevent hoarding and they maintain public control over oil but, in this, they merely continue the precedent set by many other countries in the region.
4) Did the United States really choose the Kurds over Turkey?
Initially, the United States sought only to work with Turkey. When I first entered Syrian Kurdistan, U.S. officials would not even speak with the Syrian Kurdish parties or their militias because they felt to do so might antagonize Turkey. The biggest flaw to Doran and Reynold’s argument is the omission of the reason why U.S. officials flipped their position: Overwhelming intelligence that Turkey was complicit in the finance, logistics, and material support of the Islamic State. Partnership with the Kurds was not a diplomatic mistake; in order to defeat the Islamic State, it was a strategic necessity.
5) Are Syrian Kurds pro-Assad?
Over at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, Tony Badran has supported the Turkish conquest of Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. “The PKK was the perfect partner for the Obama White House... Not only were they not interested in pursuing an anti-Assad agenda but they would also create an irritant for Turkey that would distract or even block Ankara from fighting Assad,” he tweeted. It is simply incorrect, however, to suggest the Kurds are pro-Assad. Historically, Kurds fared worse under Syrian control. Assad stripped Syrian Kurds of their citizenship, thereby cutting them off from education, marriage registry, potential civil service jobs and land ownership. In 2004, Kurds in Qamishli rose up in protest of Asads’ brutality, leading to the deaths of dozens.
The Syrian Kurds, however, reject the notion they should have to choose between Assad’s direct control or Turkish occupation. They have renounced statehood as unrealistic, and so instead seek a federal solution where they can speak their own language, worship as they desire, and protect themselves all the while respecting Syrian and Turkish sovereignty. That said, they recognize Erdoğan for whom he is and, if forced to choose, most Kurds believe Syria today would repress them less than Erdoğan’s Turkey.
6) Are Syrian Kurds pro-Russia?
As Turkey crushes one of the freest, most tolerant entities in the Middle East, some supporters of Turkey’s actions say that, from a realist perspective, a pro-Turkey policy is better than reliance on the Kurds because Syrian Kurds are too close to Russia. Certainly, during the Cold War, Russia supported the Kurds. To suggest that a pro-Russian orientation is hardwired into Kurdish genes, though, is self-defeating: Should the United States have refrained from flipping Egypt from its pro-Soviet Cold War orientation? That said, while the U.S. military worked closely and productively with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Defense Force, the State Department lagged behind. Regional officials—both inside and outside Syria—Special Envoy Jim Jeffrey treated Syrian Kurds with disdain. The State Department repeatedly refused to give senior Kurdish leaders visas. This, in effect, forced them to work more closely with Russia. But to then say the Kurds are Russian pawns and deserve abandonment is the twenty-first century equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials: force a suspect into a lake; if she drowns, she was innocent but if she swims then she is guilty and should be killed.
7) Does Appeasing Erdoğan Safeguard the U.S.-Turkey partnership?
Historically, Turkey has been an important ally. Turkey was one of only two NATO members to border the Soviet Union, and Turkish forces joined their American counterparts during the Korean War. But that was decades before Erdoğan. The Turkish leader has fundamentally remade Turkey’s military and indoctrinated a generation of school children into anti-American conspiracy theories. Nor does appeasing Erdoğan enable a marriage of convenience: history shows that when powers have stood up to Erdoğan—for example, over the Mavi Marmara or Pastor Andrew Brunson—he eventually stands down. Conversely, when powers appease Erdoğan, he only ups his demands. Trump has not ended a crisis; he has just precipitated the next one. Erdoğan will not now pivot away from Russia.
8) Would Turkey have invaded without a greenlight putting U.S. troops in harm’s way?
Did Trump have any choice given that there were only a few dozen American troops in a region? Simply put, this was naked aggression: There had been no terrorism launched from the areas Turkey is now pulverizing. Therefore, there was no specific incident to which Turkey is reacting. This is not a war countering terrorism, but rather a war of annihilation against an entity Erdoğan disliked for racial and religious reasons (many Kurds are Sunni Muslims like Erdoğan, but they do not view religion with the Muslim Brotherhood lens that the Turkish leader does). Previously, Turkey blustered. But U.S. officials made clear a Turkish incursion would not be tolerated, and Erdoğan listened. The only thing that changed was the White House’s attitude. Had Erdoğan not received Trump’s greenlight, there would be no Turkish forces in northeastern Syria today.