Baris Karaagac discusses how the U.S allowed the Turkish government seize land in northern Syria to counter Russian and Iranian influence in spite of former Kurdish allies
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.
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Once again, the United States acts as if Syria belonged to it. The complexities of international political intrigue are at work here as well, between the United States, Turkey, Russia, and Syria. It looks as if the Kurds will be left out to hang and dry once again. All this takes place, there’ll be whittling off pieces of Syria, handing them over to Turkey, and maybe even other neighboring nations. In March of this year, President Trump recognized the illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights by Israel. This week, the United States hammered out a deal with Turkey, to grant Turkey control of the Kurdish areas East of the Euphrates River where the Kurds have been battling ISIS. A team of US negotiators and strategists are currently in Istanbul. They are there to negotiate a so-called “safe zone” in which the Turkish military can operate freely on Syrian soil. The area in northern Syria will be between 19 and 25 miles wide. Turkish President Erdogan spoke as if the decision had already been made.
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY: Now we will enter East of the Euphrates. We have shared this information with Russia, and the United States as well. It’s impossible for us to keep our silence, so long as cross border clashes in that area persist. We’ll continue our struggle against those who are targeting our country as enemies and terrorist groups, such as FETO [Fetullah Terrorist Organization], Daesh, and the PKK.
MARC STEINER: The Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad rejected the US-Turkey deal of course, and refuses to relinquish territory it says it controls and belongs to their nation. Within the area which Turkey is poised to invade is the city of Kobane, which is a mostly Kurdish city from which the YPK Kurdish militias operate. It’s also an important ally of the US in the civil war with Syria. Now it seems the United States is turning its back on the Kurds once again, and letting Turkey attack Kurdish forces at will. And Turkey will force Syrian refugees, 700,000 of them, into this newly acquired territory if they get ahold of it and when they get ahold of it.
We are joined at this moment again by Dr. Baris Karaagac, who is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University in Ontario. He’s also editor of the book Accumulations, Crisis and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism. And Baris, welcome back. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Hello, Marc. Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER: Good to see you. This is a really complex situation. So how do you explain how this happened? It seems like Turkey, in some ways had the US over a barrel, pushing it to do something the US was upset about, the Russian missiles, the S-400 missile system going into Turkey. And so this battle over the who’s going to get the stealth, are they going to give the stealth bombers to Turkey? And all of a sudden this happens. I mean, is there a connection? What’s the interaction here from your perspective?
BARIS KARAAGAC: Whenever we talk about the Middle East, it’s always very complex, especially when we talk about the Kurds, even maybe it’s even more complex. And we have another episode now. This started with Erdogan and his foreign minister threatening the de facto autonomous region in northeastern Syria, which is mostly led by Kurds. But this is a holy, ethnic area and we can talk about maybe a coalition there, but the main and political and military force is Kurdish. Erdogan threatened this de facto autonomous region by wiping it out, and this happened only last week on August 6th. And the same threat was repeated by Cavusoglu, the current Foreign Minister in Turkey.
Right after that, I think the Americans felt the need to interfere because an American minister said, “We’re not, we cannot let Turkey act unilaterally in northeastern Syria.” Then Turkish and American officials met in order to talk about a so-called safe zone. However, we do not know what this is all about. What Turkey has in mind, and this is based on sources that have contacted – that have access to the inner circles in Turkey, is to create a zone which is 30-35 kilometers wide from the Turkish border. But Americans said that probably something between five and ten kilometers in mind, and excluding cities. And Kurds have been declaring that they’re going to allow only a five-kilometer wide corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border, which should not include or house any Turkish troops.
So it’s quite complicated, quite complex, but at the same time, what we’re witnessing right now is quite vague. We don’t know what exactly Americans and Turks want to do in northeastern Syria. But what we know is that Kurds are quite opposed to this because they see this as, again, another attempt on the part of Turkey to invade the northeastern part of Syria. And again—Oh, sorry. Please.
MARC STEINER: I was just curious. Do you think—So do you think this is, there’s a couple of things at work here. Obviously there’s been this enmity between the Kurds, the Kurdish people and the Turkish government for a long time.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Absolutely.
MARC STEINER: I mean, a long time. And so this plays into that. But there’s also the idea, does Erdogan want to expand the borders of Turkey and enlarge the country itself? Is that part of it? Is it that, is it—I mean, how does this play into the battle against ISIS, which the United States claims to be fighting? But if anybody was fighting ISIS to defeat, it was the Kurds in Syria and they’re taken the battle to ISIS. So I mean, I’m … And then there’s the whole Russian-American issue around Turkey. Who’s going to give missiles? Who’s going to give planes? And how that battle turns out, as well between them. And so I mean, it’s a complex issue here. And Israel is in this in a way because they’ve been backing the Kurds because of the realpolitik of the world that they’re in as well. And so I mean, what do you think’s at the bottom of this?
BARIS KARAAGAC: I think we should look at this on various levels. On one level, this is a continuation of a Turkish policy vis-a-vis Kurds, during the republican era. The Turkish State has been opposed to any form of autonomy that Kurds would attain, both within Turkey and around Turkey since the early years of the republic. And the Republic was established in 1923. So this is a continuation of that republican policy, vis-a-vis Kurds. And of course at the root of this is a very chauvinistic form of Turkish nationalism, and the idea that Turkey is a unitary state with one nation only. So on one level, we see this.
Secondly, of course we can see this as part of the new autonomous foreign policy that was started during the tenure of the previous prime minister, Davutoglu. Of course, Davutoglu and Erdogan were acting together in this. Turkey has been trying to increase its influence over the territories that used to be dominated or occupied by the Ottoman Empire. And this also includes in certain parts of Africa. Now when you go to Africa, you see significant activity by the Turkish State, particularly in Eastern Africa, but not only there.
MARC STEINER: Well—
BARIS KARAAGAC: Yes.
MARC STEINER: I’m sorry. Go ahead, go ahead. Finish what you’re saying. Yeah.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Another level is that one of the tactics that authoritarian regimes and leaders employ whenever they’re in trouble, is resorting to violence, and in some cases, of course a war. So Erdogan and his party, the AKP, and have been going through a difficult process. Although Erdogan is still quite powerful, and although he has almost complete control over the state apparatus in Turkey, the recent elections have shown that he’s not invincible and maybe he’s losing his grip over power, this power in Turkey to some extent. And this is an alarming situation. So, the easiest way of uniting, especially conservative and nationalist Turks in Turkey, is to talk about a foreign threat, but especially a Kurdish threat. The Kurds in northeastern Syria do not pose any threat to the Turkish State or Turks at all. This is a myth that has been created by the Turkish State and its leaders for some time. So this is a diversion on one level.
MARC STEINER: So on the other level though, when you look at Trump and the United States and clearly Russia and Syria oppose this move, but the United States doesn’t want to directly use their forces against Russia clearly, and maybe Iranian forces in Syria. So are they seeing Turkey as a proxy to block Russian and Iranian influence, even though Erdogan himself is on really good terms with Russia? I mean, there’s a complexity here about that, that there’s a game, there’s a complex game of Go or Chess being played here, it seems to me, over who’s going to control what and who’s going to end up fighting what.
BARIS KARAAGAC: To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. Erdogan’s rule might’ve come as a surprise to the Americans as well. American’s, to a great extent, have lost their influence over Syria. Now Russia is the decisive power there. And a possible confrontation, in my opinion, between the Turkish military and the Kurdish-led forces in northeastern Syria, is likely to strengthen Russia’s hand actually. Because they will become the power brokers in the region. Americans have lost that power some time ago. So it’s the Russians that are calling the shots, to a great extent. And Turkey is not in a position, politically and militarily, to confront Russians on that territory at all.
MARC STEINER: So, just to conclude, I mean, one of the issues I just want to raise very quickly before we have to go, Erdogan has made it clear he wants to relocate the 700,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey into this area he wants to control, and to seize it from the Kurdish people and the Kurdish fighters. So this can lead to a lot of things. I mean, you put those 700,000 refugees there, that could lead to a different kind of guerrilla warfare taking place. It can lead to a war between the Kurds and Turkey, that could really explode in a much larger area, that can involve much of Turkey and even Iran, I mean Iraq, the northern parts of Iraq. This could really expand a war and exacerbate what’s happening, as opposed to looking for any kind of peaceful solution.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Absolutely. Again, through that proposal, Erdogan is trying to present himself as the benevolent leader. And our audience should remember that in Turkey there are close to four million Syrian refugees. Erdogan has been using these people to blackmail both Westerners, as well as other countries there. And again, as you put it, he wants to resettle hundreds of thousands of people in this region. Of course, these will be people close to him, who are more sympathetic to him. And he wants to tilt the balance of power to his advantage in the region. Again, I see this as an imperialist, expansionist position on the part of the Turkish State in general, and Erdogan in particular.
MARC STEINER: Well, Baris Karaagac, once again you’ve really helped us understand this. I appreciate your time and I look forward to talking to you a great deal more, and exploring this in greater depth in the coming weeks and months. Thank you so much for joining us and thanks for all the stuff you do.
BARIS KARAAGAC: It’s always a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.