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Turkey appeals for NATO backing in fight against PKK

Ankara urges that the US position in this operation is key to Sweden and Finland's membership of NATO
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AP/TURKISH DEFENSE MINISTRY  -   A soldier stands guard at the border crossing at the Iraqi border in Hakkari province, Turkey

The war in Ukraine is changing the entire security paradigm. NATO, that Organisation that seemed obsolete and somewhat deteriorated in the international arena, has now, with the development of a conflict on European soil, begun to take on a major importance.

So much so that two new countries want to join the organisation. Sweden and Finland no longer want to be left out of the NATO membership picture and, just weeks ago, formally expressed their willingness to join. NATO is happy with this. All but one member. Turkey has opposed membership unless member states take sides in a conflict that is key for Ankara: removing the Kurds from its borders with Syria and Iraq. 

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AP/OLIVIER MATTHYS  -  NATO Headquarters in Brussels

Turkey is thus using its privileged position as the decisive country for Sweden and Finland to join NATO to pressure member states to take sides in Ankara's ongoing struggle with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). A historic struggle that is now beginning a new chapter in the conflict.

Erdogan argues that Finland and Sweden have been - and continue to be - countries that offer "safe" refuge to PKK supporters, a condition that Turkey does not want to ignore. Thus, NATO countries are on the ropes. For both Finland and Sweden to join NATO, they need the green light from Turkey because NATO requires a unanimous "yes" for a new member to join the organisation.

The Turkish president is clear. He has already drawn up a military plan to "liberate" Syrian Kurdistan and now wants NATO's backing. This fight against the Kurds would also include members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mixture of Arab and Kurdish members, led by the latter, who led the fight against Daesh in the context of the Syrian civil war. The SDF had the backing of the United States in this fight, which is why Washington refuses to support the new military plan put forward by Ankara, at least for the time being. 

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AFP/SAFIN HAMED  - Kurdish flags during celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the town of Akra, about 100 kilometres north of Arbil, in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on 20 March 2021.

In this situation, former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen told Newsweek that because the US relies on Turkey to continue to hold the NATO line on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it is likely that "its opposition to the planned incursion will be muted".

He further opined that, 'perhaps the calculation on the Ankara side is that the West needs Turkey to be on board with NATO enlargement' so that 'at a critical time like this, there will be less criticism of Turkey's cross-border operation'.

However, he argued that this situation "has put Turkey and the United States on a collision course". Ulgen also mentioned Russian troops operating within 'a cordon sanitaire' that managed to establish a 'security zone' along this border. Russia, however, has not taken a pro-Turkey stance as it sees the al-Assad government as legitimate and considers Ankara's planned offensives to be 'an illegitimate occupying force', following the same position as the US. 

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PHOTO/AP - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Even so, Ulgen believes that there is a calculation on Ankara's part 'that Russia will no longer oppose such an intervention' and will not want to oppose it 'because it now also needs to retain Turkey as a diplomatic partner in Ukraine'.

Moscow's only reference to this has been through its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who has urged Turkey to "remain calm", emphasising two main points: The first is that Russia "understands" Turkey's security interests, and the second is that it condemns "separatist tendencies in northern Syria", and has therefore called on the Kurds to abandon "US illusions of protection" and adopt a "pragmatic" policy that achieves its interests through "channels of dialogue" with Damascus

This operation would be Turkey's fourth major intervention in Syria, after Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, followed by Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019.

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SPUTNIK/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY  - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting in Berlin on 19 January 2020.

In this context, Washington has warned of the consequences of a new intervention. Thus, the White House national security council adviser, Jake Sullivan, reiterated the importance of "refraining from escalation in Syria to preserve the existing ceasefire lines and avoid further destabilisation". He also insisted on continuing "dialogue and diplomacy to resolve any problems".

He also expressed support for "Turkey's continued direct talks with Sweden and Finland to resolve concerns about its NATO membership applications, which the United States strongly supports".

Despite this, the US also considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, but is more concerned about a further proliferation of Daesh in the region. State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that "it is crucial that all parties maintain and respect ceasefire zones, primarily to improve stability in Syria and work towards a political solution to the conflict". 

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AFP/SAFIN HAMED - Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on a road in the Qandil Mountains.

He stressed that "any effort to do otherwise could be counterproductive to our goals of ending the broader conflict in Syria", as well as to the "tremendous progress we have made together, including with our Kurdish partners, in the effort against Daesh, which has taken very important steps in recent years".

It is for this reason that, if there is a response from Washington, it is either a refusal or silence. Providing such support to Turkey may hinder Sweden's and Finland's NATO accession process. 

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AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syrian Kurdish woman waves the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) during a demonstration against Turkish threats in the town of Ras al-Ain, in Syria's Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey, on October 6, 2019
What is the PKK and what is it fighting for?

The origin of the Workers' Kurdistan Party dates back to 1978, when it was formed in Turkey with the aim of fighting for the independence of Kurdistan and the creation of an independent, socialist and unified state. Its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, has been imprisoned, serving a life sentence, since 1999, when he asked his militants to cease the armed struggle and put an end to the idea of achieving an independent Kurdistan in order to fight for peace and achieve a certain autonomy that would allow the Kurds settled in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran to establish networks of cooperation and horizontal organisation, in line with his Marxist-Leninist ideology. 

The arrest of Öcalan marked a new stage in the history of the party. The PKK gave way to political action and the creation of two political parties that managed to make the leap into the Turkish parliament. The first, the now defunct Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), won 29 seats in 2011.  Subsequently, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) was created, with a presence in parliament, just like its former affiliate. In 2015 it managed to wrest an absolute majority from Erdogan.

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REUTERS/RODI SAID -  Kurdish female fighters from the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over Daesh, in Qamishli, Syria 28 March 2019.

Like the US, Turkey regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation that should be eliminated. For this reason, Ankara's military operations against them have been relentless. However, these attacks have also targeted the Civil Protection Units (YPG), the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) and civilians.

For these two units, Turkey has engaged in relentless human rights violations against civilian settlers. In Iraqi Kurdistan alone, an estimated 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds have been killed, and they call for justice and, above all, for support, fairness and recognition from the international community.