For Turkey, Radical Kurdish Rebels Are the Same as ISIS

Actually, not so simple. In Syria, Ankara’s air force is attacking the Islamic State, while in Iraq, Turkey is operating against the Kurds.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Scene of the explosion in the town of Suruc in Sanliurfa, on July 20, 2015, not far from the Syrian border.
Scene of the explosion in the town of Suruc in Sanliurfa, on July 20, 2015, not far from the Syrian border.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

SURUC, Turkey — “I have no doubt that the Turks knew there was going to be an attack here. I’m convinced they could have prevented it, and if they didn’t, they wanted it to happen,” says the tall, smiling young Kurdish man who asks that I not use his name. The attack he’s referring to is last Monday’s suicide bombing at a culture center in the Turkish border town of Suruc.

“I live near the center. On Monday morning, a few hours before the explosion, I suddenly saw a large concentration of soldiers and policemen. It’s unusual for them to gather in the city center. Usually they’re posted on the hills a few kilometers to the south, right on the border near the Syrian city of Kobani,” the young Kurd says.

“Why were they gathering here next to the culture center of all places? They apparently knew there was a convention of Kurdish volunteers from all over the country who planned to go to Kobani to help rebuild it, and who had collected games and toys to give to Kobani's children,” he says, referring to the heavily Kurdish Syrian border town.

“They saw everyone who entered the large courtyard and could see someone entering with a strange-looking backpack. Would someone who planned to blow himself up have dared to enter there when the area was packed with soldiers and police?”

The district governor said he had received “no prior intelligence information” about any attack in Suruc. Thirty-two people, most of them Kurds, were killed in the bombing, and four days later people were still busy cleaning up the fragments.

Syrian refugees who fled violence in Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, known also as Kobani, seen outside their tents in a camp in the border town of Suruc, Turkey, Feb. 2, 2015.Credit: AP

“They say the Islamic State carried out the attack, but I don’t believe it,” says a political science student who volunteers at the center.

Beneath the large tree around which the victims’ bodies were gathered, their friends have placed piles of toys as a memorial: a new soccer ball, plastic bags containing dice, colored pencils, small dolls and drawing pads. On the tree they've hung a banner with pictures of the victims, and outside a fence a police cordon marks the scene. Only a few passersby stop for a moment to glance beyond the fence.

“It hurts to see how in one moment we forget our tragedies and go on with our lives,” says Ozgur Sariyer, the owner of a contracting company in Germany, who is visiting the culture center with his wife and two children to honor the victims. Sariyer offered his construction services to help rebuild Kobani but was turned away by the Turkish authorities.

The young Kurdish man was also injured in the bombing; he’s still suffering from inhaling tear gas. Still, he agrees to accompany me to the border and recommends that I keep a low profile when taking pictures.

“The Turks hate journalists and the Kurds here are suspicious of strangers who are government representatives,” he says. “You don’t know if some soldier will have an urge to check out his sniping talents.”

U.S. airstrikes

You don't need binoculars to see Kobani from the Turkish border — it’s a just beyond the closed frontier. Once it was home to over 50,000 people, but today less than 20,000 remain. It’s controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Free Syrian Army.

This proximity to the Turkish border is what sparked the Kurds’ fury against Ankara. Turkish forces, including tanks, were only a few hundred meters from the city when the Islamic State took it over last year, killing thousands and methodically destroying houses.

“The Turks not only sat and smoked cigarettes as though nothing was happening, they refused to let Kurdish forces from the Iraqi side or Kurdish volunteers from Turkey cross the border and help the residents of Kobani,” the young Kurd says. “Only the American airstrikes tipped the balance in the end.”

The Kurds’ anger is understandable, but the facts are a bit different. Turkey was willing, after great pressure, to let Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq cross the border, but it was the Syrian Kurds who rejected offers of assistance. They feared that the Iraqi Kurds would take over Kobani and push out the Syrian Kurds’ protection units. Now the Turks are afraid that Kobani will be rebuilt and become the capital of an independent Kurdish region.

Turkey sees no difference between the Kurdish forces in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which is considered a terror group by several countries and international organizations. Turkey has turned the most recent attacks — Suruc and the killing of Turkish policemen — into a launching pad for campaigns against the Islamic State and what it describes as Kurdish terror. Turkey seems to have borrowed stylistically from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and declares that “the PKK is ISIS and ISIS is the PKK.”

Hunting season

The division of the fronts under attack is just as interesting. In Syria, the Turkish air force is attacking Islamic State bases, while in Iraq, Turkey is operating against the PKK.

This is an artificial division, since the PKK has bases in Syria as well, and the Islamic State of course controls large areas of Iraq. But this is apparently the division agreed on with the U.S. administration, which considers the Syrian Kurds allies in the war against the Islamic State and therefore does not let Turkey attack them.

Regarding the PKK in Syria, Turkey is peddling the idea that the regime in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region supports the war against the PKK, so there is no fear that acting against “Kurdish terror” in Iraq will undermine Kurdish cooperation against the Islamic State. As proof, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu quoted from a phone conversation with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani that “Barzani expressed solidarity with Turkey’s anti-terror activities.”

But immediately afterwards Barzani announced that he had told Davutoglu that he “views the escalation with concern and only a peaceful solution can lead to quiet.” Turkey isn’t impressed by the Kurds’ criticism; over the weekend its planes continued to attack PKK targets in Iraq. It seems that its attacks against the Islamic State in Syria are a cover for the real objective — crushing Kurdish targets.

Between one bombing and the next the peace process between the Kurds and the Turkish government has also disintegrated; it seems it’s hunting season again. Among the hundreds of suspects arrested in recent days, along with known Islamic State activists, are Kurdish activists, not all of them outright PKK members. And fears are growing that the Islamic State and the PKK will ramp up terror attacks all over Turkey.

The political and military tension in Ankara also reaches the huge, blindingly white tents in a refugee area near Suruc. About 35,000 people have been imprisoned in the camp for about a week; they’re not allowed to leave.

“The government fears that if the refugees are allowed to leave they’ll launch demonstrations against it and there will be an uproar. The fury inside these tents is tremendous. All the refugees here are Kurds from the Kobani region, who saw and heard the attack on the culture center and heard about the Turkish attacks on the Kurdish bases in Iraq,” says Ayman, a Kurd from Suruc who doesn’t hesitate to say that he admires PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, since 1999 in prison in Turkey.

“Yes, they’re grateful to the Turkish government for agreeing to offer them asylum, but they won’t forgive it for turning its back on them when ISIS attacked Kobani. In effect, we Kurds in Turkey can’t forgive it. What, suddenly Turkey has discovered ISIS?” Ayman asks.

“Where were they all those years when ISIS attacked the Kurds? Who let ISIS cross from Turkey into Syria, and in general, how is it that they suddenly know which of them are ISIS activists who have to be arrested? Why weren’t they arrested before, and how many weren’t arrested because the government wants to protect them?”

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