Trying to understand what Turkey is doing about the Kurds

Trying to understand what Turkey is doing about the Kurds

Well, the issue is not only about Kurds, it is also about the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Turkish stance on the future of Iraq and Syria. The issue is also about trying to understand what President Tayyip Erdoğan is doing on all these topics, as a number of ministers and advisors have been wrong-footed; they are trying to understand the president’s policy just like the people.

They knew that the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which has been defending the Kurdish-populated Syrian town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) against ISIL forces for nearly a month, is a sister organization of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They thought, reading what Erdoğan has been saying, that Turkey would not give military aid to the PYD and Kobane because that would amount to aiding a terrorist organization. Not only Erdoğan, but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has similarly said for months now that ISIL is no different than the PKK, and that it is a threat to regional peace just like the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.

I do not want to confuse readers’ minds any further, but in a logical framework al-Assad, ISIL, the PKK and the PYD were seen as being as bad as each other, so it was impossible for the Turkish government to pick sides.
For the last few weeks almost all ministers’ statements have been on that line.

When they read the headlines of pro-government newspapers on Sunday, Oct. 19, they would have been relieved to be on the safe side by repeating that hard line (and also a hard-to-defend line, as criticism of Turkey for being “heartless” was growing, despite the fact that Ankara had allowed some 150,000 refugees cross the border from Kobane). Those papers quoted Erdoğan as taking his line a step further, adding a fourth condition - demanding that the U.S.-led coalition include the removal of al-Assad from power among its targets - in order to commit Turkey to full cooperation against ISIL, including military help to Kobane.

However, the picture started to change toward the end of Oct. 19 with a statement from the Turkish Presidency. There was a telephone call between Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama, in which they discussed the situation in Afghanistan, (where Erdoğan had paid a one-day visit on Oct. 18), as well as the situation in Kobane, confirming that Turkey and U.S. were united in the fight against ISIL.

There was speculation that Obama had called Erdoğan after getting reports of his criticism of the U.S. over its contact with the PYD - contact that came during a conference on Oct. 16 in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Dohuk on the defense of Kobane. In that contact, the PYD had demanded weapons from the U.S., which was later confirmed by statements from Washington. For Erdoğan, such a U.S. stance was making it impossible for Turkey to say “yes” to full cooperation in the anti-ISIL coalition.

Then, in the early hours of Oct. 20, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it had started to drop weapons and medical aid to those resisting against ISIL in Kobane. To many in Ankara, that news was like a cold shower. 

Suddenly, Ankara was full of surprises: Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in the late morning hours that Turkey had been allowing Kurdish fighters from Iraq to use Turkish territory to get into Kobane to support the PYD.

There was another detail from the U.S. side: The Obama-Erdoğan telephone conversation took place on the night of Saturday, Oct. 18, DC time. So, is it possible that Obama told Erdoğan about the air drop to PYD fighters, even after Erdoğan’s words to reporters on his presidential plane slamming the U.S. over this move? The answer is yes, if the U.S. was not eavesdropping on Erdoğan’s plane. This is because Erdoğan’s plane arrived at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport at 01.10 a.m. on Oct. 19 (still Oct. 18 night in Washington) and the phone conversation had started at 01.40 a.m. Turkish time. 

The result is that, according to the Turkish foreign minister, Turkey is now militarily helping the PYD forces resisting against ISIL. This became evident following the phone call by Obama, despite Erdoğan’s strong words about U.S.-PYD contact and Turkey’s condition of  al-Assad condition for that.