The Turkish invasion of the Syrian-Kurdish region, Rojava, must be considered as a new evolution of the Syrian conflict but, at the same time, a revival of Erdogan’s old project to re-create about a “Great Turkey”. This fact should not surprise us.
Erdogan entered the conflict, in 2015, even supporting Islamist militia, not just to fight and overthrow the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, but also to take control of a large portion of the Middle East.
His aim has always been to set up a modern version of the Ottoman Empire, even if geographically restricted to the areas around Turkey but politically extended to all Sunni communities, with Erdogan in the role of Supreme Muslim political leader. He is very ambitious about this role even if it would lead to a conflict with other regional powers. Saudi Arabia, his ally in the struggle against Syria, is the depositary of the Muslim Holy Places and for this reason considered not only religiously but also politically the most important reference for the Sunni community worldwide.
However, Erdogan’s priorities lie elsewhere.
The Kurds are, in fact, the main obstacle to his personal and ambitious realization because of their claim and even armed struggle for administrative autonomy. For this reason he considers them terrorists.
The Kurds are the fourth ethnic group in the Middle East (after the Arabs, Turks and Persians) and the most populous ethnic group in the world (approximately 50 million) without a State. They live in four Middle Eastern countries, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, where, for decades, they have been fighting for their autonomy from their respective central governments. Those struggles are often fought using legal means – in fact they have obtained political representation, even if with different systems of participation – but their armed opposition employs the same way of fighting in every State. For this reason, they have always been persecuted, sometimes with methods similar to ethnic cleansing.
The Kurds partially obtained administrative autonomy only in Iraq, during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, disputes about the distribution of oil revenues within the Iraqi Kurdish administrative government have always fragmented their ethnic unity and fight for more autonomy. If it existed as an independent State, Kurdistan would be one of the richest countries in that region: it has not only oil (Iraq, 45 billion barrels, and Syria) but also gas (Iraq) and water (Turkey). It would have an economic power that would make it an important player on the regional chessboard. However it is something that is not accepted to all Middle Eastern powers, especially Turkey.
The majority of Turkish Kurds live in the Southeast of the country and a minority in the mountains along the Southern frontier with Iraq and Syria. Those villages are touched by many rivers - the most important are the Tigris and the Euphrates – which are involved in the huge and profitable dam project, Gap, or Southeast Anatolia Project. Because of this, many Kurds have been obliged to move away from their villages and to be relocated elsewhere, mainly in populated and already problematic Turkish urban centres. This fact has weakened the Kurdish economy and impoverished its people.
The Turkish invasion of the Syrian-Kurdish region is only the latest Ankara’s disfigurement against that population. Their most radical representatives (such as, the Kurdish Labour Party, PKK, both political party and armed militia) have thus continued their opposition even militarily, carrying out terrorist attacks against Turkish institutional targets. These violent fringes are only a minority and do not represent the entire Kurdish community, neither Turkish nor Iraqi, which instead are against such bloody behaviour.
However, the evolution of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict saw Kurdish involvement against Assad’s regime and Islamist militia. Meanwhile, an agreement between the Turkish government and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK (currently in jail), led to a truce and a cessation of the clashed in 2012. The truce had been violated many times by both parties until it became a small war inside a much larger one, the Syrian-Iraqi conflict. Like a matrioska, in fact, every war in the Middle East has other conflicts, whose size depends on the alliances, military forces and economic interests involved.
Erdogan’s war against the Syrian Kurds, in respect of the intensity and kind of arms utilized, has recently assumed the characteristics of ethnic cleansing, even if the Syrian Kurds had fought against Assad’s regime as has Turkey and, with the Iraqi Kurds, they were the main protagonists of the long and bloody opposition and even led to the dissolution of IS from those countries.
However, what is now happening to the Syrian Kurds is not exclusively Erdogan’s responsibility.
The long and unsuccessful war on terror, fought by Western powers in the region and in Afghanistan since 2003, has caused a worsening in domestic stability, mainly in Iraq as a resulted of the withdrawal of US troops and their allies. New subversive forces took power, and the failure of the Arab springs even with help from Saudi Arabia and Iran, transformed those riots into civil wars, both in Syria and Iraq. These soon became regional wars, in a contest of and masked as a religious sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
This bloody religious controversy has only been the pretext to put the entire area under their respective controls, as another conflict, in Yemen, with the same prerogatives, has clearly shown. Meanwhile extremist forces, mainly Sunni Islamist militia, such as al-Nusra and Daesh, took power showing great military capabilities, conquering a massive portion of Iraqi and Syrian territories and, at the same time, becoming responsible for atrocities over the region.
The Western powers, such as the United States and the European Union even if involved in many Islamist terrorist attacks, were hesitant to respond militarily when the conflict in Syria and Iraq degenerated and the incitements to violent action in Western societies increased. This fact permitted other world powers, Russia, to take control of the situation, and to react with an effective strategy and defeat the Islamist militia. Even diplomatically, Putin demonstrated the capability to impose temporary solutions, truce or withdrawal of fighting forces etc. We should not be surprised that now Putin is such as a new Tsar in the region.
A late and very limited US intervention, due to the decision of President Obama to leave Middle Eastern allies to react to the threats themselves, has also been a prerogative of the Trump Administration. Although this is not the kind of a responsible behaviour expected from the greatest political and military democratic power in the world, Trump is consistent with his “America first” slogan, and because wars are very expensive, even politically.
The European Union, instead, has always been very fragmented toward Erdogan’s behaviour, at the expense of a common, shared and exhaustive foreign policy. This is due to an economic and Eurocentric approach to its Middle East politics, with Brussels’ illusion of having the power to influence Erdogan with regards to the refugee problem linked with Western domestic security politics.
At last but not least, also NATO has responsibilities with Erdogan’s war against the Kurds. As Turkey is the most armed and strategic country of the Alliance in the Middle East, it is unconceivable, amongst other inconsistent behaviours, that Erdogan bought the most advanced antimissile system from Putin (S-400), in 2017, and that, last summer, Turkish troops were trained in Russia on its use. No comments by NATO. Something is going wrong also within the Alliance.
With these prerogatives, the United States and European Union have lost their credibility and trust among the Middle Eastern allies, even the Kurds, who are now obliged to find new alliances to coexist with the former enemy, the Assad’s regime, and not to be humiliated again by their old enemy, the Turkish “Sultan” Erdogan.