Kurdish forces defeated ISIL in Syria with the support of the United States. The recent departure of the Americans has left the Kurds alone to face their destiny. Within the last few days Turkey has launched an offensive against Kurdish forces, considering them to be a terror group. Is Turkey taking advantage of a broad and imprecise definition of “terrorism” to justify its aggressive behaviors? Can Kurds be defined as terrorists considering that they gave their lives in the fight against ISIL?
On the 11th of September 2001, the United States were hit by cruel attacks that led to the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York city and the killing of 3000 people. The event signified the beginning of an era of terrorism. In the aftermath of the event, George W. Bush – the American president at the time – initiated the Afghan campaign to target Al Qaeda, the terror group led by Osama Bin Laden that claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the most accurate definition, a terror group is “a body that unlawfully makes use of violence against civilians to pursue a political goal”. Since then, the use (and misuse) of the world “terrorism” has increased almost exponentially.
The term “war on terror” initially identified the international military campaign coordinated by the US in Afghanistan, but soon it lost its acceptance once Bush improperly used the terminology to justify his aggressive campaign against Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2013). Whereas the former was a military response to the 9/11 terror attacks, the latter is not justified by these tragic events. In fact, the war in Iraq was initiated by the unproven discovery that Saddam Hussein owned weapons of mass destruction, which could have potentially been used against the United States. A shift in language may seem innocuous, but in this case it had a tremendous influence on our modern history. Bin Laden was the representative of a stateless political group, whereas Saddam Hussein was the leader of a state – Iraq – that can exercise sovereignty. Through the improper use of terminology, the United States could be spared by the international community of any substantial opposition for their military intervention in Iraq. In the following years, Bush’s language abuse prompted other countries to improperly use the term “terrorism” to justify their actions. Defining “terrorism” is therefore necessary to prevent states from using it as an excuse to act against enemies of any kind.
The Syrian civil war initiated in 2011 between the regime’s forces and the rebels provided the proper societal background to allow the rise of another fundamentalist terror group, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In 2014, the rise of ISIL prompted the intervention of the United States and its allies to suppress their military actions and regain control of territories that had fallen to the Caliphate, as it could control vast areas of Syria and Iraq. Kurdish forces took advantage of the lack of sovereign forces to take full control of territories predominantly inhabited by Kurds at the border region between Iraq and Syria. The Kurds helped the US in the fight against ISIL as the major opposition force on the ground, playing a fundamental role in the defeat of the Islamic State.
Kurdistan is a broad region where Kurds constitute the prevalent population. The area extends across southeastern Turkey, the north of Syria and Iraq, and the northwest of Iran. In their long history, Kurds have never managed to transform their desire for a Kurdish state into reality. The only official steps were made in 1970 and 2005 with the proclamation of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan.
As mentioned, the rise and fall of ISIL gave the Kurds the opportunity to push for the establishment of a sovereign state. The support of the Americans seemed to give them a once-in-a-lifetime, historical chance.
The idea of a Kurdish state has been strongly opposed by Turkey, who has always repressed independence or autonomy claims by the Kurds. Because of the Kurdish-American alliance, the two NATO allies – the US and Turkey – recently entered a phase of difficult diplomatic relations, culminated with the threat of a trade war and the imposition of economic sanctions.
Possibly as a consequence of this tug-of-war and the final defeat of ISIL, the Americans decided to leave the Kurds behind, alone in the dark, surrounded by enemies on all sides: Turkey, and the remaining ISIL forces.
Predictably, on the 9th of October 2019 Turkey started a full-scale military operation to target Kurdish forces by ground and air attacks. Although Trump is not officially supporting the Turkish offensive – though only to protect himself from domestic critics within his party – the retreat of the Americans from Syria gave Turkey the freedom to pursue this.
Why is Turkey invading Syrian’s territory to fight Kurdish forces? As we said, the “war on terror” narrative defines the unfolding of our recent history. The Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) has fought against the Turkish government since the beginning of the 20th century for the recognition of an independent or autonomous Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey. The PKK is considered as a terror group by Turkey and other states, as in the past they have conducted military operations that led to casualties among civilians. Regardless of the crimes perpetrated by the PKK or Turkey, the PKK is based within Turkey and its actions cannot justify an extended military operation against Kurdish forces located in other countries.
There are further considerations to be made: are Kurdish forces in Syria (the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG) – those who helped the US in fighting against ISIL, an extension of the PKK, or are they simply military representatives of the Kurdish population? Definitions matter again, because in the first case Turkey would be fighting against terrorists, but in the second case it would be perpetrating war crimes based on ethnicity.
The United States, after all, also consider the PKK a terror group, but at the same time they have considered the YPG as a great ally. Turkey’s logic is rather different and could be exemplified as follows: if mafia is an Italian organization, all Italians must be criminals. If the PKK is a Kurdish group, all Kurds must be terrorists.
Terrorists, to be defined as such, must constitute a threat to civilian society. If they do not, they cannot be defined as such. Turkey affirms that the YPG presence in the vicinity of its borders is sufficient to constitute a national threat, and that its military offensive is therefore a preventive measure. This is counterintuitive, as Kurdish forces have nothing to gain from threatening Turkey, for the following reasons: 1) Turkey’s military is much better organized, and Kurdish forces are reasonably aware of it. 2) The YPG would completely lose the already small support coming from the international society. 3) Kurdish forces would be stripped of their chance to participate in the discussion over the future of Syria.
The YPG fought against ISIL in Syria, but it is now a target of Turkey: the Kurds are the terrorists that fight terrorism. The good and the bad. The lonely, the left behind. The people with the guns, but no institutions.
Can a terrorist be ever on the good side, as the Kurds have been in the fight against ISIL? Can the Kurds be the oppressed and the oppressors at the same time, in the same place?The definition of “terrorism” has been expanded so much that almost anybody could be accused of it. Is the status quo defining who is a terrorist? Should a single actor, Turkey in this case, or the international community define political or religious groups as terrorists? The fight for an ideal, for freedom, should not and cannot be confused with terrorism. The international community should condemn Turkey’s unilateral intervention and try any way – political or economic – to deter further action.
Why is nobody raising their voice?
Turkey is a NATO member, and the Americans prefer to please their historical ally over a stateless ethnic group, even if the Kurds have been fundamental in the fight against ISIL.
Russia is tacitly supporting the invasion as it may give strength to the Syrian regime’s claims during future peace negotiations. Turkey has made no territorial claims over Syria, and thus constitutes no threat for its territorial integrity once the 8 year bloody war comes to an end. Kurds, instead, have made no secret of intending to come to the negotiating table to obtain their independence, or at least the concession to a degree of autonomy within a federal state of Syria, in a model resembling that of Iraq.
The other powers are either careless about the issue (e.g. China), or unable to oppose the move for their lack of smart power: the European Union could potentially impose economic sanctions that would greatly harm Turkey, but Turkey in turn has threatened to allow a huge number of migrants and refugees to reach Europe.
Kurds – and the YPG – have nothing to do with terrorism, rather they oppose extremism and fundamentalism. In this very moment, they lack a state, they lack sovereignty, and they lack authority. They are people with no institutions, and have little to say in the international realm. The misuse of a specific language for national interests could be prevented by negotiating a clear definition of “terrorism” in international law (1), not only to facilitate justice against perpetrators of crimes connected to terrorism, but also against those that seek to achieve their own interests by unilaterally defining political or religious groups as “terrorists”.
- Saul, B., “Defining terrorism in international law”, Oxford Scholarship Online, 2008.
A general link to better understand all parties involved in the Turkish-Kurdish war.