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What Role Is Turkey Playing in the War Against ISIS?

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The U.S. has begun its bombing campaign in Syria, ostensibly against the Islamic State, only a year after a failed effort by President Obama to initiate a bombing campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.


ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The U.S. has begun its bombing campaign in Syria, ostensibly against the Islamic State, only a year after a failed effort by President Obama to initiate a bombing campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fighting between IS and various armed groups has brought about 140,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees across the border into Turkey. A member of NATO, Turkey has been playing a major role for the past couple of years in facilitating aid, armaments, transportation to Syrian rebel groups that had been fighting Assad. Though the Turkish government has said it will not be joining the broad coalition in the war against the Islamic State, being on the border with Syria, it is without question a major player here.

Now joining us to give his take on Turkey’s role in all of this is Baris Karaagac. Baris is a lecture in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises, Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.

Thanks for joining us, Baris.


WORONCZUK: So, Baris, what role does it look like Turkey’s going to play in the fight against ISIS over the next couple of months?

KARAAGAC: It is actually difficult to know. We can only speculate about the future at this point, because the Turkish government stance towards ISIS has been, at best, ambiguous in the past couple of years. So I don’t know.

But there’s a lot of anger on the part of the Turkish population, as well as an important part of the Kurdish population, directed towards the government, because these people had been accusing Turkey of giving significant support, logistical support, or providing them with the military equipment to ISIS in the past couple of years.

WORONCZUK: So is that the relationship that you would say Turkey has with the so-called moderate rebels that Obama says that he’s planning to arm to combat IS?

KARAAGAC: I don’t know what Obama is referring to when he talks about moderate rebels. I don’t see many moderate rebels in Syria right now. ISIS has become the dominant force, political and military force, especially in the Sunni-dominated areas in Syria, as well as in Iraq. I don’t know who he’s referring to by moderate rebels.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And what responsibility does the Turkish state have right now, in your opinion, for the fighting that’s taking place across Syria?

KARAAGAC: Well, we do not have evidence, but there have been so many allegations that the Turkish government has been arming or providing logistical support to the rebels, above all, first, the al-Nusra Front and ISIS and the Islamic State, finally, in the past couple of years. For example, in January, on 2 January, a truck was stopped in the province of Hatay, which neighbors Syria, by the military. And this truck was allegedly sent by the Humanitarian Aid Foundation as humanitarian assistance in Syria. However, military equipment was found. And then the minister of interior said these were going to the Turkmens in Syria. And in Syria there are about one hundred or two hundred thousand Turkmens. We didn’t know the exact numbers. But then the Turkmens said, oh, we know nothing about this. And 17 days later, on January 19, seven trucks were stopped—again, by the military, gendarmerie, in the province of Adana, which is close to Syria. And three of them were searched partially, partially, until it was stopped. And again there was military equipment there, including missiles and mortar shells and cannonballs. Of course, we don’t know to whom this equipment was going to, but we can argue that it was going to the rebels in Syria, but above all the fundamentalist jihadist elements within that opposition group.

In addition to the alleged military support, we have heard many people talking about many wounded rebels—but these are fundamentalist jihadists—being treated in Turkish hospitals. There’s even one newspaper report which said basically that it was an illegal hospital set up in the province of [Gaziantep (?)] in the southeastern part of Turkey. And this hospital was treating wounded rebels from Syria. So the Turkish government, the Turkish state, has been accused of having an open-border policy when it comes to these rebels, but above all the al-Nusra Front and ISIS. When ISIS launched its northern Iraq offensive last summer and took Mosul, a city which has almost 2 million people, it also occupied, invaded the Turkish Consulate there and took 49 people who were in the consulate, working for the Turkish Consulate, as hostages. And 46 of them were Turkish nationalists. And until they were released—and that was last Saturday—after more than three months, when they were taken as hostages, the official discourse by the Turkish government, by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, the then foreign minister and now the prime minister, was that Turkey was unable to take a strong stance against ISIS, because they were holding 46 Turkish nationals as hostages. And last Saturday, they were released by ISIS. And there are now rumors—and one will be people, actually, who participated in this debate as to what Turkey gave in return—is—it’s a columnist writing for an influential newspaper [incompr.] that is close to the government. He said, well, in return of these 49 hostages, Turkey gave ISIS 50 people. And among these 50 people—I mean, these are considered very important people—some people claim that there’s also the family of [incompr.] who was a late ISIS commander who was killed last year. So right now I’m quite curious as to what the discourse will be. And today I was watching the news, and Erdoğan said Turkey will do any kind of support to the coalition against ISIS. But I don’t know what the substance of this support will be. And I’m also not quite sure if they will wholeheartedly do anything against ISIS.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And more than 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have crossed the border into Turkey in recent weeks. And there were also many Kurdish refugee camps that are at the border between Turkey and Syria. What historically has been the relationship between those refugee camps, and how can that help inform us to what our expectations should be, how these refugees will be treated by the Turkish government?

KARAAGAC: Well, when the Syrian conflict started and the first refugees started to flee Syria and arrive in Turkey, the critical threshold was 100,000. So the argument was that we can host 100,000 Syrian refugees. More than that, it would be a huge challenge, a burden for the Turkish state. And today we have more than one and a half million Syrian refugees in Turkey. And, of course, the infrastructure is not sufficient to host that many people. Some of these people stay with their relatives, and some have spread around the country. And this has actually led to a lot of racist attacks towards these people as they struggle to survive and living in other parts of the country, including the west and north western parts of Turkey.
The recent one, it’s a very interesting case, because when ISIS attacked Kobane, which is one of the three cantons that have been set up in January 2014, that attack started on September 15. And last Friday, the first refugees started to arrive in Turkey. And I’ve been following the news quite closely since then. The first day, there were about 400 people on the border, and in a couple of hours this became thousands. And in a couple of days, it reached more than—the number reached more than 100,000. And there are about a hundred and thirty, thirty-three thousand Syrian refugees fleeing from the Kobane assault by ISIS. And about 125,000 of them are staying with their families, because we have to keep in mind that that border is a very artificial one, and it split families when it was drawn almost 100 years ago. So these people have relatives, family on both sides of the border. So most of these refugees are staying with their families right now, and the other are in refugee camps. But, of course, the conditions are not the best there, and definitely Turkey needs international assistance in that regard.

WORONCZUK: And Turkey said it also will refuse to arm the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization—as well, the U.S. and the E.U. also does—though it has been one of the major resistance forces against it, as well as the YPG, which is the main Kurdish force in northern Syria. Do you think this policy will hold?

KARAAGAC: Well, many people have argued one of the most important reasons why Turkey has been reluctant to take a stand, says—against ISIS is that ISIS would have been thought by the—has been thought by the Turkish government as an antidote to a Kurdish political strengthening and consolidation of the Kurdish political and military power in the northern part of Syria. And I agree with this to a great extent, because when you look at the northern part of Syria, it’s mostly populated/inhabited by Kurds, not exclusively. It’s still very heterogeneous region, with Christians, with Turkmens, with Arabs, etc., but Kurds constitute the majority. And in January 2014, they set up three what they refer to as cantons, one in the west, one of the middle, and one in the east of northern Syria. And these declared their autonomy from the Syrian government, from the Syrian state. And again—and these also constitute—these cantons, these polities, they constitute the most significant challenge, a particularly ideological challenge, to groups like ISIS in the region, because when, you know, the leading, you know, political groups, and above all the PYD, which is an affiliate of the PKK, which has been fighting a war for three decades against the Turkish state, they are quite different. They talk about the inclusion of various cultures, ethnic groups, and religious groups in the administration. They talk about a fair redistribution. They talk about the inclusion of women in the government. And then also on the ground we see many Kurdish women fighting against the ISIS. So this is an also very significant ideological challenge. But Turkey—and now, also, I don’t think that it’s coincidental that ISIS decided first to attack Kobane among the three Turkish-Kurdish regions in northern Syria. So the Kobane is located right in the middle of this Kurdish formation. And by attacking and then taking Kobane—and I think Kobane will fall very soon, unfortunately—they would cut off the ties between the eastern and the western parts of Syrian Kurdistan.

WORONCZUK: So, Baris, a really important element here is that Turkey has entered into peace negotiations with the PKK after about 30 years of pretty brutal fighting, and it was only about a year ago that a main Kurdish leader had called for an end to armed resistance against the Turkish government. Give us some context of what role that this plays here. And what is the status of any peace negotiations?

KARAAGAC: Again, this is a very—this is difficult to understand, because since December 2012, we’re supposed to be in a process that has been referred to as a solution process or the peace process. This is a process that has been going on, started by the Turkish then prime minister Erdoğan. It’s a process between the Kurdish-Turkish state and the Kurdish insurgents, the PKK, to find a peaceful solution to this problem and to end the war between these two sides that has been going on for three decades.

But while this process has been going on, at least on paper, it seems that Turkey has given direct or indirect support to these opposition groups, above all ISIS, and before that al-Nusra, that has consistently attacked Kurds in Syria. So this is a dilemma. I mean, this is a contradiction. It seems Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds to get stronger and to be autonomous in northern Syria.

Another important thing is that Kurds are not seeking independence but autonomy in the predominantly Kurdish populated areas in northern Syria. This has led to a lot of anger on the part of Kurds towards the Turkish state. Actually, when the Kurds started to flee from ISIS towards a Turkish border and entered Turkey last weekend, there was a lot of tension, because most of these people, they cross the border over to Turkey to leave the more vulnerable people—the children, kids, other children, and the women, and the elderly—and then they want to go back to Kobane to fight ISIS. But until today or until yesterday, Turkish state closed the border and did not let these people go back to fight.

WORONCZUK: Okay, Baris Karaagac, thank you so much for joining us.

KARAAGAC: Thank you for having me.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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