A new front opened by Turkey and NATO will deepen imperialist chaos in the Middle East

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After four years of the war in Syria and around a year since the establishment of the “Caliphate” of the Islamic State, a new turn by Turkey, fully backed by the forces of NAT0, sees it enter the war, dumping its previous jihadi allies and turning its fire on its Kurdish “partners in peace”. Up to now Turkey has, at the very least, been extremely tolerant of the jihadi forces, allowing them to travel through its border to fight its enemy, the  Assad regime in Syria. Isis leaders have been seen openly swaggering around Turkish cities and resorts. Its wounded fighters have received hospital treatment and sent back to the battlefields (as Israel does for al-Nusra[1]) and Turkish cops that have arrested high status Isis members have themselves been thrown into prison. Also, going back years, there were credible reports that, with the assistance of Turkish intelligence (MIT), planeloads of jihadis and heavy weaponry from Libya organised by the CIA were landing in Turkey and crossing its border into Syria to fight Assad’s troops and its Hezbollah proxies. Though all this rarely came out into the open there is no doubt that it caused considerable tensions within NATO, of which Turkey is a member, and greatly strained Turkish/US relations even though US agencies were also involved in supporting the jihadis. A number of questions are raised by Turkey’s new front: why this turn now by Turkey? What does this mean for the Turkish/Kurdish “peace process” and its two-year old “cease-fire”? Are there any elements within the forces of Kurdish nationalism that represent the interests of the working class in any way? Will this move lead to any sort of halt or alleviation in the descent of the whole region into instability and war?

Turkey and the AKP ruling party defends its own and greater imperialist interests

On July 20 a suicide bomb attack in Suruc, close to the Turkish/Syrian border killed 32 young activists and injured many others working for or in liaison with the leftist group, the Federation of Socialist Youth. The suicide bomber, a jihadi-supporting Kurd, was rapidly identified by the MIT and it is quite possible that Turkish intelligence itself was involved in the bombing. It has a track record in such (Reyhanli, 2013) and while “who profits from the crime” doesn’t always work out, it does most times. And there is no doubt that, whoever was behind it, the ruling AKP clique of President Recip Erdogan has used the bombing in order to bolster its internal position and the defence of Turkish imperialist interests as it sees them. Erdogan’s AKP, like any nationalist gang, is trying to protect its own interests within the state; but it seems to very much have the backing of the Turkish military and the secret services, both vital for its continual position of power. Clearly Isis is not a stable ally but talks between the Turkish state and the US administration about a serious confrontation with an expanding Isis began soon after the Turkish election in June when the AKP was shocked to see its overall majority lost and the rise of the Kurdish-friendly People’s Democratic Party (HDP) which received 13% of the vote and appeared to be on a political roll. Further tensions have been growing in Erdogan’s party, along with the Turkish military, while it has watched the Kurdish army of the YPG[2] (the “People’s Protection Units”, the fighting wing of the PYD[3] and PKK in the Byzantine organisation of Kurdish nationalist forces) acting as the closest ally of the US in its attacks on Isis.  It is probably a combination of these two elements: the domestic electoral problems of the AKP and the rise of the YPG and the strengthening of its positions along the Turkish/Syrian border, that has concentrated Turkish minds and directed it into some sort of understanding with the US over the availability of its air-bases to US fighter-bombers and armed drones, particularly the air-base at Incirlik, in order to pursue its bombing missions against Isis in Syria.

In the days after the Suruc bombing, Turkish fighter-bombers and artillery hit one or two Isis positions and scores of PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) positions inside Turkey, northern Iraq, as well as YPG positions on the Syrian border (BBC World News, 3.8.15). The ferocity of Turkish attacks against the Kurds, and their disproportionality in relation to attacks on Isis, show the real intentions of the AKP. Overall, the whole situation is a complete can of worms and expressive of the decay of international relations and the weakness of US imperialism: a NATO member openly supporting the Isis Caliphate; elements of a branded Kurdish terrorist organisation being the American’s closest ally in fighting Isis; for the umpteenth time US-trained and equipped forces (see note 4) taken over by the ever-growing jihadi forces; Turkey allowing Isis free-range both sides of the border with Syria here, while Turkey and the US “advisors” train anti-Isis forces elsewhere in the country.  And within this the divergences and tensions between the various (and many) Kurdish factions – the PKK, the YPG and the northern Iraqi government of Masoud Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdistan among others. There is an utter absurdity to the whole situation which is the hallmark of much of imperialism today.  

The end of the Turkish/Kurdish “peace process”

Like any capitalist “cease-fire” or “peace process”, the one between the Turkish state and the Kurdish PKK are just moments of pause in the intensification of imperialist war and further violence. This was confirmed in the fact that just after the Suruc attack the Turkish authorities arrested just a handful of Isis fighters and launched just a few air assaults against Isis positions, while its attacks on Kurdish interests and the general repression that this entailed against the population was widespread. Just a few days after the Suruc attack, Turkish military helicopters launched a scorched earth policy against Kurdish/PKK areas in southern Turkey, burning crops, livestock and houses, while setting up military checkpoints and arresting anyone considered suspicious (The Times, 5.8.15). For its part the forces of Kurdish nationalism immediately launched attacks against the Turkish military. These included sabotage actions which killed at least one Turkish railway worker in the eastern province of Kars (AP, 31.7.15). And, like any “resistance” force, these sorts of attacks are intrinsically divisive and invite general retribution onto the Kurdish population. Under the cover of an attack on Isis, the real target for the Turkish authorities is an attack on Kurdish interests which, amongst other things, it calculates could raise the force of Turkish nationalism and increase the chances of a probable AKP majority in the case of a new election, thus giving an open mandate to the ruling clique. At any rate, the last thing that the Turkish state wants in the longer term is the proclamation of a new Kurdish state, which would turn out to be another ethnic “Caliphate”; another nationalist abomination, another peculiar statist structure expressive of the ambient decomposition around the region. Ethnic clans and religious clans have their own specificity certainly, but they are also much the same thing: capitalist bodies which crush the interests of the working class.  And this generally applies well beyond the Middle East and throughout the whole capitalist world. Look at the latest nation state of capitalism, the Republic of South Sudan which gained its independence in 2011. The local gang, its leadership, was backed and set up with considerable support, intelligence, military assistance and funding from the major countries of the west and has, almost immediately, collapsed into a heap of warfare, internecine strife, corruption and gangsterism.

There are major implications in these latest events for NATO. Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO at 700,000 strong and its turn against “terrorism”, Isis and the PKK, has been welcomed by the US-dominated force knowing the assistance that Turkey can give, not only in making its bases available but in freeing the Isis-controlled area between the Turkish border and Aleppo in Syria[4] as well as weakening Kurdish influence along the border. Turkey is acting here from a certain position of strength in dealing with the US with the latter running out of options. NATO, despite some differences and misgivings inside it, welcomed Turkey’s moves with open arms in an Extraordinary Meeting in Brussels on July 28. Despite some lukewarm words about laying off the Kurds, words subsequently completely ignored by Ankara, the NATO Secretary General summed up the sentiments of the meeting of 28 ambassadors:”We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey” (Jens Stoltenberg, Independent, 29.7.15). The immediate quid pro quo for Turkey could well be more Patriot missiles, intelligence and logistic assistance from the US. A further concession from the US that looks on the cards, after being resisted by the latter for some time, and one that would boost the AKP, would be the establishment of a “safe-zone”, a “buffer-zone” across the Turkish/Syrian border which is presently largely controlled by the YPG. The actual proposed territory would split YPG-held territory in half and would be entirely occupied by the Turkish military. This would be a “no-fly zone” in everything but name. It would represent an invasion of Syria and a further escalation of the war as well as a possible stepping stone to further Turkish “activity” in Syria. From this potential annexation of Syrian territory (in actual fact a country called “Syria” no longer exists) it would be possible to launch further attacks, though this is not immediately on the cards.

Are Kurdish forces representative of a capitalist state or do they contain some proletarian content?

Just as workers’ cooperatives and self-management of the factory, with the best will in the world, cannot escape the laws of capitalist production, just as national liberation “struggles” immediately fall into the maws of imperialism, so any nationalist, proto-nationalist or ethnic movement can only take on functions of a capitalist state. And this very much applies to the “libertarian” turn of the PKK and its ideas of a federalisation of “mini-states” representative not of any coherence but, on the contrary, of the global capitalist process of breakdown and fractionalisation. As such it can only be detrimental to any independent expression of the working class.

On the libcom website on a thread about Turkey[5], a supporter of the ethnic Kurds, one Kurremkarmerruk, asks where is there any demand or anything that the Kurdish liberation movement has made that calls for a state. We’ve already looked at the question of any new states in a wider context but in the late 80s the PKK moved from a “proletarian orientation” (by this Kurdish nationalism meant Stalinist-type organisation) from a model “of the national state with its own government” to a form of “communal social life with the freedom of women”. Leaving aside the sexual predation of women rife in the PKK, the new-found “freedom of women” is largely expressed in their equality as cannon-fodder in Kurdish involvement in imperialist war. The new Kurdish “anti-authoritarianism” and “communalisation in which the individual is paramount” within a federation is nothing but another form of capitalist relation with an anarchist tinge – perfectly compatible with an ethnic or national liberation movement[6]. There is nothing at all here that questions class society or imperialist war; on the contrary, both are strengthened by Kurdish nationalist desires for a place in the “international community”. Since World War I Kurdish nationalism and ethnicity has made its people pawns and cannon-fodder in wider imperialist Great Games. This ethnic framework certainly has nothing to do with marxism, nor any element of the workers’ movement. The PKK is based on terror, not least against its own population. It is based on ethnic exclusion and has often played a role on the imperialist chessboard. Like so many “national liberation” movements it was completely undermined both materially and ideologically by the collapse of Stalinism in the late 80s and nothing of this has changed given that the “socialist” YPG element was until very recently the closest ally of US imperialism in the region. In the past ethnic Kurdish interests have been used by Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Germany, Britain and Greece. It has also embraced and extended the capitalist values of democracy and pacifism. Any nationalist or ethnic movement, even or especially “federalised”, is essentially and fundamentally a statist organisation working within capitalism and its imperialist forces. The defence of Kurdish ethnicity, like any other, is based on exclusion. Whatever the leftist mystifications and language, the “common homeland”, an entirely capitalist structure, remains the aim of Kurdish ethnicity.

It now seems that the Erdogan/AKP clique, with the military behind it, has had enough of the “peaceful and democratic” rise of the Kurds within the “international community” (i.e., the imperialist chessboard) and decided to go onto the offensive against it while strengthening the position of his party within the state. And Kurdish forces in their turn will present this as an attack on its so-called “socialist principles” and take further part in its “war of self-defence” thus acting as a further division of the working class.

What is the perspective?

For the working class of the major capitals both inside and outside the region, the generalisation of this war and its expressions are a great cause for concern, not least from the involvement of their “own” states and the spread of militarism generally. Overall for the local populations of the Middle East and around it is grim with the certainty of more war, violence, chaos and instability. Isis is extending its Caliphate, and like forces are coming to meet it, while, at another level, the weakening of US imperialism persists and it is this which has allowed Turkey to take this new, aggressive step. It was a weakness in the first place for the US to rely on Kurdish forces, a development which to some extent precipitated this present stage of the crisis. And, in the immediate, Turkish attacks on the Kurds can only weaken the fight against Isis. There are further dangers here. After a year of coalition bombing up to this July, 5000 airstrikes, 17000 bombs dropped and, at least, hundreds of civilians killed to add to the carnage and Isis relatively unscathed and further entrenched, Obama has now authorised blanket air coverage for its ground forces in Syria (World Socialist Website, 4.8.15). The problem for the Americans is that the ground forces that they can rely on in Syria are currently non-existent. The further complication in this respect is that the Assad regime has a very sophisticated, Russian-made, air-defence missile system.

Into this mix of irrationality, ethnic and religious rivalry overseen by imperialism and the development of each for themselves, the weakening of US influence and reach has helped force the latter to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran that has much wider consequences and implications. This deal will impact on Turkey, the other regional powers, Russia and much wider afield. We will return to the elements of the US/Iranian deal and its implications at a later date.

Boxer, 8.8.15



[1] Last October, Middle-East analyst Ehud Yarri talked about Israel’s relationship with al-Nusra -www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/tough-dilemma-in-southern-syria.

[2] The Wikipedia website of the YPG paints a rosy picture of “socialists” and tolerance. The honeyed words are belied by its ethnic coherence and its military “cleansing” of Arab areas, such as the town of Tal Abyad where 50,000 were forced out by the military advance of the YPG in June this year and have now joined the millions of refugees made homeless by the war. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/2015/7/2/kurds-lead-campaign-to-displace-arabs-in-tal-abyad. The YPG is clearly part of an imperialist army and, as such, has ethnic cleansing as part of its job description.

[3] Like the war in Ukraine, many elements of anarchism supporting the YPG and the so-called “Rojava revolution” show their backing for imperialist war. See https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201412/11625/anarchism-and-imperialist-war-nationalism-or-internationalism

[4] The particular hope for “independent” US-trained forces undertaking this has already suffered yet another setback with a US-trained, Turkey-based non-Jihadi, anti-Assad force of fighters, Division 30, kidnapped by the forces of al-Nusra (Independent, 31.7.15). No doubt to be traded to Isis, interrogated, tortured and then their fate is sealed.