Turkey’s recently launched military offensive in Northern Syria seems to have taken the United States by surprise. In recent days, several news websites have reported that Turkey arranged the matter with Russia while leaving the U.S. out of the loop until the very last moment. This has angered some American commentators, who find it hard to believe that a “NATO ally” would do such a thing.
These commentators are in desperate need of a reality check. Let me explain…
Turkey has a long history of fighting against the PKK, a Kurdish Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization, classified as such by the United States and the European Union. Tens of thousands of people have died since the PKK went to war with the Turkish state in the 1970s and 1980s. Successive Turkish leaders have struggled with the PKK’s terror threat and the group’s dream of creating a “Greater Kurdistan.” For decades the PKK has been Turkey’s number one (terror) problem in the region.
When the Kurdish People’s Defense Unit (YPG) launched its offensive against ISIS, the United States was apparently happy to support them. From Turkey’s perspective, however, the YPG was at least as big of a threat as ISIS. After all, the YPG is connected to the PKK. If the YPG succeeds in claiming a large part of Syria, Turkey will be the only country still standing in the nationalist Kurds’ way of accomplishing their great dream — a dream that can only be realized by weakening Turkey and expelling Turks living in the Eastern part of the country from their homes.
It goes without saying that this is unacceptable to Ankara. No country on earth can let a terror group threaten its territorial integrity and the safety of its people. To put yourself in Turkey’s shoes, imagine Mexicans setting up terror organizations dedicated to creating a “Greater Mexico.” Their main goal is to get the United States to hand over Texas and California. To do so, the groups regularly target and kill American policemen, soldiers, firemen, governmental workers and, yes, civilians.
This is what the PKK and its allies (and its sister organizations) are doing to Turkey.
Ankara was more or less happy to let the YPG/PKK and ISIS fight each other because they were both enemies. The idea was that having them fighting against each other would weaken them both. Now, however, ISIS has basically been defeated and the YPG is becoming stronger than ever before — and they’re doing so with the help of the United States.
To Turkey, that’s simply unacceptable. Ankara cannot accept a YPG-ruled Syrian Kurdistan at its border. And so it had to act, which it has done.
That this surprised or even shocked the Trump administration tells us a lot about their understanding of the region — and none of it encouraging. As I wrote on Twitter:
The U.S. made a gigantic mistake. It was clear to anyone with even a basic knowledge of the region that Turkey couldn’t and wouldn’t tolerate an ever-expanding YPG. The U.S. should have let Turkey deal with ISIS in northern Syria, not the YPG. That Washington decided to support the YPG was pure stupidity. Turkey always would have acted, and from its perspective rightfully so. Let’s not forget that a country’s foreign policy is always aimed at protecting its own interests, not those of other countries (or even of high-sounding ideals).
Turkey didn’t coordinate its attack with Russia because it wanted to, but because the U.S. left Turkey no choice.
One final word: This isn’t about President Erdogan. If Turkey had a completely different government, that government too would have acted against the YPG. It’s about geopolitics, not ideology.