In the shadows of the Ukraine war, Turkey has escalated its military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Operation Claw-Lock, the most recent of three destabilizing Turkish cross-border operations allegedly targeting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) since 2020, began on April 18. Turkey continued to target the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) with drone strikes and cross-border shelling. Two YPJ fighters and a local defense official were killed near Kobane on April 21. On April 22, two civilians in Kobane city were injured. Attacks on the crowded IDP enclave of Tal Rifat, where many Kurds displaced from the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin live, continued around the same time.
At a time when the West has repeatedly spoken up in support of territorial integrity and against military aggression, occupation, and atrocity crimes in the context of Russia’s actions in Europe, this dangerous escalation by a key Western ally has gone unnoticed. This did not happen because of the importance of the Ukraine crisis alone. It reflects Turkey’s use of the crisis to play all sides to its advantage, and the willingness of one particular European country to tolerate and promote such behavior to the detriment of stability, human rights, and international norms: Germany.
A Violent History
German support for Turkish militarism dates back to before the modern states of Turkey and Germany existed. In the late 1800s, Colonel General Colmar von der Goltz of the German Empire led a military delegation sent to help the “sick man of the Bosphorus” by modernizing and supporting the Ottoman armed forces. Germany invested in the Ottoman Empire, hoping that they would gain a strong ally with a valuable geopolitical position and setting the stage for the upcoming catastrophe of World War I.
Both empires ultimately threw themselves into this war. In both cases, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide followed: in Anatolia between 1915 and 1938 and in Germany from the rise of the Nazis to the defeat of their regime in World War II.
It is important to note that these atrocities did not occur independently of each other. Without foreign military support, including that provided by Germany, it is questionable whether the dying Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that replaced it would have been able to commit the massacres of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and later Kurds that it carried out during this time period. Germany’s role in strengthening the Ottoman and subsequently Turkish Air Force, which gained early combat experience bombing Alevi Kurdish civilians in Dersim, is notable here.
On the other side, Hitler infamously cited the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as an inspiration for the Holocaust. He also regarded Ataturk and his fight against colonial Britain and France as a role model for the Nazi regime.
Cold War Collaboration
After World War II, Turkey and Germany became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey joined in 1952, and Germany joined three years later. Both countries subsequently deepened their military and economic ties. Similar to the relationship between the German and Ottoman empires, this Cold War alliance was based on pragmatism and close security links.
Germany had nothing to say when the Turkish army overthrew the country’s elected government in 1960, 1971, or even in 1980, when the coup led to the dissolution of parliament and a crackdown that saw countless civilians, particularly Kurds and leftists, detained, tortured, killed or exiled. Instead, fearing communist influence, Germany helped put down leftist and Kurdish political struggles—both within Turkey and domestically among the population of “guest workers” who had migrated to Germany from Turkey starting in the 1950s. It promoted Kemalist unions and cracked down on any Kurdish or leftist political mobilization.
While appeasing the classic Kemalist upper class, Germany also bolstered the Islamist roots of Turkey’s present governing coalition. The movement that inspires Erdogan’s far-right government was significantly shaped by the work of Germany’s Turkish diaspora. Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan, considered a mentor by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, notably developed his ideas of a transnational Islamist Turkish space based on his time in Germany. Understanding the role of the Turkish diaspora in Germany is necessary in order to understand Erdogan’s inner circle and the development of the constituency that later voted the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power.
Germany and Turkey Today
The German government is not unaware of this. It has shown signs of concern about the influence that this Islamist and Turkish nationalist constituency has in Germany. However, Turkish and Azerbaijani groups have actively courted German politicians, including many from the former leading CDU/CSU-SPD Coalition. This strategy likely worked: these leaders took little action against the displacement of thousands of indigenous Armenians from the autonomous region of Artsakh in 2020 or ongoing Turkish interventionism in Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria.
The current left-leaning government has not represented a break from this policy. Shortly before the launch of operation Claw-Lock, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met German Foreign Minister and self-proclaimed guardian of a “feminist foreign policy” Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party. The Foreign Ministry subsequently issued a statement that stressed NATO unity, and Baerbock tweeted on the specific importance of the German-Turkish alliance. Days later, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the traditionally pro-Turkey Social Democratic Party visited Erdoğan and offered a similar message. Notably, he pointed out that Turkey can be an important partner in ending European dependence on Russian gas—a challenge that KRI Prime Minister and Erdogan ally Masrour Barzani has also shown interest in taking on.
This enduring alliance has consequences in the Middle East today that contain echoes of the atrocities of the early 20th century. Germany’s political establishment has not shied away from moral claims about the human tragedy in Ukraine, with some going so far as to refer to it as a genocide. However, Turkey’s violent intrusions into territory inhabited by Kurds, Yezidis, Assyrians, Armenians, and other groups that survived mass violence at the hands of Turkish forces decades ago are securitized in German discourse: they are only looked from a military perspective, not a political, social or historical one.
As a consequence, the victims are systematically ignored and dehumanized. Russia’s rhetoric denying Ukraine’s existence is rightly condemned across Europe as deadly incitement. But when AKP officials say that Iraqi Kurdistan does not exist and threaten to “crush the heads” of their Kurdish enemies, it hardly registers among the German and European public.
Germany could be a strong European mediating power and a leader in atrocity prevention in the Middle East, just like it seeks to be in Ukraine. But it has refused to play this role when Turkey is involved. Instead, a century after the German Empire strengthened the Ottoman forces that would go on to decimate Anatolia’s non-Turkish and non-Muslim communities, Turkey continues to enjoy near-unconditional German support for its military campaigns against the same persecuted peoples. It also retains the ability to export its restrictions on dissent: During a recent protest against the Turkish Foreign Minister’s visit to Berlin and ongoing military operations in Kurdish regions, German law enforcement violently attacked demonstrators.
A Recalibrated Approach
Now more than ever, there is a moral and strategic case for Germany to change its ways. The norms against occupation, offensive war, and mass violence that Germany and other Western governments have defended in Ukraine should be defended in the Middle East and the Caucasus as well. When these norms are violated with impunity by some states, they are weakened for all states—encouraging actors like Russia. Support for self-rule and self-determination must be as non-negotiable for Kurds, Armenians and other peoples in the region as it is for Ukrainians. Territorial conquest must be as forbidden for Turkey as it is for Russia.
Turkey’s escalation in Iraq and Syria will result in increased political, military, and economic instability, ecological destruction, displacement, and human suffering. The impacts will reach Europe: Many Iraqi Kurds,including those from regions targeted repeatedly by the Turkish military, were among the refugees trapped on the Belarus-Poland border in late 2021. If the current Turkish escalation continues, it will create conditions that will push even more Kurds, Yezidis, and others to migrate.
To address these challenges, Germany could reconsider the 2016 refugee deal with Turkey that it brokered at the EU level, in light of the undue leverage it has given to Erdogan. Turkey’s ruling coalition has repeatedly used the deal to put pressure on EU states when they seek to intervene in Turkish-led conflicts. This limits Europe’s ability to pursue effective and balanced diplomacy in the Middle East. It has also become unpopular in Turkey and driven increased hostility towards Syrians there, trends that will likely lead to further regional instability.
Germany should also cut back on its arms transfers to Turkey. Direct weapons exports, which have repeatedly been green-lighted by German authorities, are only part of the problem here. Dual-use items and other parts that help Turkey develop its own systems are also dangerous. The Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has been used to target civilians across the Middle East and Africa, could not have been developed without German hardware and software.
Other Western governments should make a similar re-evaluation. The US in particular should reconsider its abrupt shift from sanctioning Turkey for obtaining Russian S-400 air defense systems and blocking F-35 sales on interoperability grounds to arguing that a new sale of F-16 fighter jets would serve US and NATO interests without any change in Turkish behavior in the region.
Germany should also fundamentally change its domestic politics towards its Kurdish diaspora. It should end the permanent criminalization of Kurdish communities on the basis of their political activity and views. Turkish intelligence and other state and state-affiliated structures that threaten dissidents abroad should be penalized. The deportation of political refugees, many of them Kurds, to Turkey must be halted immediately.