By Avishek Deb
French President Emmanuel Macron, on Friday, offered to play a conciliatory role in northern Syria where a perpetual conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces has reached an all-time high. Turkey outrightly rejected the French offer, instead of warning that any kind of dialogue or assistance lent to the Kurds amounted to terrorism and could make France a “target of Turkey”. Turkey, alongside France, is a member of NATO and also a crucial ally of the Western powers due to its strategic location. It shares a long border with strife-torn Syria and plays an indispensable role in filtering out terrorists masquerading as refugees seeking to escape to Europe, especially France, where its immigration department is ill-equipped to properly vet the huge waves of migrants. Even though Kurdish forces are the only forces on the ground capable of fighting ISIS, military support to the Kurds by NATO has always been a bone of contention for Turkey and it is willing to risk its alliance with France over it. To understand the hostile response of Turkey, one needs to look into the distant past of the formation of present-day Turkey.
Turkey loathes Kurdish independence, especially in regions near its borders. This hatred stems from political concerns rather than ethnic or historical considerations. Kurds constitute 15-25 percent of Turkey’s population and are mainly concentrated in the southeast near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Despite their significant population and distinctive ethnicity, the Kurds were treated like second-class citizens, stripped off their identity, classified as “mountain Turks” and were banned from speaking their own language. Due to decades of repression, Kurdish people started an armed conflict with the view of seceding from Turkey. In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish military, marking the onset of a three-decade-long civil war. Due to this Turkey considers PKK to be a terrorist organization seeking to break its territorial integrity. Mid-2013 to mid-2015 was a period of peace between the two forces. However, the ceasefire did not last long when Turkey bombarded PKK positions in Northern Iraq in July 2015.
Kurds in Turkey are marginalised
Kurds have been able to acquire territories in Iraq and Syria and are urging their counterparts in Turkey to revolt against the establishment and carve out an autonomous region for themselves. Turkey, being governed by extremely nationalistic politicians, cannot afford to be seen as weak and so is refusing to give in to Kurdish demands. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds to be an extension of the terrorist PKK group despite the Kurds denying any relation to the PKK. So it routinely launches attacks on Kurdish establishments near its southern border. This brings Turkey in direct conflict with its NATO allies such as US and France who view the Kurdish forces as a key ally in the fight against ISIS.
Syrian Kurds form a major part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most powerful group capable of defeating ISIS. YPG is fighting a two-front war with Turkey and ISIS. ISIS is a common enemy of France as well as the Kurds due to which it receives military support from NATO.
Source of current conflict
Macron announced his intention of mediating in the conflict after meeting Kurdish delegates from the SDF and praising their efforts in obliterating ISIS from the northern parts of Syria. He reiterated that destroying ISIS was France’s topmost priority and assured requisite aid to the SDF to achieve it. The proclamation drew a stern response from Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who remarked that such actions crossed a line and would be regarded as a mark of enmity against Turkey. He is understandably worried about the increasing presence of Kurdish strongholds near its borders. However, bombing a key force in the war against terrorism cannot be the solution. Turkey currently views ISIS as the lesser of the two evils as ISIS does not have any direct conflict with Turkish forces. This perception needs to change before a unified front against ISIS can be realized.