Turkey’s choice between radical Islamists and Syrian Kurds

Turkey’s choice between radical Islamists and Syrian Kurds

Some want us to make a choice between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said the other day, adding that both are "the same" in the eyes of Turkey.

The minister could have said that Turkey is being forced to make a choice between ISIL and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), since the recent clashes in Syria have intensified between Syrian Kurds and ISIL. However, the PYD and the PKK are the same in the eyes of the Turkish government.

Now that Turkey has made clear that it will contribute to the global coalition against ISIL, why does the centuries-old principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” not apply?

First of all, we are in the Middle East, where who is a friend and who is a foe can be easily mixed up. Your current enemy could be your future friend, and again return to being an enemy in the more distant future.

But under current circumstances, why are the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are fighting ISIL - which is supposedly Turkey’s enemy - not considered a natural ally?

If the PYD is the same as the PKK, isn’t there a negotiation process ongoing between Ankara and what it sees as a terrorist organization?

In fact, this point was made to me last week by a high ranking Turkish official. Resentful of the accusations that Turkey was abandoning Syrian Kurds to the mercy of ISIL, the official said: “The claim that we are not doing anything because they are Kurds is absurd. After all, we are in a reconciliation process with our own Kurds."

“When Turkey’s relations were good with Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then prime minister, asked his counterpart to improve the situation of the Syrian Kurds. He specifically asked them to be granted citizenship, for instance. Our problem with the PYD is their ambivalent stance. They have to make a choice: Are they with the al-Assad regime or not?” he continued, adding that the PYD's efforts to establish autonomous zones have also irritated Ankara.

Having been used, manipulated and betrayed by global and regional players, which cost the lives of innocent Kurdish civilians, isn’t it natural that the PYD wants to have all of its options on the table? After all, isn’t this the way you survive in the region?

However, at the end of the day, the realities on the ground dictate policies, which means that today Turkey and the PYD need to be on the same side against the common enemy. After all, ISIL is a bigger threat to Turkey than Kurds are to Turkey.

For some, the perception of ISIL as a threat by the Turkish government might not sound plausible. Indeed, a loyal reader of mine who lives abroad has been asking why it is that Muslims in general, and Turks specifically, are not demonstrating against the horrendous acts of ISIL.

This is a relevant question. Firstly, Western observers need to realize that most Muslims in general and Turks in particular are looking after their daily survival. Though war could be at our door, currently it is still far from them. Secondly, most live in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes where civil society is not strong, so demonstrations as a way of expressing discontent are not widespread.

“But when it comes to Israel, people flood the streets,” I am reminded.

In that case too, people won’t take to the streets unless encouraged by the government.

The gist of the matter lies with the rulers in the Muslim world. In Turkey, the opposition and the representatives of civil society are trying to scrutinize the government’s policies. While the attention of the international community has lately been more focused on Turkey, Western public opinion should question more about why their elected governments continue to support regimes in the Gulf that are the main sponsors of the radicals.