Early in December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on NATO allies to brand the Kurdish militias who fought against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria as terrorists. The matter concerns the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter is an outlawed political and militant organization, the initial aim of which was to achieve an independent Kurdish state. As a reference, to date, Kurds account for 18% of Turkey’s population and are the largest ethnic minority in Syria.
While fighting Islamic State, Kurdish fighters created an autonomous region in northern Syria, something that raised concern in Turkey. Ankara said it needed to secure its borders and saw Kurdish control of this territory as a threat to its national security. Besides, the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Syria could boost secessionist movements in other Kurdish-dominated areas of the region, including Turkey.
What makes the whole situation complicated is the fact that both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds are key in the fight against terrorism. When it came to combating ISIS, those longtime enemies turned out to be on the same side. On the one hand, Turkey played a key role because it borders both Iraq and Syria. On the other, it was Kurdish militia that contributed heavily to forcing the most deadly terrorist group of our time out of northern Syria. Still, Ankara views the YPG as no less of a threat to its national security than notoriously violent jihadist groups.
“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Erdogan said at a press conference in Ankara last month.
Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), explained what was wrong with those claims.
“In my view, Turkey’s call to NATO allies to brand ‘Kurdish militias’ as terrorists is, first, a Turkish litmus test of loyalty by NATO allies, in effect saying, ‘If you are loyal to Turkey and a true ally you will brand all Kurdish militias as terrorists,’” Townsend told this writer. “That is an impossible test to meet because no ally believes all Kurdish militias are terrorists. When allies cannot agree to brand all Kurdish militias as terrorists, then Turkey feels it can claim that NATO and NATO allies do not have Turkish security interests at heart and NATO does nothing for Turkey.
“Turkey then feels it has a right or an excuse to say or do things seen as anti-NATO, because why not, NATO does not have Turkish security interests at heart. Turkey knows that allies could never say all Kurdish militias are terrorists, so they make this impossible ask to then justify any anti-NATO action. NATO allies have branded the PKK as terrorists, so it is not true that NATO allies have never branded some Kurdish militias as terrorists. They have. But no ally will brand all Kurdish militias as terrorists. The PKK are terrorists, the Kurds fighting against ISIS in northern Syria are not terrorists,” he said.
In October, just days after US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, Turkey launched an offensive code-named Operation Peace Spring, targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by YPG. Simply put, Turkey invaded Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.
Commenting for this article, Jeremiah Rozman, an international-relations PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, said: “SDF is not only Kurdish and operates only in Syria. The US had proposed joint US-Turkish border patrols. And convinced SDF to remove bases on that border. Should have been enough to convince Turkey it was protected. But Turkey’s invasion was about Turkish politics and resettling Sunni Arab refugees in Kurdish areas of Syria, not security.”
On October 17, the US and Turkey agreed to a 120-hour ceasefire to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a “safe zone” near the Syrian-Turkish border. According to a joint US-Turkish statement, both countries “reaffirm their relationship as fellow members of NATO.”
“The US understands Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on Turkey’s southern border,” the document says. Shortly thereafter, Russia and Turkey reached a 10-point deal that brought an end to Turkey’s military operation. Isn’t that sufficient to satisfy Turkey’s concerns?
NATO and counterterrorism cooperation
While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization needs Turkey as an ally in combating terrorism, Turkey equally needs the alliance for the same purpose. As the fight against global terrorism has come to the fore, NATO has increased its efforts against this deadly threat. First of all, the alliance is part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Also, NATO has set up a new Terrorism Intelligence Cell, which should enhance the effectiveness of information-sharing between the member states on terrorist threats.
Why is intelligence-sharing important? It is intelligence that plays a crucial role in foiling terrorist plots and thwarting violent extremist groups. And it is equally valuable in investigating committed attacks. And yet some issues with intelligence-sharing do exist. Dr Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Istanbul-based EDAM think-tank, notes that the problem lies in the fact that different members of the alliance take different approaches. For example, France prefers a case-by-case approach while Turkey is willing to share information as long as the country’s security needs related to the Kurdish issue are met.
According to Kasapoglu, one of the ways to improve intelligence sharing among NATO member states is what he calls the division of labor. This means that member states individually would deal with homegrown terrorism while NATO could concentrate on the problem of foreign fighters.
When it comes to the fight against terrorism, it is essential to separate politics from security threats, false alarms from real dangers. And this is particularly relevant for Turkey, which, unlike European countries that opt for preventive measures in handling terrorism, places its bets on a military approach.