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Scholar Edmund Ghareeb explains how the authorization for military force against IS by the Turkish parliament will affect peace negotiations with the Kurds

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The Turkish Parliament has given the green light for its military to participate in the U.S.-led war campaign against the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s recent military offensive against the Kurdish canton of Kobani, located in southern Turkey at the border with Syria, has resulted in 160,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing into Turkey over the past three weeks. The Turkish government has been widely accused of providing support or–put most generously–turning a blind eye to the border crossings of the Islamic State. The Kurds are also angry at the Turkish state for supporting rebel groups like al-Nursa Front, which, along with the Islamic State, have attacked the Syrian Kurds is several times. They are also angry at the state for not providing military support to protect Kobani.

What does this recent decision by the Turkish parliament meet for Bashar al-Assad, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, and particularly the 2.5 million Syrian Kurds who live along the border with Turkey?

Joining us from Washington, D.C., to discuss this is professor Edmund Ghareeb. Edmund is an internationally recognized expert on media issues and Middle East affairs. He has taught Middle Eastern history and politics at a number of universities and has authored, coauthored, or edited a number of books, including The Kurdish Question in Iraq and The Kurdish Nationalist Movement.

Thanks for joining us, Edmund.


WORONCZUK: So one thing that we here at The Real News have been trying to discuss and bring up in many interviews about IS is that it seems difficult to believe that intelligence agencies that have been involved and the states that have been involved in arming Syrian rebels, including Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, that they haven’t been aware of the military threats that the Islamic State would pose to them. So it seems curious now why the Turkish parliament would authorize military action against IS. Can you speak about this? Why the timing?

GHAREEB: I think there are a number of reasons. This is an important issue. I think the countries which supported ISIS, first of all, they were not only supporting ISIS; they were supporting other groups. ISIS did not appear to be as powerful as it is today. Also, many of them believed that it’s only a matter of weeks or months before the regime of Bashar al-Assad collapses. So they basically, I think, misunderstood the situation on the ground. They underestimated the ability of the Syrian government to stand up and to continue to fight, and they underestimated the strength of ISIS. So it’s because of all of these combinations that we saw the sort of indifference, in a sense, to ISIS, because ISIS, however, especially in the last year or so, they have taken a number of steps. They have attacked minorities in Syria, and also, before, they attacked minorities in Iraq. And yet neither the West nor the other supporters, nor Turkey, took any actions against it at that time.

I think the main reason why we saw this step right now or this rapid action to establish a coalition and to attack ISIS was primarily because of the speed with which ISIS was able to take over large areas of Iraq, to move against, take cities like Mosul, move against strategic objectives, such as the dams, the water dams in northern Iraq, trying to control also the borders between Iraq and Syria and Turkey and the borders between Iraq and Iran. So I think that’s what alerted and probably frightened some of these players and led them to take the actions they did.

WORONCZUK: But there’s been an important question a lot of–in regards to the Turkish state’s support for ISIS. I mean, there’s been allegations of military support. There’s even been suggestions that Islamic State fighters have been given treatment and been allowed to cross the border in Turkey and given medical treatment. And the recent hostage release of 49 Turkish diplomats and their families in exchange for the release of IS fighters has released raised some eyebrows, to say the least.

GHAREEB: These are very important issues, and I think it really raises a lot of questions. And in part it explains why the Turkish state decided to move now. That’s why the president and the prime minister asked the parliament to approve a new law which would allow Turkish forces to respond to attacks from militias and not just ISIS, and that’s very interesting and very important, but also to allow foreign forces to be stationed on Turkish territory to move against ISIS and other forces, radical forces within Syria and Iraq.

I think primarily there were a lot of criticisms in the region, but I think more importantly, in the last year or so, there have been more articles, more information coming out that Turkey may have been looking the other way about the flow of fighters to–and especially foreign fighters, but including even maybe Turkish fighters, because there were Turkish reports in the Turkish media saying that at least 10 percent of ISIS fighters are Turks. So there was a lot of criticism, growing criticism of Turkey and its policies. The second thing also that we began to hear a great deal about was the smuggling of oil from Syria through Iraq and to being sold in Turkey, and that that money that came from the oil was helping to finance ISIS. So, primarily the Turkish president wanted–who came under a lot of pressure from his European allies, from the United States to take a stand, decided that he may need to do this, primarily to send a message to Washington that he’s on Washington’s side, the same message to the Europeans, that he also wants to fight ISIS. But he still had his own condition, and that’s where he would like to see the West help him to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. And so I think these are some of the main factors which led to the Turkish president to move at this time.

WORONCZUK: So one group that’s been particularly critical of the Turkish state’s policy towards IS have been the Kurds, and this is been in part because Turkey has been supporting militarily and logistically the al-Nusra front, who has been fighting against Assad, but who have also attacked Syrian Kurds. And there’s also been the recent attack, the recent military offensive of IS against Kobani, whom the Turkish government says it won’t be providing military support for the moment. So the question is: how will this affect the peace negotiations and the ceasefire, the 18 month ceasefire that the PKK has with the Turkish state?

GHAREEB: This is an important question. There is a great deal of mistrust between the Turkish government and the Kurds, both Iraqi Kurds, but to a much lesser extent among the Iraqi Kurds, but certainly among their own Kurds and among Syria’s Kurds, primarily because they believe these, Syria’s Kurds and Turkey’s Kurds, particularly the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, which have been fighting against the Turkish state since early ’80s and the YPG, which is somewhat close to the PKK, they believe that Turkey has not done enough to close the border, monitor its own border, to stop buying the smuggled oil. And so they are very much concerned about the policies of Turkey.

Primarily, the Kurds are–they are also playing their own games it away. The Kurds would like to see Turkey help fight ISIS, but they want to make sure that they control Kobani, not the Turkish army. They don’t want to see a zone under–free zone or a buffer zone on the border between Syria and Turkey within Syria that would be controlled by the Turkish military, ’cause they do not trust the Turkish military. And so they would like to see Turkey fight against ISIS, but they don’t want the Turkish forces to take control of the border region. They do not want to see a buffer region under the control of Syria. And therefore they have war. Öcalan, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, who’s in jail in Turkey, who has been negotiating on behalf of the Kurds, has said that if the Kobani falls, then all peace negotiations are over. And more importantly, one of the former top military commander of the PKK said that already the peace process is over, because primarily what this law does, especially the new law, the new law allows the Turkish forces to fight not only against ISIS, but against any other militia group or that Turkey considers as terrorist. In Turkey, under the law of Turkey right now, considers the PKK a terrorists’ organization. So, therefore, this is a big issue for the Kurds. So then all of these, when you look at them, this is what makes this whole issue very complicated and very difficult to handle.

WORONCZUK: Do you think it’s accurate to say that Turkey is trying to manage its response to the Islamic State in order to prevent the Kurds from consolidating political and military power?

GHAREEB: Well, there’s no doubt that Turkey’s trying to benefit from the situation from the coalition in order to control the Kurds. They do not want to see an independent Kurdish state. They do not want to see a federal Kurdish state within Turkey. And therefore I think they are trying to sort of position themselves as one of the important countries that will fight against ISIS, and because they are the second-largest military force within NATO. At the same time, they also want to make sure that the Kurds in Syria do not control the border region between Turkey and Syria. And so, as a result, they are maneuvering in different directions. Turkey wants to play the role of a Middle East leader, of an Islamic leader. And, in fact, there are some neo-Ottomanist ideas that have been floating around among the Turkish leadership. And therefore I think Turkey right now wants to benefit from the Western involvement, to tell the West, I’m willing to help, I’m the only army around here. Kurds are not going to be in a position where they’re going to achieve their own objective, either of increased economy or of a federal state either within Syria or within Turkey itself.

WORONCZUK: So you just had brought up that Turkey is a member of NATO, and it’s pretty clear that Turkey has very strong ties, both in terms of intelligence and very strong political ties with the U.S. I’m wondering: how strong or how deterministic is the U.S. here in determining what Turkey’s policy is towards the Islamic State, as well as the Kurds?

GHAREEB: Well, there’s no doubt that relations were very good at one time, around 2011, 2012, especially at the beginning of the Arab Spring, when it looked like Turkey may emerge as a major player. Turkey had aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhoods in a number of countries, whether it was in Egypt, whether it was in Tunisia, Libya, and in Syria. But the Turks promised too much, and they were not able to deliver. They believed that the regime in Syria was going to fall. They had told the West, the United States, that it’s only a matter of weeks or months before the regime collapses. But as a result of that issue, as a result of Turkey’s ties to Israel, there was some friction between the two, and we saw sort of a cooling of the relationship between Washington. But I think right now there was a lot of pressure on Turkey to return and to play a role in the fight against ISIS, and we’re likely to see more cooperation between the United States and Turkey in this [area (?)].

WORONCZUK: Okay. Edmund Ghareeb, coming to us from Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for joining us.

GHAREEB: Thank you, Anton. Take care.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Edmund Ghareeb is an internationally recognized expert on Iraq, Kurds, the Middle East, US media coverage of the Middle East; the new media in the Arab world; Arab Americans; ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. He has taught Middle Eastern history and politics at a number of universities, including the University of Virginia, George Washington University, American University, and McGill University. He has authored, co-authored or edited a number of books, including Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the U.S. Media, The Kurdish Question in Iraq, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement, and Historical Dictionary of Iraq, Iraqi Refugees. He has also lectured and written extensively on US policy towards the Middle East and US-Gulf relations. Dr. Ghareeb is a former journalist and has been widely interviewed by Arab, American, and European television, radio, and newspapers on the Middle East, the media, and US related issues.