How has the war in Ukraine affected Türkiye’s regional security and how does Ankara perceive its problems with the Kurds? Dr Can Kasapoglu, the Director of Security and Defense Studies Program at Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) explains Türkiye’s view to Hille Hanso, an Istanbul-based independent researcher and analyst.
Let us begin by introducing the political atmosphere in Türkiye and the role nationalism plays in it today.
Türkiye is the only NATO nation bordering the Middle East. Along those borders, there are multiple pressing security threats such as the Syrian Civil War and instability in Iraq, along with the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and PKK/YPG terrorism, as well as Iran’s strategic weapons proliferation efforts and the Revolutionary Guards’ subversive activities in the Middle East to name just a few. Due to its geopolitical outlook, Türkiye is also directly involved in and affected by the security environment in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish foreign policy interests and concerns extend to the Caucasus and the Balkans, the two regions that are known to be very fragile. Ergo, Türkiye has quite a unique political atmosphere and agenda that is shaped by grave security risks, including potential, sporadic attacks by terrorist organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
It may be hard to explain this geopolitical calculus to foreign observers since Türkiye is neither Switzerland, nor Belgium, nor Luxemburg. Let me put it this way: in the 1990s, the nation shared the border with post-revolutionary Iran, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Interestingly, Türkiye is the second nation after South Korea that lives with the North Korean weapons deployed next to its frontiers. These actors that are widely recognised as the enemies of the free are all lined up at Türkiye’s frontiers. Back in the Cold War times, Türkiye was one of NATO’s most critical allies containing the Soviet threat. Still, its defence transactions with Ukraine are noteworthy.
I hope it explains why national security is a central issue in Turkish domestic politics. I think it is only natural; after the invasion of Ukraine, this should the reasonable attitude to adopt by any NATO nation.
The Kurdish question has a huge impact on both foreign and domestic policies in Türkiye. For instance, a rather strong Kurdish presence in Syria and their allegiance to the U.S. has, to an extent, severed Türkiye-U.S. relations. Yet Kurds are by far a unified nation. Different factions in Iraq and Iran all have different imprints on Turkish foreign policy. Could you elaborate on who are the major Kurdish players in these countries and what their aims are?
First, let us not confuse the PKK with the ‘Kurds,’ as the two notions tend to be used interchangeably in the West. “Terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, is the most direct asymmetric threat to the security of our citizens and to international peace and prosperity,” NATO’s Strategic Concept reads.[i] Alongside Russia, terrorism is one of the two direct threats to the Alliance, as it has been officially declared.
The PKK terrorist network has been Türkiye’s top national security priority for decades. It was designated as a ‘narcoterrorist organization’ that flourished under the Hafez al-Assad-led Baath regime of Syria, a satellite of the Soviet Union at the time. The group has conducted numerous attacks targeting both the civilian population and the Turkish security forces. Incidentally, many of their victims were of Kurdish origin. The YPG (People’s Defence Units in Syria) made it to the western headlines due to their clashes with the IS. Yet, this is a very myopic understanding. In the past, the Lebanese Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafi groups also clashed with the IS. Clashing the IS does not redeem a terrorist network.
When it comes to the regional administration in northern Iraq, we see that Türkiye has developed a good functional relationship with the government in Erbil, which includes security cooperation against the PKK. Again, the PKK — and YPG/PYD (Democratic Union Party), its organic offshoot — do not represent the entire Kurdish populace of Syria. Türkiye has good relations with many groups there.
What role do they play inside Türkiye? What are their long-term goals?
The PKK terrorist network’s long-term geopolitical goal is to form a terrorist statelet from the breakaway parts of Iran, Syria, Iraq, and even Türkiye itself. In essence, their top priority is to disrupt Türkiye’s territorial unity. In other words, this terrorist organization has been threatening a NATO member state’s territorial integrity.
The PKK hatches its terrorist plots in several ways. First, it targets the Turkish civilians in population centres, as manifested by the recent attack in Istanbul. Second, it aims to establish ‘liberated terror zones’ at Türkiye’s immediate borders. And third, it magnets dangerous weapon systems — MANPADS and anti-tank guided missiles — to the Turkish frontiers. I strongly recommend reading EDAM’s report titled “In the Shadow of Guns” to grasp the reality.
What should the world know about the PKK today? How strong is it? What are their intentions? Who is supporting them, and what is the source of their income? The Turkish media constantly reports about the PKK cells and leaders being ‘neutralized.’ Yet why are they still active?
We know that their money comes through various channels from illegal activity in Europe and the Middle East, which includes narco- and human trafficking, as well as weapons smuggling. Back in the 1990s, they used to supply most of their weapons from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, after the Iraqi Armed Forces has lost control over their arsenal. During the Syrian Civil War, the terrorist network acquired weapons from the Syrian Arab Army’s arsenal, too.
It is important to remember, that a significant portion of the PKK’s weapons came from Türkiye’s western allies who had armed some groups (that also had organic links with the PKK) as part of the anti-IS crusade. It was not only Ankara who claimed this was, indeed, the case. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter openly acknowledged this at a Senate hearing. Arming the PKK offshoots was one of the biggest blunders of the Obama era.
The world needs to see that in the long term, arming the PKK’s offshoots will harm not only Türkiye but the West as a whole. Let us not forget that the PKK and its affiliates are also famed for their arms smuggling activity.
So, why is the PKK still around? Please bear in mind that terrorist organizations rely on an established ecosystem. This is why al-Qaeda and the IS are also still active. Türkiye did well in combating the PKK, but the root of the problem is beyond its national borders — in Iraq and Syria…
Türkiye has been conducting a wide-scale military operation against PKK/YPG targets in Syria and Iraq, as a reaction to the heinous Istanbul Isliklal bomb attack. Top Turkish politicians have pointed a finger at the U.S. for being allegedly and implicitly accountable for this attack. But when it comes to big powers, there is also Russia who definitely benefits from any strife and discord within NATO. What is your take on these developments?
Following the Istiklal bombing, the Turkish officials’ rhetoric pointing out the U.S. was mostly a geopolitical reaction against the political remnants of the Obama era. Let me remind you that Türkiye was not the only previously staunch ally of the U.S. that the Obama-Biden White House alienated. The Gulf states and Israel had their share of grievances as well.
When it comes to Russia, however, the situation is very problematic. Whereas the PKK was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU, Russia still refrained from doing so. Meanwhile, Russia’s satellite Syrian Ba’ath regime has organic ties with the PKK terrorist network. The ringleader behind the terrorist plot — currently imprisoned criminal Abdullah Öcalan — was harboured by the Hafez al-Assad regime for decades.
Estonia is rather sceptical about why there has been no political and peaceful solution to the decades-old conflict with the PKK. The latest 2015 attempt failed. Moreover, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP, the third largest party in the Grand National Assembly Türkiye) has been deemed ‘terrorist’ and constantly ripped off their political power in the regions where it continues to win elections. It makes one wonder what hinders the peace process and why there is always a military response to any tension.
From a Turkish standpoint, we have two responses. First, we would very much like to ask our western allies, who preach a peace settlement with the PKK, whether they advocate for the same thing — in principle — when it comes to Al-Qaeda and the IS. Let me explicate it in clearer terms to the Eastern Flank of NATO: Would you be willing to find a ‘peaceful solution’ to the situation in Ukraine by sitting and talking with the butchers of the Bucha massacre? Or would you advise Ukraine to negotiate its territorial integrity with Russia?
Türkiye’s Constitution is univocal. It stands for the improvement of democratic rights for all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. The military’s structural duty — in Türkiye and anywhere—is to safeguard the nation against all armed threats. The PKK is known to possess and operate high-end anti-tank weapons, land mines, high-tech man-portable air defence systems, special forces-level sniper weapons, etc. What means other than the military ones can neutralise such a terrorist threat?
As for domestic politics, I will refrain from commenting on any party specifically. I am not a political scientist but a defence expert. However, I can tell you one thing: a western democracy shall not tolerate a political party with organic ties to a terrorist organization. This pertains to any nation in the world.
Why has Türkiye’s mighty army been fighting the Kurdish insurgents since the 1980s, yet neither side can claim victory so far?
Depicting the situation as a stalemate is analytically flawed. The founder and the ringleader of the terrorist organization is in jail in Türkiye, and the PKK’s ability to conduct large scale-terror attacks in the Turkish homeland has been diminished to a marginal level.
Today, Türkiye is mostly fighting the PKK terrorism outside of its borders. So, Türkiye and the Turkish military have won the war on terrorism on the home front. However, the main problem today is emanating from the Middle East, and the instability in Iraq and Syria in particular.
And again, let me correct the wording of this question. The militants whom the Turkish Army has been fighting are members of a terrorist organization, designated as such by the U.S. and EU. The bombing attack in Istanbul that killed a 3-year-old baby girl was not an ‘insurgency’ by any standards.
It has been suggested that Türkiye’s democracy is tightly connected to the rights of its Kurdish minority and that Türkiye will never be fully democratic unless those rights have been guaranteed. What do you make of this?
The Republic of Türkiye is built on very similar understandings of both democracy and nationalism that the French Republic shares; they stem from the French Revolution. Therefore, analysing the foundations of Türkiye’s statehood via the framework of ‘Lebanonisation’ would be constitutionally flawed. Türkiye does not use an ethnic lens when defining citizenship rights: the democratic rights outlined in the constitution apply to all citizens. And what the West fails to understand here is that, just like France, Türkiye is a nation-state republic and not an ethnic federation. Türkiye is a nation-state, and so it will stay.
What is the end game for Türkiye when it comes to Kurds? Has there been an evolution of sorts that the outside world has failed to see? Or is it a vicious circle that will eventually come back to the military means?
Firstly, I must say that I am surprised that the Baltic media downgrades the value of military means. It is the military means that are defending Ukraine from the Russian invasion right now. And it is the military means that will protect the Baltic region against Putin’s aggression should it come to that. Secondly, military means are, in fact, quite relevant and effective when it comes to contemporary geopolitical affairs.
As to the end game for Türkiye, it is to safeguard our nation’s territorial integrity and constitutional order. For us, this fight is no different than that against the IS or al-Qaeda. To avoid a chronic security and terrorism problem, we must seek the solution not only in Türkiye; we should do our best to avoid a ‘failed state’ scenario in Iraq and Syria where terrorist organizations of all kinds can easily flourish.
At home, Türkiye can — and should —always pursue a more proactive democratic agenda to improve the well-being of all of its people. Yet, everything should stay within the constitutional framework and thus apply to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.
The Turkish newspaper Hürriyet revealed that the Turkish government was considering dialogue with the Syrian government in Damascus on three main issues. The latter include preserving a unified structure of the Syrian state, maintaining its territorial integrity, and ensuring the security and safety of refugees returning to their homeland. Is the second item here related to fears associated with Kurdish autonomy? And should we expect an Erdogan-Assad handshake?
A handshake by state leaders still remains to be seen and is dependent on various factors. Yet, before anything happens, we have many boxes to check. In principle, Türkiye has adopted a stance that supports the territorial integrity of its neighbours in the immediate region and the broader surrounding. This is not exclusive to Ankara’s stance on Syria. Türkiye, for example, openly and unequivocally advocates for Iraq’s territorial integrity. Today, Ankara holds the same opinion regarding Afghanistan and Ukraine. Even when Türkiye purchased the S-400 systems from Russia, it did not change its position regarding Crimea and continued to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In Iraq, however, Türkiye’s relationship with Kurdistan Region (KRI) — and more precisely with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — is actually quite good. The Kurdish autonomy there was also born out of the war conditions and the no-fly zone. Now, Türkiye and the Peshmerga forces even cooperate, to some extent, against the PKK. Why could not the same happen in Syria?
This a great example that helps us to grasp the situation much better. Türkiye is one of the most important actors who contribute to the economy of the regional administration in northern Iraq. Türkiye and the local administration were able to develop beneficial security cooperation against the PKK because Kurds in the region also suffered from this terrorist organization.
Türkiye’s regional security policy is not anti-Kurdish — it is anti-PKK. In Syria, the main aim is to prevent a PKK-led terrorist statelet as much as an IS-led Salafi terrorist statelet.
International tensions are obviously high at the moment because of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In this atmosphere, when President Erdoğan started bargaining over NATO enlargement and brought the issue of Kurds in Finland and Sweden to the table, many were stunned by the disproportionality of the two matters. In your opinion, how does it affect Türkiye’s credibility as an ally in the West?
Within NATO, there are only two militaries that outsize the Western Military District of the Russian Federation: the U.S. Armed Forces and the Turkish Armed Forces. At a time when NATO is returning to its Cold War foundations, the good old question of how many divisions a nation can field regains importance. And at this point, we should revisit one simple fact: NATO is not the EU. NATO is primarily a military alliance in its DNA. And, in order to have a military alliance, one should first have a real military. Türkiye is one of the few allies that actually has it. This is the very simple essence of Türkiye’s credibility.
It is the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2s that are protecting the Ukrainian skies as we speak. Türkiye and Ukraine also have a joint production deal to co-produce the Akinci (Raider), a UCAV much more advanced than the Bayraktar TB-2 that already turned the tables in the ongoing Russian invasion. Overall, Türkiye’s contribution to NATO is not tied to Swedish or Finnish foreign policy goals. Its contribution is also long-standing. During the Cold War, Türkiye protected the free world against over 20 Soviet Red Army divisions.
Lastly, I would like to separate Sweden and Finland in this context. I believe that the Finnish case would be easy to solve. Sweden, however, will have to make a decision between NATO membership and the PKK/YPG. Here, the stakes are high not only for Türkiye but for the entire Alliance.
Is Türkiye willing to cooperate and compromise so that Grand National Assembly will finally ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO?
As part of the membership process, the three states (Sweden, Türkiye, and Finland) signed a joint memorandum, with Sweden and Finland making certain commitments. Just like in most other NATO nations, the process in Türkiye has to go through the Parliament and not the government. If those commitments are met, I see no reason why Ankara would object to their NATO accession. Hence, it’s not an issue of cooperation but rather a question of delivering on the commitments outlined in the joint memorandum.
Can we see that ratification happen before the next general elections? Again, it is primarily up to Sweden, and to a lesser extent to Finland, if they can fulfil the conditions of the memorandum before the Turkish elections take place.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).