The US alliance with Russia over an amplified Kurdish political and military presence in the Middle East has alienated longtime NATO ally Turkey and top Turkish officials fear a new map is being "drawn."
ISTANBUL, Turkey — "It's all so obvious," Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkey's national intelligence agency, says in a confident, matter-of-fact tone. He is speaking about the reasons motivating the strong American support for the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, a group considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey.
Much of the Turkish establishment believes there is a Western agenda underway to draw a new map in the Middle East; something akin to the old Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Anglo-French secret treaty signed in 1916 during World War I, which divided the Middle East into British and French zones, paving the way for the geopolitical borders that came to define the Middle East in the wake of the Great War.
Ones and other top Turkish officials, including the co-chairman of the Turkey-EU parliamentary committee and a former military intelligence chief, argue that American support for the YPG is about much more than northern Syria or the fight against Daesh.
"This is not tactical support, it's strategic support," Ones told TRT World, implying that Americans are following a Middle East policy increasingly centred on long-term commitments to the Kurds "in pursuit of a unified Kurdistan."
"They are seeking to help the Kurds gain a real political presence in our region."
Ones worked as the top Turkish intelligence official in Turkey's mostly Kurdish-populated southeastern region from 1989 until 1991, when the PKK was amping up its armed campaign against the Turkish state.
The PKK's armed campaign in Turkey has cost more than 40,000 lives since it began in 1984. The leftist terrorist group was founded by Abdullah Ocalan and his socialist comrades in 1974 in Ankara. Ocalan has been jailed in Turkey since 1999, after a lengthy stay in Syria. Assad had eventually expelled him under Turkish pressure and in the following year, the PKK leader was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya.
Ocalan's PKK used to advocate for the creation of a united independent Kurdistan across all the Middle Eastern countries with sizeable Kurdish populations: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. After Ocalan was captured, he decided to change the political orientation of the PKK, befitting a new ideological posture to his group which he called "democratic confederalism," a new political outlook to its previous political stance for an independent Kurdistan.
Through the concept of democratic confederalism, he also created a new political structure, KCK, reorganising all branches of PKK under its broader umbrella which aims to form autonomous regions within the borders of the existing Middle Eastern nation states.
According to various sources, Ocalan spend most of his time in the prison reading, including writings by the American socialist Murray Bookchin's communalism, which he acknowledges have been a particular inspiration for him to develop the idea of "democratic confederalism."
"He [Ocalan] said that he considers himself a social ecologist, a good student of Bookchin, and had the intention to create the first polity based on his ideas," said Janet Biehl, Bookchin's biographer and long-time partner, during a panel on democratic confederalism last year.
Six years after the declaration of "democratic confederalism" and the creation of the KCK by Ocalan in 2005 from Turkish prison, the rapid emergence of autonomous "cantons" by the PYD in northern Syria raised many eyebrows in Turkey. This happened as the Syrian conflict reached a critical turning point — the sudden withdrawal of the Assad regime, the former ally of Ocalan and PKK.
When asked by a Turkish journalist about what was behind the US' intention in supporting the SDF in northern Syria, US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force which oversees the operations of the US-led anti-Daesh international coalition in Syria and Iraq, downplayed the journalist's concerns.
"I'm seeing what is probably a pretty broad coalition of people and the Kurds may be providing the leadership, because they have – they have a capable leader who's stepped up to this challenge," Townsend said, "And they are providing some of the organisational skill, but I see a large contingent about 23,000 to 25,000 so far and growing, Arabs, who are marching to liberate their part of northern Syria."
Yet Townsend's description of northern Syrian territories under SDF control is remarkably similar to Ocalan's model of democratic confederalism.
"I don't see a Kurdish state. I see a multi-cultural, multi-party, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Syrian region being liberated from ISIS. Over."
As the PKK's Syrian wing, the PYD functions under the control of Ocalan's KCK structure. The group refers to the whole region where the cantons are collectively as "Rojava," meaning "Western Kurdistan." In 2014, when the Americans openly began supporting the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, the PYD leadership declared publicly that their goal in northern Syria was achieving democratic confederalism, as defined by Ocalan's KCK structure.
"In Syria, US is in a more accepting mood that the country has been broken down in various cantons. There are areas controlled by the YPG, and the regime has its own territories," said Kyle Orton, a British Middle East analyst who is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.
"I imagine, though, that some support for some form of autonomy will be a part of [a Syrian] settlement at this point," Orton also told TRT World.
The Russian-American axis
The debate over Kurdish autonomy has been accompanied by American political manoeuvring in northern Syria, where the US army is clearly seeking to gain the upper hand, in order to counteract Russian political and military interests.
As firm allies of the Assad regime, the Russians have, for decades, had a strong presence on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean and in northeast Syria — in the territory to the east of the ancient Euphrates river, long the unofficial borderline of imperial ambitions between West and East in the Middle East. Since 2014, the land to the west of the Euphrates has fallen in the sphere of US influence.
The Russians and the Americans may disagree on many fundamental issues concerning Syrian politics and the Assad regime, but when it comes to the YPG and Kurdish autonomy, they seem to be on the same page. This new political alignment on the Kurdish issue is viewed by some in Turkey as being eerily similar to the old Anglo-French agreement that led to Sykes-Picot, which created an "Arab state or confederation of Arab states," in the Middle East in order to undermine Ottoman power.
The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor state of Turkey, had ruled the region for over 400 years in a relatively peaceful manner. Following the Franco-British invasion of the region after WWI, the Middle East rapidly became a political and economic mess. Political instability, which has been amplified repeatedly by more western intervention, has become the norm in the region.
This historical testimony led David Fromkin, an influential American political scientist and historian, to describe the status quo established by the Western Allies as "A Peace to End All Peace," which was also the title of his renowned book, a New York Times bestseller.
Now, the current Russian-American axis seems to follow the same political path with Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria and other policies in the rest of the region as the political settlement of Sykes-Picot. Like the Franco-British "Arab project," a Kurdish state stretching from Turkey to Iran, including northern Syrian and Iraqi territories, could presumably bring even more instability, infighting and eventually war to the already ravaged region.
But this time, the project appears to be more ambitious and far-reaching than the project that was undertaken post-WWI. Sykes-Picot — originally drafted as the Asia Minor Agreement and included most of the current Turkish territory — divided the Ottoman Empire, leading to the creation of separate Turkish and Arab nation-states, and, eventually, Israel.
If the current Russian-American understanding in the Middle East wants to create a Kurdistan, it will not just divide a single political entity like it did before. In the long term, the fear is that a Kurdistan project, if successful, could aim to further divide the region by stressing ethnic and religious lines.
It is clear a Kurdistan design carries extensive risks for the well-being of the people of the Middle East. Without any doubt, most of those states on the brink of division will fight to keep their integrity intact. At the same time, Western powers are encouraging the long marginalised Kurds to increasingly question the authority of the states in which they currently live and wonder why, with a population numbering more than 30 million, they should not have an independent state of their own.
If there could be no sustainable settlement between the Kurds and the other states in which they have been living, the Middle East could be in a state of a constant chaos which could easily be deepened and exploited by super powers waging proxy wars.
Earlier this year, both the US and Russian Special Forces sought to pointedly demonstrate that they were supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG, in the strategically important town of Manbij, a designated target of Turkey's Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria. The Turkish cross-border operation has been targeting Daesh presence along its Syrian border since last August and aiming to prevent the YPG from joining its Kobane canton with its northwestern Syrian canton of Afrin.
If the YPG is able to join the cantons in northern Syria, it will control most of the Turkish border in a region where the Kurdish population is significant on both sides of the frontier. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated that the country will not tolerate a Kurdish state on the other side of its Syrian border. Last weekend, he signalled that Ankara could make "new moves" across the border to reinforce its military and political position against both the YPG and Daesh.
Making things more complicated in northern Syria, where various religiously, sectarian or ethnically-motivated state or non-state forces fight each other during the brutal civil war, the YPG has been fighting under the umbrella organisation of the SDF. The SDF seems to be a solely American invention that has paradoxically also been blessed by the Russians, the Americans' main rival in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.
The SDF was announced in October 2015, a period during which tensions between the US and Turkey had come to a head over the Americans' support of the YPG. The Americans were, essentially, rebranding the YPG.
In the candid words of a top Pentagon officials in late July:
"We literally played back to them [YPG]: 'You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?' With about a day's notice they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces," said US Army General Raymond Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command, according to Reuters.
"I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility," he argued.
But though name change could be a clever political move on the side of Americans, it is obviously not intended to fundamentally change the nature of the organisation. Most of the SDF operations in northern Syria have been coordinated by the YPG, most commentators agree.
"A great number of PKK fighters are with the YPG. This means it constitutes a danger to Turkey. PKK is a transnational organisation and its ambitions are explicit in Syria," Orton observed.
"It will use Syria as a base to fight against Turkey which knows that. Enabling the PKK to hold on to Turkey's border has been seen as a national security threat in Ankara, no matter who is in government in Turkey."
The ultimate question, for Turkey, is why the US would make such an obvious attempt to try to fool a close ally.
"We know exactly who is who. Both [groups] are the same ... What really matters is not changing the nameplate, but what is inside," Erdogan said in late July.
"Friends do not deceive each other," he warned.
What is next?
On top of this, the name games coincide with a more assertive Kurdish presence in northern Iraq, where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has ruled the region without any Iraqi government troops in a defacto autonomous fashion since the Second Gulf War in 2003. The emergence of northern Iraq as a politically autonomous region goes back to the 1990s, when the Americans, British and French created a no-fly zone to the north of the 36th parallel after the First Gulf War. Under Iraq's 2005 constitution — written under US occupation and which provoked widespread opposition from Sunni Iraqis — federalism was introduced and the region was formally defined as "Iraqi Kurdistan."
Furthermore, Mesut Barzani, the KRG president and the most prominent Kurdish leader in northern Iraq, just announced that his region will go for a critical vote on Kurdish independence in late September.
Turkey, which has mostly backed Barzani against the Shia-dominated and Iran-supported Baghdad government, declared its opposition to the independence vote. Iran has also strongly opposed Barzani's announcement. Iraq's central government has already described the KRG's initiative as being unconstitutional.
"The map of the Middle East is being redrawn," said Ones, the former top Turkish intelligence official, invoking then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's infamous remarks concerning the "New Middle East" made in the Israel's capital in mid-2006.
"During the 1990s with the First Gulf War, US policies concerning the region [northern Iraq and other Kurdish-inhabited areas] were clearly revealed. This plan [for the New Middle East] has effectively been pursued by the Americans since they waged their respective wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Ones said.
"In addition to all developments in the region, [the US and Russia] have opened the road to the Kurds in northern Syria as they have previously done in northern Iraq," Ones said.
"The path has been opened for the Kurds [in the Middle East]. The issue of an independent Kurdistan has become apparent."