Standing behind Turkey fighting against ISIS while criticizing the Turkish military's acts of self-defense against the PKK reveals the Western governments' double standards on counterterrorism
Turkey has been actively fighting the PKK, which the United States and the European Union, among others, view as a terrorist organization, for two weeks. On July 28, Turkey summoned its NATO allies under Article 4 to make the case for self-defense - an argument that was received quite well. The country's subsequent bombardment of PKK positions near Qandil, Iraq and domestic crackdown, however, notably complicated the situation, as U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner and the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said that Turkey's response must be proportionate.
Around the same time, a new wave of statements about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) hit the wires. While some observers accused Turkey of hurting the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) effort by fighting the Kurds, who are U.S. allies in Syria, others boldly claimed that the president was trying to push for early elections and secure a parliamentary majority for the AK Party again.
The question is: Keeping in mind that Western governments have long treated counterterrorism as a sacred thing, what does the call for a "proportionate response" really mean?
First and foremost, it is important to note that the United States' expectations from Turkey extend beyond the use of İncirlik and require a long-term commitment to defeat ISIS. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, as a matter of fact, echoed the U.S. sentiment last week when he announced that Turkey was about to launch "an extensive struggle" against the organization. In this sense, the call for proportionality is a message to Ankara to maximize it anti-ISIS efforts. Under the current circumstances, after all, fighting ISIS represents a source of legitimacy and a bargaining chip for Turkey, the U.S. and the PKK. It would appear that all regional players like to giftwrap their plans with references to anti-ISIS efforts. Another important issue is that a strong military reaction from Turkey could hurt the PKK and make it more difficult for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an organization affiliated with the PKK, to fight ISIS. With the PKK unable to provide logistical support and weapons to the PYD from Turkey and Iraq might lead to the PYD's weakening. Likewise, Western governments clearly do not want Ankara to target the PYD forces in Syria.
Another aspect of the proportionality argument relates to Washington's eagerness to serve as an umpire when the disarmament talks begin anew. Over the past two years, senior PKK executives have repeatedly pushed for the introduction of a third eye. Last week, Zübeyir Aydar, a senior figure, said that the United States "should bring [the PKK] and Turkey back to the table and we will play a greater role in the fight against ISIL [also known as ISIS]." Depending on the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş's performance in Brussels, the PKK might reinstate the cease-fire - which means that the proportionality argument will turn into an active pressure to stop Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq. In this sense, the HDP currently seeks to compensate for the PKK leadership's miscalculations.One thing is clear: The PKK needs to reinstate the cease-fire in Turkey to have a fighting chance in northern Syria. Likewise, the HDP cannot allow early elections to be about counterterrorism. During the cease-fire, the PKK torched vehicles and engage in violent activities at will. At this point, however, the Turkish government cannot afford to stop the crackdown on terrorist networks at home before doing some serious damage to the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). Likewise, there is no way to continue talks without the PKK and HDP agreeing to certain terms. It still remains unclear what role the U.S. will play when the negotiations get back on track: Against the backdrop of Iran's vested interests in the Kurdish question, the reconciliation process lies at the heart of a Middle Eastern game of thrones.
Western governments are primarily interested in strong-arming Turkey by invoking the proportionality argument, but one wonders where those who accuse the president of warmongering stand on the issue.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.