In both the Turkish and American capitals, the policy decision to intervene in Syria has been delayed pending further review of logistical and military contingencies. The fact that there is no appetite on the part of the Syrian opposition for direct outside intervention, with the exception of limited protection in terms of no-fly zones or buffer areas to shelter civilians, has also contributed to this delay.
Unless we see a dramatic number of casualties, possibly in the thousands for a single onslaught by regime forces in Syria — very much like the Hama massacre of 1982 that claimed the lives of 30,000 people, or the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 that killed over 8,000 men of all ages — the US administration will not feel compelled to act directly. While senior advisors in the Pentagon, State Department and the White House are jockeying for primacy of their different policies on Syria, attempting to sway Barack Obama to their positions, the incumbent president in an election year is convinced that he can manage the Syrian conflict with a combination of humanitarian aid efforts to lessen the agony of civilians and military assistance to the opposition, to shift the balance on the ground against regime forces. Obama has not yet come to the understanding that the Syrian conflict has taken a big chunk from his foreign policy credentials at home and abroad.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Turkey is leery of the fact that if it pushes Syria too far, it may be left with the huge cost of stabilizing Syria after the fall of beleaguered leader Bashar al-Assad. Ankara is of the opinion that it needs a coalition of willing and like-minded countries to help shore up the stability and security of its southern neighbor after the revolution, as well as some sort of legitimacy from regional and international organizations for its involvement in the domestic affairs of another country. In the meantime, it keeps its doors wide open to fleeing refugees and allows the Syrian opposition to arm itself with the support of Gulf countries using Turkey as a conduit.
The goal is to ensure the survival of the opposition under intense regime attacks, so that Assad’s minority regime will collapse through its heavy-handed approach, with the contribution of further defections. The Turkish prime minister’s remark that “sons of Syria will respond to Assad’s onslaught in Aleppo” should be evaluated in this context. The downside of this policy, however, as the killing continues, is that the hatred and desire for revenge will seep further into the minds of various Syrian groups, setting the stage for a protracted civil war.
In the meantime, Turkey has awoken to the bitter reality that it must act decisively in a short period of time to cope with the recent surge in violent terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a secessionist campaign against Turkey for almost three decades. As the PKK tries to exploit the power vacuum left in both Syria and Iraq, apparently backed by both the beleaguered Assad regime in Damascus and militant mullah regime in Tehran, the Turkish government is under pressure to urgently respond to PKK terror. To this end, it ought to take the fight to the PKK on its own terms rather than playing defense on Turkish soil. That means conducting a cross-border operation on land to supplement the air strikes that have already been under way for some time.
Over dinner last week with senior editors of print media in Ankara, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç signaled that Turkey is pondering an operation in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where the PKK headquarters are located. The government has already obtained authorization from Parliament to launch a cross-border operation in northern Iraq. But Ankara is keenly aware that it needs to coordinate this action with the US, not only for political cover against an international reaction to a military incursion into Iraqi territory, but also to secure logistical support, in particular intelligence, from the Americans.
As Turkey and the US have been closely cooperating on Syria, setting up operational teams to develop contingencies in line with NATO’s “prudent planning” strategy, it is not inconceivable that the US is planning an operation with regard to Kandil as well. Washington understands that with one leg dragging, in terms of PKK terror, its ally Turkey may not be a perfect partner for the US in shaping the future of the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular. Therefore, for the US, from a strategic perspective, it may be high time to neutralize PKK terror in order to give Turkey a freer hand to become involved in regional events and assume greater responsibilities, which the US would very much like to shift to regional powers.
The harsh remarks of US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone regarding Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Massoud Barzani, whom he has known personally for years, may be a warning shot across the bow for the KRG head. The US envoy’s expressions of disapproval and dissatisfaction with Barzani may be a strong signal that the US, which has been unwilling to back a Turkish mopping-up operation in Kandil until now, may very well have reversed its position.
With the US on board, the Turkish military will feel much more comfortable launching an operation in Kandil. Back in June, Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel cited US involvement as a prerequisite for any such move, stating that the Americans must be convinced of the necessity of such a move.
We know that the US favors a politically negotiated settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, while supporting Turkey’s fight against PKK terror. Washington realizes that the PKK criminal enterprise — which has lucrative lines in racketeering, human trafficking and drug smuggling — has no interest in settling the issue with the Turkish government on a political level. The fact is that PKK leadership in the Kandil Mountains have done everything to derail secret talks with the government, while discrediting the PKK’s political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), at every opportunity. It has become obvious that the PKK favors violence over politics and that its leaders have a vested interest in keeping arms as leverage to maintain their lucrative criminal enterprise.
Ricciardone’s reaction to the abduction of an opposition deputy by the PKK in the province of Tunceli last Sunday, which he described as a “stupid move,” should be interpreted as a further sign of increasing alignment of the Turkish and US positions on how to deal with the Kurdish problem. As Turkey disengages from Iran, both politically and economically, we may see increased cooperation between the US and Turkey with regard to PKK terror as well.
Just a few years ago, Turkish and American military/intelligence officers were working on a secret plan to take out the hard-core militants of the PKK leadership, so that a negotiated settlement would have a chance of success. But the Americans dropped out of the plan in 2010 when Turkey, then a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, sided with Washington’s arch-enemy Iran and voted against the US-backed resolution authorizing further sanctions against Tehran for its non-compliance on nuclear inspections. But Turkey’s decision to host a NATO missile radar defense system, against the wishes of Iran and Russia, on its soil has repaired the rupture, and the same plan can now be put back into operation.
The Kandil operation will also be a strong warning to Iran on its growing support of PKK terror over the last seven months. It is estimated that in Kandil, an area of 1,000 square kilometers stretching from the common border with Syria to the border with Iran, some 5,000 armed militants live. Intelligence reports indicate that some of these militants have moved to a camp in Iran just beyond the Turkish border, from where they are launching attacks against targets in Turkey, apparently with Tehran’s support.
The challenge for Turkey, however, is to conduct this sweeping operation without alienating the local population, living in scattered villages in Kandil, as well as other Kurds who have nothing to do with the violence. As the PKK has tried to blend in with the locals in the recent Şemdinli and Çukurca attacks, and as the group has changed its tactics from hit-and-run to holding the line and continuing to fight, causing increased civilian causalities, Turkey should be extra vigilant in identifying targets to avoid collateral damage.
Turkish troops have successfully foiled the new tactics of the PKK in the Southeast by conducting slow, large-scale operations and acting on intelligence rather than relying on targeted operations. On a positive note, most valuable intelligence has been provided by Kurds themselves, as they are fed up with the PKK terror.
Today, winning the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people living in all four neighboring countries is the most important objective for Turkey. As most Kurds are frustrated with the decades-long PKK terror wreaking havoc on their daily lives, they will largely welcome Turkish troops taking out hard-core militants so that peace and stability can finally come to Kurdish areas.