Turkey must separate PKK from local Kurds in Syria: Former soldier
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While the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has suffered big losses in Turkey in recent years, it has gained significant ground in Syria and Iraq with its strategy of targeting Turkey from these countries, terror expert Abdullah Ağar has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
While its cross border military presence aims to fight the PKK, Turkey has to make sure to “separate the PKK from local Kurds” in every step it takes, said Ağar, a former Special Forces soldier.
Tell us where we are in the fight against the PKK.
A big uprising attempt started with the statement made by [acting PKK head] Murat Karayılan on July 11, 2015. Turkey paid a huge cost to quell this uprising, with more than 700 soldiers and Special Forces police officers being killed and 3,000 being injured in just one year. Around 7,000 terrorists were killed and just as there were plans to introduce social policies, the July 2016 coup attempt occurred.
Turkey had to engage in a tremendously arduous fight both in the mountains of the southeast and in the Euphrates Shield [military operation in Syria]. For the first time, the PKK did not flee and resisted to try to keep its strongholds, despite heavy casualties. The aim both in the mountains and in the Euphrates Shield Operation was to make the Turkish military suffer a defeat, but the PKK could not succeed in this. One of the most important proofs of this is the fact that each year the PKK declares a “spring offensive,” but in spring 2017 it completely failed to realize anything that looks like an offensive. Another piece of evidence is that the PKK is losing its influence over society; political entities engaged with the PKK have been losing votes.
However, in the meantime there has been a rising trend in the PKK’s influence in Iraq and Syria. It is effectively saying that it should target Turkey from Iraq and Syria because it cannot be effective in Turkish territory.
What do you make of the PKK’s presence in Syria, where its proxies receive U.S. support?
The U.S. needs the PKK in order to dominate Turkey and it needs Turkey and other forces in the region to dominate the PKK.
But the U.S. says Turkey did not cooperate with it against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] in a timely manner.
We cannot know what happened during the negotiations at that time. But in the end we see that a common point could not be reached between Turkey and the U.S. in the fight against ISIL in the initial phases. Turkey and the West were not on the same axis. One reason could be this that ISIL terror stems from a Sunni base, and the majority of Turkey’s population is Sunni too.
But the divergence between Turkey and the West started during Barack Obama’s administration. I think the West has a fundamental problem with the chemistry of the political governance and the personality of the political leader in Turkey. Ultimately, the anti-ISIL coalition calculated that the cost of using the PKK against ISIL would be lower than the cost of cooperating with Turkish soldiers.
Tell us what you think about Turkey’s military presence in Syria.
The Euphrates Shield Operation was based directly on the military fight against two terror organizations: ISIL and the PKK. But the military endeavor in Idlib is different in nature. We faced many challenges during the Euphrates Shield Operation, and the moment we tried to go beyond 20 kilometers we were faced by global forces. The Raqqa operation was intentionally delayed. The first time we tried to take al-Bab there were just 300 ISIL members but by the time the operation ended 2,200 ISIL members had been killed. Where did they come from? Who let them come? ISIL raided a regime military basis near Palmyra and got hold of arms and ammunition, which it started to transfer by trucks. Why were these trucks not hit by planes?
We have seen many incidents where we were attacked by ISIL while fighting the PKK and vice versa. Incidents we faced when we just wanted to cross a street to secure an area to eliminate threats to our troops have not yet been reported in the media.
But Turkey cannot remain there without the blessing of global forces?
Yes, but the moment we tried to go beyond 20 km, all hell broke loose. Anyway, what is at stake in Idlib is different. Turkey calculated that either the U.S. will have influence in Idlib via the [PKK-linked People’s Protection Units] YPG or Russia and Iran will have influence via the regime. As the latter two needed a solution in terms of the traumatized Sunni population in Idlib, they see it as appropriate to have Turkey’s presence.
There is ongoing speculation about military incursions against Afrin, which is under the control of the YPG.
Afrin is seen as one leg of the bridge. There are Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates and two cantons in Afrin. The Euphrates Shield Operation was undertaken in order to keep them disconnected. Afrin could become a potential area to stage terrorist attacks in the Mediterranean basin, and the PKK is irritated by the Turkish presence in Idlib. If there are skirmishes in the field, we could expect some incidents there too. But Afrin is a region where civilians have been armed forcefully by the PKK. Whatever Turkey may attempt in Afrin, it needs to take into account the sociological impact this could lead to. The seeds of hostility have been sown in the region. Ankara needs to differentiate between the PKK and the Kurds. It is trying to do that within Turkey but it needs to do this in Syria and in Afrin. Any step directed towards Afrin needs to be explained to the Kurds there.
But if the PKK consolidates its position in Syria to later target Turkey, what will Turkey do to stop that?
Can we make the U.S. give up on the PKK in exchange for providing it with bigger gains? Right now, Turkey is not coming up with a solution to make the U.S. give up on the PKK. All that Turkey does is point to losses the U.S. will suffer if it continues to cooperate with the PKK. It tells the U.S. that Turkey is moving from the Trans-Atlantic axis to the Eurasian axis. But what we are facing in the Middle East is something different than proxy wars. Both the U.S. and Russia are on the field. They have bases in both Syria and Iraq. That means they are there to stay.
Does that mean Turkish soldiers are there to stay for a long time too?
We favor the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. But if some threats emerge then we have to make calculations based on the impact we have through our bases. Currently, Turkey is trying to strike a balance between Russia and the U.S. Obviously, burning bridges with the U.S. and relying on Russia carries the risk of the latter exploiting this situation against Turkey. It is obvious that Russia does not want to leave the Kurds in the hands of the U.S., which is why it protects the PKK in Afrin.
How do you think developments in northern Iraq will affect the fight against the PKK?
The PKK is trying to form a Kurdish axis by giving the message that it is the real leading force, especially at a time when [Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud] Barzani and [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s late leader Jalal] Talabani are losing their popularity. There is a difference in terms of the perception of the PKK and the peshmerga among the Kurds. The former has been waging a struggle against Turkey for more than three decades. Is the PKK or the peshmerga more attractive for Kurdish youths? Look at Kirkuk. The image that the PKK tried to create in Kirkuk is that the PKK fought for Kirkuk while peshmerga forces were fleeing. This could lead to shifts between Talabani and Barzani supporters.
There is also the support of the West that must be considered. The cooperation between the West and the PKK in the anti-ISIL campaign makes the latter a center of attraction among Kurdish masses. Barzani and Talabani are legitimate forces, but now we see that the PKK is registering progress in gaining legitimacy on its own through the support provided by the West.
Who is Abdullah Ağar?
Abdullah Ağar was born in 1967 in Ankara and graduated from the Military Academy in 1989.
He later became a team commander in the Special Forces and spent six years in the mountains of the southeast in operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as in Iraq.
He received several awards pertaining to his duties during that time.
After leaving military service due to an injury, Ağar wrote five books about terrorism and in 2010 he went to work in Iraq within the framework of the Foreign Ministry. During the course of his four years in Iraq he made several trips to different parts of the country, and on his return to Turkey he wrote a book called “ISIL and Iraq.”
After the publishing of this book, Ağar conducted several field trips to the southeast, during which he spoke to soldiers on the frontline in the fight against the PKK.
Today, he is a regular contributor to news outlets, sharing his perspective on terrorism and regional developments.