The response to a recent attack on the Turkish Interior Ministry in Ankara claimed by the Peoples’ Defense Forces (HPG), the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), makes clear that the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Kurdish insurgents, now largely confined to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, can’t be solved through counter-terror measures alone.
Within 24 hours of the attack, Turkish security forces were kicking down doors and arresting representatives of Turkey’s third-largest, pro-Kurdish political party, a democratically-elected parliamentary group with no culpability for the failed attack. Meanwhile, Erdogan launched a wave of illegal cross-border airstrikes in northern Iraq, ignoring protests by the Iraqi government, and threatened fresh military action against both northern Iraq and northern Syria. Western states have long tolerated Turkey’s illegal military campaigns and internal crackdowns against the Kurdish political movement, conducted under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’.
But what might seem like a marriage of convenience, with the United States and European powers willing to overlook Turkey’s anti-democratic excesses in order to placate their NATO ally, is actually a match made in hell. Rather than running counter to Western policy and interests, Turkey’s destructive, fruitless approach to the Kurdish question is intimately linked the West’s own short-sighted counter-terrorism strategies adopted post 9/11. The West’s militarized, anything-goes approach proves the perfect foil for Turkey’s dead-end strategy.
To prevent pointless acts of violence like the Ankara attack from recurring, and genuinely work toward long-lasting peace and stability in the Middle East, Turkey and its Western allies urgently need to adopt a more productive, diplomatic approach.
The counter-terrorism playbook
By recognizing the extent to which Turkey’s ‘counter-terrorism’ policies reflect the West’s own self-defeating approach, it’s possible to understand the apparent paradox through which the U.S. supports the Kurds with one hand while opposing them with the other. Notably, it’s only the continued presence of NATO’s largest army (that of the United States) which prevents NATO’s second-largest army (that of Turkey) from invading, occupying and ethnically-cleansing those territories still governed by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which played a leading role in the territorial defeat of ISIS.
“The US and other NATO states have attempted to sit on the fence for the past decade,” says Iida Käyhkö of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway, University of London. She represents the West’s approach as an “unsuccessful attempt to simultaneously appease Turkey while retaining some nominal commitment to upholding the human rights of the Kurds and supporting the fight against ISIS,” a contradictory tactic which was always doomed to fail. In its operations against Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey has deployed jihadi militias sanctioned by the U.S. for sheltering scores of former ISIS members and commanders, epitomising the contradictions of the West’s tolerance for Turkey’s militarised, ‘counter-terrorism’ approach to the Kurdish question.
Yet Turkey’s military and political leaders are well aware they have the West over a barrel. Were the U.S. to take more serious steps to prevent Turkey’s continuing attacks on the Kurds, their nominal partners in the anti-ISIS fight, Turkey would rapidly accuse the West of hypocrisy—and not without reason. Turkey’s wholly securitized, militarised ‘counter-terrorism’ response is drawn from the West’s playbook, and Turkish officials have long sought to justify their anti-Kurdish measures through comparison to ISIS attacks on Western cities. As Nicholas A. Heras, a Senior Director at the New Lines Insititute, observes: “Turkey is trying to make the argument to its NATO allies that it is engaged in a counterterrorism war on par with the global war on terrorist organizations that the U.S. fought for two decades after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”
This is despite the fact the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) does not conduct any attacks or operations in the West, while the deadliest recent terror attacks within Turkey have themselves targeted Kurds. Again, this rhetorical tactic reaches a farcical apogee in Turkish claims to be invading Syria to target “ISIS/PKK/YPG terrorists”, despite the fact the PKK and Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units YPG both played a leading role in ISIS’ defeat, while it was Turkey who allowed tens of thousands of foreign ISIS members, plus arms and funding, to flood across its borders into ISIS territory.
The counter-terror framing of Turkey’s Kurdish policy is fundamentally linked to Turkey’s role as a NATO ally. The Turkish government’s perceived and projected strength, on the domestic and regional stages, is predicated on its anti-Kurdish security operations. According to received geostrategic logic, the West needs a ‘strong’ regional partner to counter Russia—regardless of the fact that Erdogan has failed to join sanctions on Russia, sheltered Russian oligarchs, wavered over the closure of the Dardanelles to Russian shipping, and was first on the phone to Putin during the aborted Wagner coup.
A military-industrial complex built on the basis of Turkey’s perpetual warfare against the Kurds is presented to Western allies as vital to maintain Turkey’s role as a bulwark against Russia, thus justifying almost any excesses against the Kurds. Thus, for example, the West heralded Turkey’s provision of its indigenous Bayraktar drones to Ukraine—overlooking the fact these drones had been developed for use against the Kurds and deployed to destabilizing effect in the Libyan and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts (while those deployed to Ukraine were, in any case, rapidly eliminated.) The ‘global policeman’ needs its regional thug.
Lukewarm U.S. Response
Certainly, many U.S. officials have recognized the contradictory and self-defeating nature of tolerating and facilitating Turkey’s attacks against their Kurdish partners. But given they’re bound into a securitized, militarized partnership with Turkey, they have little choice but to swallow Turkey’s ‘war-on-terror’ justifications.
In one dramatic illustration of this pattern, in April 2023, a Turkish drone strike near Sulaymaniyah International Airport narrowly missed a convoy transporting both the U.S.’ key Syrian Kurdish interlocutor and Syrian Democratic Forces commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi (the intended target) and three U.S. military personnel. But even when Turkey came perilously close to a direct hit on the U.S. military, Washington issued no public rebuke. As the former spokesperson of the U.S.-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Col. Myles Caggins, told me at the time: “America has taken a ‘don’t say Turkey’ approach, or what I call a ‘snitches get stitches’ approach. Washington is tight-lipped, and not willing to finger Turkey for the attack.”
If one of the US’ rivals in the Middle East acted so aggressively, such silence would be unthinkable. But Turkey, it’s clear, has carte blanche to conduct its nominally anti-terror operations, even when that means targeting U.S personnel.
On occasion, Turkey has gone too far. Notably, following Turkey’s destructive and chaotic 2019 invasion of AANES territories in response to the partial withdrawal of troops by then-President Donald Trump, the US halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2007, the US had been flying drone missions to help Turkey target the PKK, even following the PKK’s withdrawal from Turkey into northern Iraq in the course of failed 2013-2015 peace negotiations.
The fact withdrawing support for operations in northern Iraq was seen as an appropriate punitive measure over Turkey’s actions in northern Syria points to a reality the U.S. would rather overlook: that Turkey’s anti-Kurdish operations at home, in Syria, and in Iraq are inextricably linked. Turkey’s attacks on the broader Kurdish movement, in all its political and military manifestations, fundamentally destabiliZe the region and prevent the Kurds from establishing the stable, inclusive governance needed to prevent ISIS’ continued insurgency.
Turkey’s deadly ongoing drone war against military, civilian and humanitarian targets in northern Syria has killed scores of people this year alone, while thousands of cross-border attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan have brought similar misery there. Turkish attacks on infrastructure and ITS throttling of the water flow into northern Syria fundamentally destabilize the region, providing conditions for ISIS to thrive. And yet the U.S. remains mute, making a mockery of its supposed anti-ISIS mission. Washington may have repeat of the deadly 2019 —but this comes at the cost of allowing Turkey to pursue any anti-Kurdish policy, no matter how devastating, so long as it falls short of a full-scale ground war.
Cooperation: intelligence, arms sales, domestic repression
Though the drone intel program was formally brought to an end, both the U.S. and its European allies continue to offer Turkey all kinds of formal and tacit support for its multi-faceted war on the Kurds. As suggested by Turkey’s aggressive demands that Sweden and Finland target, criminalize and deport members of their Kurdish diasporas as a quid-pro-quo for Ankara to remove its veto over those countries’ NATO accession, Ankara is highly reliant on Western intelligence cooperation.
Käyhkö points to a broader pattern of deep-rooted cooperation, saying: “Many European states, with Germany and the U.K. as the frontrunners, devote significant intelligence capacity to investigating Kurdish diaspora populations. Across the different regions of Kurdistan, Western intelligence similarly monitors the Kurdish movement, with the U.S. and the U.K. particularly involved in these processes as intelligence superpowers.”
The U.S. has banned its own Syrian Kurdish partners, among other Kurdish politicians, from getting on an American plane. Kurdish communities throughout Europe are harassed, monitored and prevented from travel, while Kurdish representatives and political refugees are regularly arrested and deported to Turkey by European governments despite the widely-documented risk of torture and other cruel and degrading treatment in Turkey’s prisons.
In one common tactic, excessive and invasive anti-terror laws presented to the public as intended to target Islamic terrorism are subsequently used to target the Kurdish community. It’s difficult to see what the US gains from placing its own allies on the no-fly list, or why Stockholm should be asked to deport an Iranian Kurdish MP serving Sweden’s own parliament to Turkey. But once again, Turkey is able to use the West’s own playbook to pursue its anti-Kurdish policy objectives.
Turkey’s law no. 7262, implemented in response to recommendations by the global Financial Action Task Force (FATF), provides another clear example. The FATF is charged with ensuring states meet international standards in combatting money laundering and the criminal financing of terrorism. When Turkey was charged with failing to meet these standards, it implemented a new law. But the new law failed to follow FATF recommendations on consulting with civil society or mitigating the risk to innocent parties, and instead granted Turkish authorities newfound powers to harass non-governmental organizations, prevent them from fundraising, and unilaterally suspend and remove their employees. Again, Ankara finds the post-2001 consensus that any violation of civil rights is justified in the pursuit of anti-terror objectives perfectly suited its ends. How can the West seriously castigate Turkey for measures implemented in response to its own counter-terrorism agenda?
Arms sales also play a significant role in this cooperation, with Western countries often condemned by Kurdish representatives for selling weapons and components used against the Kurds. It’s worth recalling, though, that Turkey now produces up to 80% of its own arms; Turkish arms exports have increased 69% in the past five years alone; while Turkey was only the 27th largest recipient of US arms in 2018–22, down from 7th largest in 2013–17. As Heras observes: “Turkey has a clear goal to be the preeminent arms exporter to state actors throughout Asia and Africa.”
Countries like the U.K. have been quietly lifting bans on new arms export licenses to Turkey, imposed in the wake of that deadly 2019 assault on the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. may well move ahead with a controversial transfer of F-16 jets to Turkey in exchange for the approval of Sweden’s NATO bed. These steps are significant not so much because Turkey is reliant on Western arms and technology to conduct its war against the Kurds, but because they endorse Turkey’s sought-after status as a mid-level power and crucial regional ally, able to warp global policy in order to suit its anti-Kurdish agenda. “Selling military technology and hardware to Turkey demonstrates the willingness of Western states to bend over backwards to please an authoritarian regime,” Käyhkö says.
Turkey’s ‘Forever War’
The issue with Turkey’s ‘anti-terror’ tactics is not only that they kill Kurds and drive hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe, while leaving the U.S. with the unwanted optics of deceitful, manipulative ally unable to protect its local partners. They don’t work.
Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has waxed and waned over the past forty years. While Bayraktar drones and other technological advances have changed the tenor of the conflict, there remains no realistic prospect of Turkey completely eradicating the guerilla force in the near term. Turkey can strike deeper and deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan and occupy and ethnically cleanse further swathes of Syrian Kurdistan, but the armed conflict will continue indefinitely so long as Kurdish question remains fundamentally unsolved. As with the US’ fundamentally flawed intervention in Afghanistan, occupation and airstrikes cannot engender enduring stability.
On the contrary, as Caggins observes, there’s “never-ending cycle” through which Turkey kills U.S. partners on the ground, observes that the U.S. stay silent, and witnesses Washington’s credibility eroding as a result, empowering Turkey to commit further attacks. These attacks not only imperil U.S. allies, but also recreate the kind of destruction, instability and resentment which enabled ISIS’ rise. Russia, too, benefits from Turkey’s aggressive power expansion. From Libya to north-west Syria, the two powers’ confrontations have an uncanny habit of resulting in a new, amenable status quo in which territory is divided between the two powers’ spheres of influence.
A more productive policy is possible—but only following a fundamental reframing of the Kurdish question from a counter-terrorism concern to a serious, complex geo-political issue. The Turkish military-industrial complex needs perpetual anti-Kurdish conflict to maintain its power. But civilian populations in the region have witnessed enough destructive and short-sighted ‘counter-terrorism’ measures to know these policies can never bring peace or security.
Justice and Accountability
In their own ways, both the Ankara attack and the subsequent response by Turkish authorities demonstrate that current approach has reached a dead end. Ultimately, Turkey’s purely counter-terror approach breeds conflict by delegitimizing Kurdish efforts towards participation in the formal political process within Turkey or in peaceful governance elsewhere. By imprisoning thousands of Kurdish political representatives, journalists, lawyers and artists while banning successive Kurdish political parties outright, Turkey drives many Kurds to view armed struggle as the only possible channel through which to pursue self-determination and fundamental rights—even though this struggle alone cannot achieve the democratic, federal Turkey they dream of.
This does not mean there will be no accountability for incidents like the attack in Ankara. Were the PKK to be removed from international terrorism lists and treated as a legitimate party to an armed conflict—as the top court in Belgium recently proposed, in a landmark ruling – this would not let the group off the hook for those attacks it has conducted. On the contrary, delisting PKK and recognizing the crisis in Turkey as a legitimate, civil conflict would enable both Turkey and the PKK to be held equally responsible for any crimes committed under internationally established conflict law. As a recognized force in a civil war, indeed, the PKK (which is already a signatory to the Geneva Convention) would have more responsibilities and culpability under international law than it currently does.
For its part, the Syrian Kurdish movement continues to present itself as a counter-terrorism partner to the West, securing the Washington’s continued if inconstant sponsorship and protection. But the war against ISIS won’t last forever. The AANES must represent itself, and be recognized by the USA as, the only actor able to bring a secure and lasting peace to the region—not only through its ability to field a unified, professional and effective anti-ISIS fighting force, but also through modeling a productive, diverse mode of governance which can respond to local grievances.
Re-opened negotiations between both Turkey and the PKK, and Turkey and the AANES, would be a necessary first step on the path. But so long as the U.S. government places bounties on Kurdish leaders’ heads and bans Syrian Kurdish leaders from traveling abroad, it’s hardly in a position to sponsor peace talks. Barriers to international engagement mean we may see more needless acts of violence like that which hit Ankara. All of Turkey’s citizens, including the Kurds, deserve better. In the Kurdish context, the counter-terror playbook needs to be torn up and replaced with serious diplomatic engagement—and the pursuit of a new, inclusive political settlement within and beyond Turkey’s borders.
(Photo by Yavuz Ozden/DIA images via Getty Images)