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Fighting Both Sides of the Same War: Is Turkey Using Attacks on ISIL as Cover for Assault on Kurds?

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Turkish jets have reportedly launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq since airstrikes began last week, effectively ending a two-year truce. Over the past week, the Turkish military has launched combat operations on two fronts: one against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and another against Kurds inside Turkey and in northern Iraq, where Kurdish groups have been fighting against the Islamic State. This means Turkey is now essentially bombing both sides of the same war. During an emergency session of NATO in Brussels Tuesday, the body offered support for Turkey’s military campaigns, although some member states expressed unease over the crackdown against the Kurds. Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds come just a month after the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party won 13 percent of the vote, helping to deprive President Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party of a majority in the Parliament for the first time since 2002. Over the past week, Turkey has detained more than 1,000 people in a series of raids, many targeting members of Kurdish groups. We speak to Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Turkish jets have reportedly launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq since airstrikes began last week, effectively ending a two-year truce. Over the past week, the Turkish military has launched combat operations on two fronts: one against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, also called Daesh, another against Kurds inside Turkey and in northern Iraq, where Kurdish groups have been fighting against the Islamic State. This means Turkey is now essentially bombing both sides of the same war.

During an emergency session of NATO in Brussels Tuesday, the body offered support for Turkey’s military campaigns, although some member states expressed unease over the crackdown against the Kurds. Turkey and the United States both consider the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to be a terrorist organization, but the group and its allies has been given credit over the past year for helping in the fight against the Islamic State. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance stands in strong solidarity with Turkey, which recently opened up its air bases to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Terrorism in all its forms can never be tolerated or justified. It is right and timely that we hold this meeting today to address the instability on Turkey’s doorstep and on NATO’s border. NATO is following developments very closely, and we stand in strong solidarity with our ally, Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds come just a month after the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party won 13 percent of the vote, helping to deprive the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party of a majority in the Parliament for the first time since 2002. Over the past week, Turkey has detained more than a thousand people in a series of raids, many targeting members of Kurdish groups. On Tuesday, President Erdogan said it is impossible to continue the peace process with Kurdish militants.

PRESIDENT TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood. There should have been a national unity and brotherhood. Brotherhood comes above the peace process, and it is a very comprehensive subject. I want our people to be sure of that. Those who walk in the countryside and in big cities wearing masks and carrying guns and patrol bombs will get the necessary response from our security forces and judiciary bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Turkey, the Kurds and the fight against the Islamic State, we’re joined by Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network in Washington, D.C.

Kani, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what’s happening right now in Turkey and this very rare meeting of NATO and what Turkey is doing?

KANI XULAM: I can. Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what’s taken place this week.

KANI XULAM: Well, first, the NATO general secretary’s comment that the instability is at the border of Turkey or at NATO’s doorstep, as he put it, is really—is inside Turkey. For the last 31 years, there has been a big conflict inside Turkey between the Kurds and the Turks. Over 40,000 people have been killed. And unfortunately, the NATO general secretary didn’t really mention that.

As far as the problem or the rise of ISIS and the—Turkey’s decision to allow its air base to be used against it, for a year now, Kurds on the ground, inside Syria especially and also inside Iraq, have been fighting ISIS. By some accounts, they are the most effective ground troops, the boots on the ground, that the U.S. has cooperated with, and ISIS has had major setbacks. All of a sudden, now Turkey wants to join this fight. But it really doesn’t want to fight ISIS; it wants to fight the Kurds. So, I don’t know what’s going on at the White House, hoping that Turkey would fight ISIS. It doesn’t. It doesn’t want to. It doesn’t have the desire. It doesn’t have the wish.

And also, soliciting Turkish help to fight ISIS is like using a bloody towel to clean the mess in the kitchen, if you will, to mop the floor, if you will. For two years, three years, some 15,000 foreign fighters used Turkey as a stepping stone to go into Iraq, to go into Syria. And Turkey was hoping that they would basically topple Assad, turn Syria into a client state for Turkey, for Ankara, and also fight the Kurds. You know, Turkey wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. And now that these fighters are being degraded, in the words of President Obama, by the YPG and the PKK and the peshmerga, Turkey doesn’t know what’s—you know, is very unhappy about it. That’s why it called this meeting in Brussels.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by State Department spokesperson John Kirby. Speaking Monday, he said Turkey’s actions against the PKK were self-defense and had no connection to Turkey’s fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, against ISIL.

JOHN KIRBY: We are grateful for Turkey’s cooperation against ISIL to include now use of some of their bases for coalition aircraft to go against targets, ISIL targets, particularly in Syria. So we’re grateful for that support. So, separate and distinct from that, Turkey has continued to come under attack by PKK terrorists, and we recognize their right to defend themselves against those attacks. And it was in retaliation for recent attacks by the PKK that Turkey conducted these most recent strikes. … I understand the coincidence of all of this, but it is just that. The attacks against the PKK were in retaliations for attacks they, the Turks, endured. And what they’re doing against ISIL in Syria, I’ll let them speak to, but obviously we welcome all coalition members’ efforts against ISIL, particularly in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson John Kirby. Kani Xulam, your response?

KANI XULAM: You know, on July 20, a suicide bomber went to a meeting in Suruc, Turkey, a town just miles away from Kobani, the Stalingrad of the Kurds, if you will. Last year, ISIS almost took it over, and thanks to the United States government dropped air—airdrops on October 19, 2014, and the town that had been occupied 80 percent by ISIS, the Kurds fought back, house to house, street to street, and kicked out these Daesh and ISIS supporters, sent them back to Raqqa, if you will.

As far—this recent incident, on July 20, when one ISIS sympathizer or militant went to this meeting where these Kurdish activists from western Turkey, from Kurdistan, from Kurds, wanted to go to Kobani and build a playground for the kids. They wanted to build a school. And 32 of them were killed. And supposedly because of that, Turkey entered the war. And guess what it did. It went after the PKK inside Iraq, you know, 400 places, sorties, as opposed to several, according to the British accounts, British press media. And ISIS—according to British media again, ISIS spokesperson have said, “Well, Turkey just bombed a couple of empty buildings.” So, the desire is not there. The enthusiasm is not there. I mean, Turkey views Assad as a greater threat. Assad, for all his faults, have never enslaved people, have never sold women in the markets. Daesh has done that. ISIS has done that.

And then, as far as the spokesperson for the State Department, you know, he should also talk about the people who get killed inside Turkey, and he should also condemn—you know, there’s a ceasefire. For two-and-a-half years, guns have gone silent. But close to a dozen, close to, you know, 20 Kurdish activists have been killed in the meantime, and I wish he would also condemn that and say that Turkey should give peace a chance and, you know, resolve this issue. And if it cannot resolve this issue, it cannot resolve the issue inside Syria. It has to—there has to be peace at home. A house has to be united inside before it can venture out and help, you know, next-door neighbor Syria or Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Turkey allowing the U.S. to use Incirlik, the air base, and if you think that ties into what’s going on here in the attack on the Kurds?

KANI XULAM: I think it does. It is significant. Incirlik is only 100 to 200 miles away from Raqqa, the Islamic basis, the so-called Islamic State basis. And President Obama, you know, wants to tackle this issue and address this issue, and he wishes to leave a good legacy and maybe hope that Islamic State will be degraded and destroyed on his watch. The problem is, he has picked the wrong partner. You know, he should have supported the Kurds, who are willing to fight them and have fought them and have a good record fighting them.

And so, you know, he hopes for the good, but I think, at the end of the day, he may—just like a lot of people at the Obama administration thought Iraq was lost to Iran, and the Bush administration did that, and Turkey might be lost, too, because the fault lines that are in Syria, the Sunni-Alevi or Sunni-Shiite fault line, and then the minority issue of Kurds—Arab majority, Kurdish minority—and also in Iraq, the same fault lines are in Turkey. There are 12 million Alevis in Turkey. There are 20 million Kurds in Turkey. And there is a Sunni domination in Turkey, and that has to come to an end. If NATO wants to have a stable partner, it needs to address this issue. It cannot—you know, some of the members, like Germany and U.K., have urged Turkey to be proportionate, if you will, and address this issue in a sanely manner.

But Erdogan, in the last election, lost the majority. He was hoping to get 400 deputies in the Parliament, and he was hoping to become, you know, next to an absolute ruler in the country. And now he’s—with this war, he’s trying to raise jingoistic feelings and then call for early elections in November and hope and pray he will get the 400 votes—deputies. And he might do that. He might be able to do that, too. But I think—I don’t think NATO should help him do that. I don’t think U.S. should help him do that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS: [translated] What is our unforgivable crime? Our only crime is winning 13 percent of the votes and reflecting the people’s wish at the ballot box and for the Parliament. I am saying, in brackets, there is no other wrongdoing they can blame us for. We fought for the development of democracy, removing injustice, and making the principles of quality and freedom our permanent life system. … Mr. President, you panicked because the PKK was going to disarm itself. You stopped it. It seems if PKK members come down from the mountains with their weapons, he will tell them to stop. He has no intention. I am saying very clearly, brothers, citizens, everyone living in Turkey has to know that the president of this country has stopped and prevented the disarmament of the PKK.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. Kani Xulam, can you expound on that?

KANI XULAM: Well, two things. One is he’s been compared to Obama, but I’d like to think that he’s actually better than Obama. At least he says things like “You cannot clean blood with blood.” He is the—Turkey should count its blessings for having Selahattin Demirtas as the leader of the Kurdish party, the most scrupulous person you could have in Turkish politics.

Turkish government—the Turkish president now says, for example, “We should lift the immunity of these deputies”—he’s referring to Kurdish deputies—”and then we should prosecute them for having links to the PKK.” And Selahattin Demirtas said, “Fine, we’ll come to you, and let’s make a deal. Lift the immunity of all the deputies, 550 of them.” And many of the members of the AKP party are accused of siphoning millions of dollars. Some of the cabinet members last December were caught red-handed with millions of dollars stashed in shoeboxes in their homes. And now the government doesn’t want to prosecute them. And because they lost the majority, if a coalition government comes into power, the members of the opposition parties are saying, “We want to investigate that.” And so, Erdogan is panicking, is panicking that the prosecution might come, that he might actually go to jail. And he deserves to go to jail. You know, if a cabinet member is found with millions of dollars stashed in shoeboxes in his home, any president would have said that person should go to jail, that person should be discredited. Erdogan is covering, you know, is basically protecting them.

And that is this—you know, these are the issues that President Obama should address. These are the issues that the NATO secretary general should address, rather than saying that the problem is outside of Turkey. There are problems inside Turkey, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Kani Xulam, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a judge in California has issued a major ruling that could see hundreds of immigrant women and children freed from detention prisons in Texas. We’ll bring you the latest. Stay with us.

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