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October 16, 2019

Lessons from conflict


October 16, 2019

The military incursion of Turkey into Northern Syria may have created a ripple of excitement among ultra-nationalists, Erdogan and his acolytes but it may turn out to be catastrophic for Ankara, the Kurdish people and the region.

It is claimed by the Erdogan government that the attack is meant to carve out a buffer zone spreading over 30 kilometre to ward off any possible terrorist attack by Kurdish fighters in the war-torn Arab country that are thought to be close allies of the Kurdistan Workers Party or the PKK of Turkey.

The PKK has been declared a terrorist outfit by Turkey and several other states. Its incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan is revered among the Syrian Kurds for whom he is an inspirational figure; he also commands respect among the Kurds living in various parts of the world. The resettlement of more than three million Syrian refugees is said to be another factor leading to this Turkish action. Ankara wants to rehabilitate these refuges in the buffer zone.

The 30-million Kurds have been stateless for decades. Scattered in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, they were suppressed by the dictatorial regimes of Saddam and Bashar al-Assad but Ankara and Tehran did not treat them well either. Thousands of people have lost their lives in the Kurdish insurgency against Ankara since the 1980s. Turkey has been accused of using brute force to snuff out the insurgency while the PKK has been blamed for carrying out a number of terrorist attacks since the inception of the insurgency. Ocalan has been in jail for several years now. After his arrest, he adopted a reconciliatory attitude which was spurned by the Turkish ruling elite.

Later the peace overtures by the Kurdish fighters were reciprocated half-heartedly, leading to a truce between the Kurdish fighters and Turkish state in 2013, only to be broken down in 2015 again. The ties between the PKK and the Turkish state are still strained though some other Turkish political parties and individuals have been accorded some level of acceptability. But now the incursion runs the risk of creating a serious rift between Erdogan and moderate Kurd leaders who have been trying to put an end to the Turkish-Kurd historical animosity and mistrust.

The assault has put Russia’s allies in a difficult situation. At least two parties to the Syrian conflict – Iran and Syria – are close to Moscow while Turkey has also been hobnobbing with Putin for the last few years. So in a way Ankara, Damascus and Tehran all enjoy the proximity of Moscow. In such a situation, the Turkish action is likely to drive a wedge between Russian allies. Tehran seems to have been flabbergasted by the Turkish move. It has already expressed its displeasure over the action, fearing the resurgence of Isis as a result of the Turkish action. Isis is not only a danger to Syria and the Kurds but also to Iran, which played an important role in reining in the ruthless militants. On the other hand, the revival of this extremist group might indirectly favour the Saudis and Israelis.

There are many dimensions of this rising conflict. Although the Syrian government is furious over the Turkish action as it flies in the face of Ankara’s claim of respecting international law and sovereignty of state, it may still be content if the action only targets the Kurds or the SDF which it considers a foreign collaborator. However, if the action leads to the re-emergence of Isis and if Ankara is seen as encouraging that then it will infuriate Damascus. In that case, Damascus might collaborate with the Kurds – provided the latter are ready to abandon secession plans. The Syrian Kurds have already hinted at joining hands with Damascus to thwart what they see as Turkish aggression. They even appear amenable to the idea of accepting greater autonomy within Syrian territories instead of demanding a separate state.

Though Tehran has expressed its reservations over the Turkish action, it might also be content if only the Kurds or the SDF are eliminated. But if the Turkish move emboldens the Isis, Tehran may spring into action and invest all energies in ensuring that they do not rear their monstrous head again. In such a situation the theocratic state might also prefer reconciliation between Damascus and the Kurds. Tehran suspects that Isis was pampered by the West, Saudi Arabia and Israel in the past and that such anti-Iran elements would again throw their overt or covert support behind Isis if it manages to regroup.

The spectre of Daesh’s return is also haunting the Kurds who greatly suffered under the oppressive rule of the global jihadists. It was not the US or the Western world that waged any fierce battle against Isis but the courageous Kurdish men and women who carried out attacks on the hideouts of the extremist group. More than 12,000 militants and suspected extremists are in the custody of the SDF, over 700 of which have recently fled taking advantage of the Turkish shelling. This has worried both the Kurds and other anti-Isis forces.

While the Turkish action has created so many complexities, it can also offer opportunities to settle down inveterate issues. For instance, Ankara could use this opportunity to make the PKK give up their plan of secession from Turkey. In return, Turkey would have to grant greater autonomy to the Kurdish people besides carrying out a South African type of reconciliation. Since the SDF is thought to be close to the PKK, any reconciliation between Ocalan and Ankara would neutralize the threat to Turkey that Syrian Kurds might pose.

Syria in the same way could reciprocate the peace overtures by the SDF but instead of fighting with Turkey, it should involve Russia and other non-Western powers in settling its disputes with Ankara. Damascus could also put an end to discriminatory policies towards the Syrian Kurds.

The incursion has also a lesson for the Syrian Kurds who demonstrated unflinching support to Washington. Big powers just want to secure their own interests. It is not the first time that the US betrayed the Kurds. In the 1990s, it first encouraged the Kurds to rise against Saddam – and later left them at the mercy of the dictator. France and other Western powers are also making half-hearted attempts to help the stateless nation. It is time the Kurds opted for a peaceful struggle and sought reconciliation with the states where they have lived for decades or centuries instead of relying on Western nations.

The writer is a freelancejournalist.

Email: [email protected]

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