Obama Is Letting Turkey Target The U.S.'s Best Bet Against ISIS

Attacked by their government for months, Kurds in Turkey are desperate for U.S. support.
Residents of Diyarbakir in Turkey's Kurd-dominated southeast run for cover from tear gas fired by security forces on Jan. 27.
Residents of Diyarbakir in Turkey's Kurd-dominated southeast run for cover from tear gas fired by security forces on Jan. 27. Amnesty International calls Turkey's treatment of civilians in the region "collective punishment."

WASHINGTON -- Turkey's brutal treatment of its Kurdish population could plunge the country into a full-on civil war and make the Middle East even more chaotic, a Turkish parliamentarian warned Wednesday during a visit to Washington to plead for more American attention to the problem.

Osman Baydemir, a Kurdish member of Turkey's leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic party, or HDP, said he is part of an HDP delegation speaking with officials at the State Department, staffers in Congress and civil society activists to ask for more American pressure on the Turkish government to end the violence.

"It's the worst situation I've ever seen," the 45-year-old politician said through a translator at a press event at the Washington Kurdish Institute. "Turkey is becoming a version of Syria."

It's unclear how the U.S. can stop that from happening as each day brings more bad news for two of its partners: an ethnic group on the front lines against the so-called Islamic State, and a country that has long been an essential American ally in the Muslim world.

(The State Department did not immediately respond to a Huffington Post request for more information on the meeting, but spokesman Mark Toner did not deny that it occurred when asked about it in Wednesday's press briefing.)

Human rights advocates say hundreds of civilians have been killed since the decades-long conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish insurgency reignited in July of last year. The United Nations this month asked Turkey to investigate a claim that security forces wounded 10 unarmed civilians in a January incident.

"This is not a war between the government and the PKK," Baydemir said, referring to the chief Kurdish militant group, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its allies in the West. "The current war is a war that has been declared on civilians by the state."

A Turkish soldier in a ruined neighborhood of Diyarbakir, one of the most important cities for the Middle East's Kurds, on Ja
A Turkish soldier in a ruined neighborhood of Diyarbakir, one of the most important cities for the Middle East's Kurds, on January 21, 2016. Much of Turkey's Kurd-dominated southeast is now in tatters.

Turkey's government said this week that its operations had killed 749 militants in the Kurd-dominated towns of Diyarbakir and Cizre since December. Kurdish resistance fighters have killed more than 200 Turkish soldiers and policemen since July.

The fighting began in July after an Islamic State-linked attack killed 30 youth activists planning to travel to help the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria. The incident sparked anger among Kurds in Turkey, who make up 18-20 percent of the population. Some Kurds in both Turkey and Syria had long argued that the Turkish government was allowing the Islamic State and other armed extremists license to travel across the Turkey-Syria border to weaken Syria's government. Kurdish militants responded with an attack on Turkish policemen, and Turkey promptly began bombing PKK bases in Iraq and imposing restrictions on civil liberties in the southeast.

The growing power of the the Kurds in Syria -- most of whom are loyal to a PKK-tied political organization called the PYD -- is one reason the current conflict between Turkey and Kurdish dissidents is more volatile than it's ever been.

Turkey sees their success at holding and capturing territory in Syria (recently with support from the U.S.) as a threat because it might inspire calls for more autonomy among Turkey's Kurds, many of whom have joined the PYD-aligned militia. That has left Turkey, the U.S. and the Kurds on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border in a delicate dance -- as U.S. planes fly to help the Kurds battle ISIS from a base in Turkey, Turkish planes are bombing allied Kurds in Iraq's Kurd-controlled northeast.

Kurds in Turkey believe that despite the complications in its strategy, the Obama administration is the best possible advocate they can have, Baydemir argued.

"It's the country that has the most potential to get results," he said. The Kurds believe Europe is unwilling to anger Turkey for fear it will renege on promises to keep more Syrian refugees from crossing into the continent.

It's possible for Washington to change Ankara's thinking, Baydemir argued, pointing to its success in winning Turkish approval for the creation of a quasi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

Though that region has since become a Kurdish power player that enjoys good relations with Turkey, Baydemir said it's unable to play a decisive role beyond encouraging diplomacy and showing Turks they can work with Kurds who have gained greater independence.

He added that Syria's Kurds, effective as they are on the ground, are unlikely to go into Turkey because that would feed into Turkish president Recep Teyyep Erdogan claims that Turkey's Kurds are foreign-backed and overtly militant.

A wrinkle Baydemir didn't mention: Now that the Syrian Kurds have received U.S. arms and air support, it would be incredibly controversial for them to actively move against a NATO ally of the United States. 

The politician claimed the Kurds are not asking for radical steps. Those in Turkey simply want relative autonomy, Baydemir said, while those in Syria share Erdogan's goal of removing the regime of President Bashar Assad and simply disagree on how that should happen.

"The Syrian regime has no redeeming qualities," Baydemir added. "If the regime destroys all opposition forces, it will certainly turn its guns on the Kurds next. We know this."

Yet it's unclear whether talk about Kurdish reasonableness, by the Kurds themselves or the U.S., will have any impact on Erdogan.

Max Hoffman, a Turkey analyst at the Center for American Progress, told The Huffington Post that Washington believes it can do little more than privately recommend restraint to the Turks.

"The Kurds want the US to make a public stand or even use coercive pressure on other fronts to force the Turks to ease the campaign, but the US calculates that either of those steps will cause Erdogan to further demonize the US with divisive, populist rhetoric," Hoffman said in an email. He noted that many hardline Turks, long used to talk of Kurdish terrorism because of the 30-year insurgency, approve of harsh measures in the southeast.

Mourners at a funeral for civilians killed in a Kurd-linked bomb attack targeting a police station in Diyarbakir.
Mourners at a funeral for civilians killed in a Kurd-linked bomb attack targeting a police station in Diyarbakir.

Erdogan's government this week berated the U.S. ambassador to Turkey over a State Department comment identifying the Syrian Kurds' militia, the YPG, as distinct from the PKK. It's a sign of how bitter the environment has become that it would do so now -- the U.S. has spoken of a line between the two groups for over a year, since it first began supporting the YPG's stand against ISIS in Kobani. (Kurds themselves say the two militant groups are often interchangeable, sharing many of the same fighters. They certainly share ideological roots, but analysts believe their command structures are separate.)

Toner, the State Department spokesman, repeated yesterday that the U.S. and Turkey disagree on the status of the YPG. Still, he added, Washington was keen to support Turkish actions against the PKK.

"It is in the US interest to use what leverage it has on both sides to bring them to the table," Hoffman wrote. "There is no military solution for either side in the conflict, and a stable and democratic Turkey is a key US interest."

That kind of Turkey looks unattainable to skeptics of the ground like Baydemir.

"Now Turkey is experiencing the most autocratic and the most totalitarian period that is has in its history," the lawmaker and human rights activists said Wednesday.

Erdogan's government has targeted journalists working for pro-Kurdish outlets or who simply trying to offer reporting that disputes the official line. 

Officials have also employed striking rhetoric that Baydemir said may incite fighting between civilians, as more Turks become suspicious of Kurds living alongside them across the country.

The potential for an escalated civil war is especially great, analysts say, because the Kurdish side appears to have fractured. Young angry Kurds, radicalized in rundown towns of the southeast, are now more active than the old PKK stalwarts the government is used to or the moderate pro-Kurdish HDP party. They are less likely to accept concessions or negotiations, as previous leaders of the Kurdish community did.

The more the government responds to those young militants by targeting the PKK and the HDP, the fewer moderate or experienced voices remain to shepherd peace talks.

Such voices are what's needed, Baydemir said.

"The Kurdish issue can't be solved through violence and warfare," the politician argued. "We need a return to negotiations."