Sophie's Choice for Turkey: ISIS or the PKK?

Sophie's Choice for Turkey: ISIS or the PKK?

The world is watching the Islamic State’s terrorist army close in on the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani in real time and HD from TV cameras set up only hundreds of yards away on the Turkish side of the border. 

Panning just a few degrees either east of west, those same cameras show lines of Turkish tanks parked quietly inside Turkey with their gun turrets facing south. World leaders, most notably President Obama, express outrage that Turkey, NATO charter member, refuses to commit its forces to the fight against ISIS. On Wednesday, Kurdish demands that Turkey join the fight to save their kinsmen erupted in dozens of Turkish cities.

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery hidden inside an enigma. Perhaps so, too, with Turkey today. Turkey’s civilian government is run by the strongly Islamist Turkish variant of the Muslim brotherhood and is closely aligned with and strongly supportive of many of the Arab world’s most radical Islamist and violent jihadist groups. At the same time, Turkey is aggressively pursuing pro-Western economic policies making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Turkey’s GDP has almost tripled in the past decade alone and is rapidly approaching $1 trillion.

Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish ethnic minority has always been troubled, to say the very least. Implied in most of the recent coverage surrounding the rise of the ISIS terrorist army and its regional consequences is the assumption that the estimated 8 million Kurds spread throughout the region and in different countries are a monolithic ethnic unit. Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

Unlike its warm relationship with Iraq’s quasi-independent Kurdish Regional Government– Turkey’s largest and most important regional trading partner– the emergence of another Kurdish region on Turkey’s Syrian border is, for Turkey, anything but good news. In fact, it could well represent an existential threat to the Turkish state. Profoundly different than Iraq’s KRG, Syria’s Kurdish region is anything but free, prosperous or peaceful. It is dominated and tightly controlled by Turkey’s oldest and most bitter enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK.

Although now publicly committed to a peace process and ceasefire with Turkey, the PKK is still officially designated a terrorist group by the US, the EU and Turkey. In 1984, the PKK launched a long and gruesome guerrilla war against Turkey in an ultimately failed effort create a Marxist-Leninist “Kurdish Workers State” out of Turkey’s largely Kurdish eastern and southern regions.

By the time its so-called “military wing” was finally crushed by the Turkish army in 1998, PKK attacks inside Turkey killed at least 27,000 civilians, mostly Kurds, destroyed up to 3,000 Turkish towns and villages and displaced 3 million Turkish civilians, making it the world’s most violent terrorist group.

The PKK is still lead by its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, now held in a Turkish prison on Imrah Island in Sea of Marmara. He was recently designated the official Kurdish ‘partner’ in a peace process with the Turkish government. Until his daring capture in Kenya by an elite Turkish special operations unit in 1999, Ocalan was the world’s most wanted man. Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current dictator, was forced to expel Ocallan after Turkey massed a million-man army on the border and threatened invasion if Öcalan was not handed over. 

Last month, Cemil Bayak, a senior PKK ‘commander,’ issued an ultimatum to Turkey threatening to resume its guerrilla war and execute up to 46 Turkish hostages if the government did meet several demands by the end of the first week of October. On October 1, Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayap Erdogan publicly announced he was prepared to accede to certain PKK demands. This was something no Turkish leader or government has ever done in the decades-long history of war against the PKK.

While it hasn’t done so under direct threat, Turkey has made numerous conciliatory moves toward the PKK, such as allowing hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees to cross from PKK controlled territory in and around Kobane. It has also offered to treat wounded YPG fighters in Turkish hospitals. 

Kobane and the cluster of villages surrounding it is one of the three Syrian Kurdish regions ceded to groups affiliated with the PKK by the regime of Bashar Assad early in Syria’s civil war, allowing him to better concentrate his forces. 

The focus of current “peace talks” between the PKK and Erdogan’s Islamist government centers not on the rights of Kurds in Turkey, but rather the plight of Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants the PKK to switch sides in Syria’s civil war and join the rebels seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime, long its patron. 

Some analysts inside Turkey think the government is seeking to hurt Ocalan’s credibility by swamping him with demands he cannot possibly meet, like getting the PKK to unilaterally disarm. At the bottom of all Turkey’s machinations is a frantic effort to prevent a simultaneous war against ISIS and the PKK. 

Reigniting war with the PKK means exposing all of Turkey to more terrorism and instability that would again threaten the very composition of the state, something everyone in Turkey can easily envision and thus strongly oppose. On the other hand, while allowing ISIS to emerge victorious would surely create its own existential threats at some point for Turkey, for most Turks, that threat seems far more remote than a resumption of a PKK terror war inside Turkey.    



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