On the heels of an agreement that allows the United States Air Force (USAF) to operate against the Islamic State (IS) from Turkish airspace outside Incirlik, the Prime Minister-turned-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, shedding light on his government’s thinking regarding its deeper involvement in Syria and Iraq:
“We have only one concern. It is Islam, Islam and Islam. It is impossible for us to accept the overshadowing of Islam. Islam is damaged from what is all being done now. We all have to show the will to categorically deny terrorism without looking at its basis or identity…
When it comes to speaking, they say ‘We are Muslims.’ But on the other hand, we see those who defend both terrorists and atheist organizations just because of that sectarian difference. Therefore, we have to be on alert against those people…”
From reading these comments, one may first assume Erdogan is speaking about Daesh militants, who distort Islamic beliefs to justify their own vicious behavior. The Turkish president is in fact speaking out against both the Islamic State and the Kurds. The comments are not only geared towards an international audience, but his opponents at home. His anti-Kurdish sentiment can be gleamed from his adding of Atheism to the list of communities he laments. Erdogan openly conflates Kurdish secular organizations like the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) with the PKK and YPD, Kurdish groups he believes to be terrorists and has fought wars with. If the ruling AKP party Erdogan hails from can tie the native Kurdish population that supports the HDP with the PKK, he can crack down on his opponents at home while degrading Kurdish aspirations in Iraq and Syria. That seems to be exactly what the aim is.
The Turkish military’s deepening involvement in the wars raging across northern Iraq and Syria right now is not a coincidence. In early June the HDP, a majority-Kurdish party that is secular and liberal, ran a successful campaign in Turkey’s Parliamentary elections, yielding itself over 10% of the vote, a key threshold allowing them to spoil Erdogan’s run for a veto-proof majority that would allow him to set Turkey on the path to a Presidential Republic (1. Had the HDP failed in that metric, their seats would have gone to the AKP. 2. The presidency was largely ceremonial, until Erdogan’s transition from Parliament, which has made the position a serious power-broker.)
Less than two months later, the United States and Turkey agreed to cooperate out of Incirlik at Erdogan’s approval, supposedly in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkish airstrikes began almost immediately after. The majority of those airstrikes have not been targeted towards Daesh, but at Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government hopes to accomplish two goals in one war: 1. To block the Kurd’s from constructing a connected territorial entity on the ground that would improve their claims for a separate state on Turkey’s border, and 2. Create a safe haven corridor for rebels (Al Qaeda and its compatriots) that can be used against the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad and the ruling Ba’ath party (in addition to ensuring Syria never reunites under the latter). In this objective he weakens two secular camps, the Kurds and the Syrian government, while improving the hand of militants, for only the tacit approval of a war against the Islamic State. It is not yet apparent that this was a good deal for the U.S. or that it will actually weaken the Islamic State.
When Erodgan states we see those who defend both terrorists and atheist organizations just because of that sectarian difference, it is a warning to HDP Kurds that support for armed Kurdish forces will be considered a show of support for terrorists and they may be branded enemies of the state. He can then arguably use the war against “Kurdish terrorists” as a justification to crackdown on a Kurdish political party. Turkish democracy and its institutional capacity will weaken. The Islamist AKP party is already working through the courts to indict and prosecute the HDP leadership with a variety of crimes. Erdogan is in effect stating that Turkey’s Kurdish minority is Muslim, but also supporters of Atheist terrorists, associated through sect. Airstrikes on the PYD (Syria’s Kurds) and the PKK (who assuredly are left-wing nationalists and socialists) are meant to weed out their “sectarian” supporters who are attempting to work through nonviolent political channels in Turkey. Containing a Kurdish state on the border and their political power in Turkey will continue to be a guiding objective of the AKP’s foreign and domestic policy, even if they have to lob a few rockets at the Islamic State for the sake of appearances.