The execution of 13 Turkish hostages by the PKK in northern Iraq has sent shock waves through Turkey. The deaths have once again opened up the debate over how to deal with the designated terror organization’s sanctuaries across Turkey’s southern border. Cross-border operations, both in Syria and Iraq, have proven extremely delicate and complicated, and controversial. And the results have been mixed. The problem, says our chief political scientist, is that Turkey’s arch-nemesis has found a home in what is arguably the world’s most complicated geography. How do you confront a transnational terrorist organization in such a complex geopolitical space?
Adnan R. Khan: What makes this part of the world so complicated?
Ilter Turan: If you look at the actors involved, each with its own agenda, you get a sense of the forces at play and the difficulties such a configuration of forces and goals may generate:
First you have the Iraqi government, which obviously wants to achieve full control over its own territory and avoid the emergence of a PKK-dominated autonomous region that not only invites Turkey’s but is also likely to attempt in the long run to break off from Iraq, and maybe unite with parts of Syria. Next, you have the Kurdish regional government, which is, on the one hand, trying to improve its own relations with Turkey with a view to consolidating its control over northern Iraq and, on the other hand, which perceives the PKK as a challenge to its own rule.
Then you have Iran, which is trying to project its power westward. The emergence of an autonomous Kurdish unit poses a problem in a number of ways. Number one, Iran has its own Kurdish problem, not so pronounced as in other countries, but enough to make it worry about the expansion of a PKK-dominated area in Iraq. Second, it does not want the presence of the PKK that allows others, including Turkey, to justify staking a claim in the region. Third, it does not want the emergence of an American client that stands in the way of its westward thrust.
Turning to the U.S., let us begin with the support it provides to the YPG. We all know it does and we all know that the YPG and the PKK constitute parts of an integrated whole. The short term American interests in the area seem to be to keep the Islamic insurgents under control and to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence westward. The longer term goal seems to be to help construct an independent Kurdish state that brings parts of Syria and Iraq together which is totally reliant on the US and possibly Israel for its existence such that it constitutes a proxy that the US can use to advance its own agenda in the region where ensuring the security of Israel is on top of the list. Finally, it wants to be present anywhere where Russia, re-emerging these days as a strategic rival, is present.
If you then look at Russia, it has a common interest – like everyone else – in limiting Iranian influence. Furthermore, it wants to remain in Syria. The Russians are concerned that the Americans may establish too much of a foothold in the area through their support of the YPG. They want to keep their lines of communication with the Kurds open. In the event American plans work out, they do not want to end up with a state that is simply an appendage of the U.S. They prefer one that also has good relations with Russia.
Lastly, let’s turn to Turkey. Again, Turkey also wants to limit the expansion of Iranian influence westward. It doesn’t mind a Kurdish regional government in Iraq, but one that values good relations with Ankara, not an autonomous PKK-dominated area which is used as a base to conduct operations into Turkey. In this context, it is highly suspicious of American plans to expand its influence in the area by developing a Kurdish proxy dominated by the YPG.
Adnan R. Khan: It’s a complex web of competing interests but there does appear to be one common thread: that the PKK should not represent the Kurds. Even the U.S. claims to agree with that at the level of formal statements. Why then has it been so difficult to dislodge the group from northern Iraq?
Ilter Turan: Every country claims to oppose terrorism, but then each defines terrorism according to its own political needs. As the too often quoted expression goes: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. For the Americans, the Islamic State is the biggest terrorist threat, the YPG/PKK are friends to fight it. For the Turks, it’s the PKK that is the primary enemy. The Kurdish regional government in Iraq doesn’t refer to the PKK as terrorists but considers the group a challenge to its own authority.
I believe there is an overarching issue here that isn’t getting the attention it deserves: These hostages were not captured outside the borders of Turkey. They were captured inside Turkey and taken out as hostages. Such activities should be opposed by every country with a stake in the region. The fact that these people were held for years without any pressure put on the PKK by the international community to secure their release is a failure to address the threat such actions pose to everyone. It gives organizations engaged in terrorism assurance that they can act transnationally with considerable impunity. Whatever your geopolitical interests might be, that kind of activity should be opposed if for no other reason than the fact that everyone without exception can easily become a target. That reality should never be forgotten.