Turkey’s War Against the Kurds Exposes NATO’s Aggression

Kerem Schamberger
Adam Baltner

With all eyes on the war in Ukraine, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is planning a fresh invasion of northern Syria. For 70 years, Turkey has been a key NATO member — and NATO's backing for its aggression shows the alliance is no mere defense pact.

A Syrian boy looks on as US soldiers patrol the countryside of Rumaylan, Syria, near the Turkish border, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey would launch a new military operation into northern Syria, May 26, 2022. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s happening again. Emboldened by NATO member states’ silence, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government could turn Turkish threats of war against the democratic administration in north Syrian Rojava into a full-fledged invasion. During a public appearance on Monday, May 23, at a military shipyard on the Sea of Marmara, Erdoğan announced his intention to occupy a thirty-kilometer-wide strip of land along northern Syrian border. According to Turkish sources, preparations for the invasion would be complete by the next day.

Elsewhere in Kurdistan, the war has been roiling for weeks — despite lack of public attention or outrage. On April 17, the Turkish army launched an invasion of the Zab region of southern Kurdistan. This was the first culmination of a series of interventions in northern Iraq violating international law. Since then, the mountains of Kurdistan — where numerous villages lie and civilians live — have seen heavy fighting, with soldiers and guerrilla fighters dying every day. In Rojava, too, a low-intensity war against the civilian population and its administration has been in progress for months. As the Rojava Information Center has documented, at least thirty-five Turkish drone strikes have killed more than thirteen people and injured thirty-four.

So far, Erdoğan has been able to pursue these war politics unhindered. Criticism of the NATO alliance, of which Turkey has been a member since 1952, has remained absent. Instead, the war in Ukraine has given even more destructive bargaining power and influence to Erdoğan, who is presenting himself as an ostensible mediator between Russia and Ukraine by hosting negotiations on Turkish soil.

Today Erdoğan is playing a further role by blocking Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO. From the AKP government’s perspective, these countries provide support for terrorism and harbor terrorists. These alleged “terrorist organizations” are aid projects in Rojava engaged in activities such as building water infrastructure and sheltering women who experienced violence at the hands of the terrorist militia ISIS — that is, they are humanitarian aid projects that Sweden helps finance. The “terrorists” targeted by Erdoğan are Kurds in Sweden and Finland who have been free to become politically organized in those countries without facing oppression.

Yet Turkey has also trained its crosshairs on politicians of Kurdish heritage, such as the independent left-wing Swedish MP Amineh Kakabaveh, who is originally from eastern Kurdistan. Recently, the Turkish ambassador in Stockholm even went so far as to demand her extradition (which it later played off as a “misunderstanding”). For her own part, Kakabeveh also opposes NATO membership for Sweden and has withdrawn her support for her country’s Social Democratic prime minister. She has remarked that the Kurds are once again at risk of being sacrificed on the altar of the superpowers — this time with Sweden’s support.

In the past, Erdoğan has exploited refugees for political gain. He has agreed to prevent them from entering the European Union (or conversely, threatened to send them over the border) in exchange for political concessions from EU governments. Now he is also trying to use the Kurds to achieve his dreams of making Turkey a regional imperial superpower. This makes it clear that the Kurdish question is a truly international problem.

Now that Turkey has temporarily stalled NATO expansion, it is finally coming under fire from critics who allege that its intransigence should disqualify it from the NATO community. Yet as Dilar Dirik has pointed out, this rhetoric is confused: Turkey has been an essential part of the military alliance for more than seventy years, and Turkish war politics are of a piece with NATO’s various wars of aggression in recent years that have broken international law. NATO may refer to itself as a “community of shared values,” just as its 1949 founding document may claim that its members are committed to the Charter of the United Nations and to “the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” Yet this is ideology meant to obfuscate the bellicose character of the alliance. NATO’s invasions of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and former Yugoslavia tell a different story. So too does Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus, a violation of international law that has been ongoing since 1976, though it is hardly even mentioned anymore.

Last Monday, Cemil Bayik, the cochair of the Kurdistan Communities Union’s executive committee, emphasized NATO’s role in the war against Kurdistan: “It may seem like Turkey is waging the war in Zab and Avaşîn, but it’s actually NATO. . . . As a member state, Turkey receives extremely extensive support from NATO. Without this assistance, Turkey wouldn’t have been able keep fighting to today. It was NATO that decided to go to war, and Turkey is putting this decision into practice.”

For Turkey, an invasion of Rojava is also closely linked to domestic politics. With elections scheduled for 2023, all opinion polling suggests that the AKP will take a significant hit at the ballot box. The party might be trying to save its fortunes with yet another military conflict, for Turkey’s ever recurring invasions of Syria have always been accompanied by an increased approval rating for the AKP — from the occupation of a region in northern Syria between Azaz and the Euphrates in August 2016 to the invasion and occupation of Afrin in 2018 and of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî in 2019. War unifies parts of the population behind the government and its military while pushing issues such as unemployment and poverty into the background — if only temporarily.

In early May, Erdoğan announced plans to gradually send one million Syrian refugees in Turkey to live in “settlements” built for them in occupied northern Syria. The plan, it seems, is to gain control over a continuous geographical territory to be successively integrated into the territory of the Turkish. The payment of salaries in the Turkish Lira in the regions that have already been occupied, along with the opening of Turkish-speaking schools and the installment of Turkish governors, indicates that the goal is permanent colonization. The invasions have also strengthened jihadist militias, which have helped secure the occupation alongside Turkish soldiers. Many of their fighters are former members of ISIS, which continues to exist underground. ISIS is increasingly capable of carrying out attacks again, as was demonstrated back in January by its storming of the ISIS prison in al-Hasakah.

In an interview with the German daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, Khaled Davrisch, the Berlin representative of Rojava’s autonomous administration, explained that “bending the knee before Erdoğan would torpedo efforts for a peaceful solution in Syria.” In fact, it would do far more. A Turkish war of aggression with NATO’s blessing would make clear that the talk of shared values, freedom, and democracy only applies when it serves NATO’s own interests.