Erdogan Accelerates Attacks on Syria and Iraq in Lead-up to Turkish Election

Turkish President Erdogan is escalating military intervention in northern Syria and Iraq as the snap election approaches. Scholar Baris Karaagac says this is part of a political strategy to unite right-wing nationalist forces. It is also a continuation of a decades-long war on Kurds

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Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton. I’m continuing my discussion here with Baris Karaagac. He is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario.

In the first part we were talking about the upcoming snap election in Turkey. That’s on June 24. And we were talking about how Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan has violently repressed political opposition inside the country. He’s imprisoned the elected leaders of the HDP. This is the only left wing party in parliament, the third-largest party, and he’s stamping out all kinds of dissent. And Erdogan has also formed an alliance with the far-right neofascist party, the MHP.

In this segment we’re going to be talking about how at the same time as at home Turkey is going through an economic crisis and Erdogan is clamping down and expanding his power, he’s also expanding militaristic foreign policy abroad. Thanks for joining us again, Baris.

BARIS KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me, Ben.

BEN NORTON: So with the economy inside Turkey unexpectedly in turmoil just weeks before the snap election, Erdogan has accelerated his attacks on Iraq. Specifically, he’s currently bombing Iraq’s northern Kurdish majority Qandil region. And in response to this the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi called on Turkey to, quote, respect Iraqi sovereignty, end quote. And he also accused Turkish politicians of raising international tensions for domestic purposes. Haider Al Abadi said, quote: “We will not accept an assault on Iraqi sovereignty, even if it is a Turkish electoral campaign.” So can you talk more about Erdoğan’s attacks on northern Iraq? We’ll also talk about his attacks on Syria. But clearly when the election is coming up he’s expanding his military intervention in Iraq.

BARIS KARAAGAC: Well, the Qandil region is very important, because the PKK has been based in that region for more than 20 years now. So most of its armed forces are based in the country. And Turkey recently, actually about two weeks ago, vowed that he was going to wipe out these so-called Kurdish terrorists in the country, which is actually a large, relatively large and rugged area with a few mountains there. It’s very difficult to penetrate. And that’s why the PKK has used it as its base for a long time.

And now in Turkey there’s a big debate. Why now? The sources that are close to Erdogan and the AKP have been arguing, they’ve been claiming that actually this operation has been underway since the last, the final months of 2017. This includes also some of the former military personnel. And actually one of the retired generals now is running for the neofascist MHP party this week for office. He claimed, well, this is what the state and its armed forces have been organizing to do for a long time.

But on the other side, many people have argued that the main goal is to hurt the HDP in the upcoming elections by consolidating the nationalist vote, by rallying the nationalist vote behind Erdogan and his People’s Coalition. In my opinion, again, I think this is a move whose target objective is to win the upcoming elections, nothing else. Most military experts agree that it is impossible, or almost impossible, to defeat the PKK in this region and control that region for a long time. So this is militarily almost impossible.

So the appeal, though, is to the National supporters. However, this has not created the anger or the excitement that the PKK was hoping for among the electorate. [crosstalk] Yes, the AKP has been hoping for. So we’ll see what happens in the elections. The other issue is that, of course, the MHP, the party that Erdogan has been, has joined forces with-.

BEN NORTON: The neofascist party.

BARIS KARAAGAC: The neofascist MHP party has lost a lot of blood, a lot of followers in the past two years because of its blind obedience to Erdogan and the AKP. So many of the members of the party and its sympathizers have joined another right-wing conservative party called Iyi Parti, the Good Party, that has aligned itself, allied itself with the two other parties as the main opposition against Erdogan in the upcoming election.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then let’s talk more about Erdoğan’s policy in Syria. Of course, we could talk about this for hours. It’s much more intricate than his intervention in Iraq. Turkey for years supported Islamist extremist groups inside Syria who were trying to overthrow the government, including ISIS. I interviewed the former head of the Turkish National Police Ahmet Yayla, who discussed how Turkey, the Turkish federal government had a policy of supporting ISIS and also other extremist groups.

And then in 2015, and again in this year-. Sorry, in 2016 and again in this year, Turkey has also militarily intervened, sent troops across the border. So this happens in August 2016 and then in January of 2018. Turkey sent troops, thousands of troops, illegally across the border into northern Syria, and Turkey has attacked the Kurdish majority town of Afrin, expelling two thirds of the residents, repopulating the town with non-Kurds, largely Arabs and others, Arabizing the city. And Turkey has also looked eastward, and has threatened to attack Manbij. This is in northeast Syria. What do you think Erdogan’s policy is in northern Syria?

BARIS KARAAGAC: Well, Erdogan’s, again, main target in northern Syria is Kurds, and Kurds are consolidating their power, alone or in alliance with the other ethnic groups in the region. The main-. But this is not a serious concern anymore, because of all these military adventures and the Turkish occupation in northern Syria. But the main concern a year or two ago was that the Kurds would create a corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border that would reach the Mediterranean.

Well, after what happened in the western, northwestern Syria in the past year, this is not a possibility anymore. And right before the interview I also, I was checking the, checking out the most recent updates. Turkish forces, it seems, have entered the town of Manbij. Of course, this has been done with the consent of the United States in the region. Manbij is a very important town. It was liberated by the Kurdish forces in 2016. It was under the occupation of the Islamic State. And what is interesting about this town, which is about 40 kilometers into Syria from Turkish border, is that the attackers, some of the attackers, some of the militants that attacked the European cities in the past years were trained in this city.

So this gave also the Turkish forces, and the other forces that the Kurds were leaving, significant prestige in the area. Now Manbij will be under Turkish control. But I don’t think that the Turkish forces will find it easier to remain in that city in the long run. Nevertheless, Turkey is now controlling, or has become a major military force in the northern part of Syria now. But again, the target objective is to prevent Kurds from creating a permanent political structure independent of both Turkey and Syria, or any other force in northern Syria.

BEN NORTON: Let’s talk more about what Turkey has created in northern Syria. Turkey effectively controls numerous cities. I mean, I mention Afrin, but also al Bab and several other cities in the north of Syria, where Turkey has appointed government officials. Jarabulus is another city that Turkey controls. And Turkey also has military observation points throughout numerous points, but specifically Idlib, inside northern Syria. This is one of the largest provinces. It’s also controlled by rebranded al Qaeda, which is known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and the Turkish military has, has been embedded with HTS, Syrian al Qaeda. And as you mentioned, is expanding eastward with the consent of the United States. The U.S. made a deal recently to pressure the YPG. These are the People’s Protection Units, these are the Kurdish forces. The U.S. made a deal with Turkey to force the YPG to leave Manbij and allow Turkish forces to enter.

Do you think that Erdogan will ever leave this area? Because it seems that he has a population, sorry, has a policy of repopulation, and he’s Arabizing many of these formerly Kurdish communities. And with Erdogan’s discussion with kind of neo-Ottoman rhetoric, and with his years of campaigning against Damascus, the government in Syria, some analysts have suspected that Turkey may just permanently annex the northern Syrian territories that the Turkish army is controlling right now. Do you think that will happen?

BARIS KARAAGAC: Well, the situation, particularly in Syria, is so complex that it is almost impossible to predict. But two issues. Now, these adventures on the part of Turkey, and also the way forces like Russia and the U.S. have responded to them, have forced Kurds to in the near future, or they may force Turks to negotiate with the Syrian state, with the Syrian government. So we, and we don’t know what will come out of those, out of those negotiations. Secondly, I don’t think that Turkey can afford to remain permanently in those areas, because this will require significant investment militarily. And given the economic crisis in Turkey, it may be too costly for the Turkish military to stay there.

And another issue is it was easier to occupy Afrin, but places like Manbij, which are deeper into Syrian territory, will be much more difficult to control by Turkey. Secondly, or third, sorry. Can I go back to northern Iraq, can I add something?

BEN NORTON: Of course.

BARIS KARAAGAC: When it comes to northern Iraq, what we’re seeing right now is not a novel thing. Turkey has headed up offensives, or has attacked, or has been militarily active in northern Iraq, since the early 1990s. Turkey has bases, Turkey has military stations in northern Iraq there were built, constructed against Kurdish militants, Kurdish guerrillas, that is, the PKK. So it’s not new. Turkey has been fighting those forces for a very long time. And this has cost the lives of about 40000 people.

But again, for our American audience, our international audience, I would like to emphasize one important point. The conflict between the Turkish state, and I’m saying this as an ethnic Turk, from Turkey. The conflict between the Turkish state and its Kurdish population actually is not a military one. It should not be a military one. It’s a political one. It’s about the status of Kurds living in Turkey. Kurds have not been given the most of their rights for a significant part of Republican history. And they’ve been fighting for these rights. They’ve been fighting for equal status. Nothing else. So, and this shouldn’t be-. This issue, this conflict should be resolved politically, not militarily. And military operations will not resolve it, but make it even worse. And this is what we’ve seen in recent history. It will lead to more bloodshed. It will lead to more corpses on both sides of the people. And those people who will be giving their lives will be mostly poor young people from both sides.

So for people, for people on the left, it is very, very important to oppose this illegal, this unjust war, or wars, by the Turkish state against its own populations, or against populations in the neighboring states.

BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end our conversation there. We were joined here at The Real News Network by Baris Karaagac. He is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. Thanks so much for providing your analysis.

BARIS KARAAGAC: Thank you for having me, Ben.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.