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  July 30, 2015

A New War is Unfolding on Turkey's Eastern Border

Erdogan and the AKP is resuming the war against the Kurds in order to take back control of parliament, and it will make a messy situation even messier and not help defeat ISIS, says Patrick Cockburn, author of "The Rise of the Islamic State"
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Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. Among the most experienced commentators on Iraq, he has written four books on the country's recent history. Cockburn's latest book is The Age of Jihad.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Wednesday Turkey's renewed fight with Kurdish militants intensified after the government launched a new wave of air strikes in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. This comes after the Turkish government launched their campaign against terrorism, which includes ISIS and the pro-Kurdish independence workers' party, the PKK. But now that America's goal of getting Turkey involved in both the fight against ISIS and Assad is coming to fruition, is the U.S. entangling itself in another conflict between the Turks and the Kurds?

Now joining us to help us unscramble this complicated issue is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the author of the book The Jihadi's Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, and he's a correspondent for the Independent of London.

Thanks so much for joining us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So Patrick, so far the Turkish offensive against terrorism has been directed primarily against the PKK Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains of northern Iraq, rather than ISIS in Syria. Do you see these actions as resuming the war between the Turks and the Kurds?

COCKBURN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the Turkish air force has been bombing PKK Kurdish guerrilla bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. They've attacked 400 targets. They're arresting Kurdish activists, not just of the PKK, but any kind of activist inside Turkey. So one can say this conflict really has resumed.

DESVARIEUX: But some would argue, Patrick, that it may be a bit of a stretch because Erdogan has not openly said that he's going after any pro-independence Kurdish groups, just the PKK, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States. What do you make of that argument?

COCKBURN: Yeah. But I think--I think it's actually the PKK isn't even his main target. It's the parliamentary party, the Kurdish parliamentary party or Kurdish-dominated party called the HDP. Now, the history of this is only in June, last month, this party got 13 percent of the vote. It got about 6 million votes. And this deprived Erdogan, the president of Turkey, of his parliamentary majority. And they're desperate to get that back in a second election. So they kind of need to knock this Kurdish party out of the election by either pretending they're terrorists, actually, they've been calling for peace, or alternatively just putting their leadership in jail, stopping them functioning.

So I think that's probably one of the primary purposes of this whole new war is not the PKK, which the Turks probably know they can't really put out of business with air attacks, but the Kurdish political party, which is much more specific, which took away Erdogan's parliamentary majority.

DESVARIEUX: So do you see Erdogan's decision to join this fight against ISIS as being purely political, then?

COCKBURN: Yes, I think it's very largely political and it's motivated by internal Turkish politics. There are some other things which probably play into it.

DESVARIEUX: Like what, specifically?

COCKBURN: Well, the Kurds in Syria, there are about 2 million-plus Kurds in Syria, about 10 percent of the population. They've been fighting the Islamic State, ISIS, very hard. They've been getting a lot of assistance from U.S. air power. They've been advancing. And they occupy a corner of northeast Syria, but they've been taking positions from Islamic State along that border. It's about 500 miles long, and they've taken about half of it.

Now, the Turkish government sitting in Ankara really didn't like this, the way the Kurds immediately to the side of things, Syria, becoming more and more powerful, were allied to the U.S., and were inflicting a lot of defeats on the Islamic State.

DESVARIEUX: So if the Kurds were so successful in fighting ISIS as you mention in Syria and in Iraq, then if you are really concerned with ISIS's growing influence then this sounds like a bad move, because you're essentially fighting the people that were actually being successful at fighting against ISIS.

COCKBURN: Yeah, there's no doubt. I mean, this has some benefits for Islamic State, which is that suddenly the people they've been fighting, the Syrian Kurds, who are in fact the Syrian branch of the PKK who American and Turkey say are terrorists. So the PKK when they're in Turkey are terrorists, but when they're in Syria they're our brave allies. So that's pretty contradictory.

I guess that the U.S. and the Europeans think that if Turkey genuinely closes the border to Islamic State that's bad news for Islamic State because a lot of these suicide bombers are foreign volunteers who crossed from Turkey into Syria, and the border was famously easy to cross. So they hope that that will weaken them, and will prevent foreign volunteers coming back to countries in Western Europe and planting bombs, and so forth.

But it's not--it's a very messy situation, because the Turks are not really going after Islamic State. They're going after the Kurds. So we suddenly have a whole new war developing in eastern Turkey and along that border, as if the situation wasn't violent enough already.

DESVARIEUX: I'm so glad you mentioned new war, because I want to discuss the position of the United States. They've supported the Syrian branch of the PKK, which you mentioned, but have clearly wanted their close ally Turkey to be part of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. So now with these tensions erupting between the Kurds and the Turks again, are we going to see the U.S. entangling itself in another conflict in the Middle East because of this?

COCKBURN: Well, the U.S. kind of is entangled in it. Why have they done this was, in many ways it just made a messy situation even messier. I think they wanted to use air bases in Turkey to attack Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They're much closer, only about 60 miles from the Syrian border, there's a big one at Incirlik, rather than flying their aircraft from aircraft carriers in the Gulf and Mediterranean and elsewhere. So they had a military reason.

And I think it also, I think they got a big shock when in May they'd been announcing that they're using their air power against Islamic State and stopped Islamic State in its tracks, it wasn't making advances anymore. They got the situation under control. And then two very important things happened. On the 17 of May Ramadi, a big city in western Iraq, was captured by Islamic State. Four days later they took another city in Syria, Palmyra. And this is totally contrary to what the U.S. generals in command there had been saying. So I think they wanted to increase the power of their air campaign, and so they were desperate to use these Turkish bases.

But they're saying this is a game-changer. I sort of doubt it, because with air power alone they could damage Islamic State, they could cause more casualties. But it's not going to defeat Islamic State, given by what's happening, happened over the last year.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Patrick Cockburn, thank you so much for joining us.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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