The fate of the Kurds – and others – is being played out at the grand arms bazaar, which has begun these days between the US and Turkey to remove Erdogan’s veto on the entry into NATO of Sweden and Finland, which are sympathetic towards the PKK, considered by Ankara to be a terrorist organization together with the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish brigades of Kobane and Rojava. No matter that they heroically led the fight against the Caliphate in 2014 instead of us Westerners – not unlike what the Ukrainians are doing today against occupying Russia.
But all of that seems forgotten, just as we have forgotten the 15,000 Kurdish deaths and the West’s broken promises of protection from Turkish repression: in the fall of 2019, Trump withdrew troops from the Syrian border, leaving Erdogan a free hand to slaughter. The buffer force that replaced the Americans back then was the Russians. There’s a bitter quip circulating in the Middle East now, where Turkey and Israel always have carte blanche: it took 70 days until “we were all Ukrainians,” but it’s taking more than 70 years for us to “become” Kurds or Palestinians.
Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, is again at war with the Kurds, with numerous civilian casualties, but the Atlantic Alliance is feigning ignorance. On April 17, Ankara launched a new military campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Rojava. “We must eradicate the PKK,” is Erdogan’s stated motivation, who with this slogan is rallying support at home, in his own party and beyond. In reality, Turkish planes and drones – the same ones in action in Ukraine against the Russians – are not only striking Kurds, including civilians, but also the Yazidi majority in Sinjar, which was subjected to atrocious massacres and rape by ISIS jihadists. Kobane, an anti-Caliphate stronghold when I was there in October 2014, was also attacked, then 70 percent occupied by Ankara-backed jihadists, who are now mainly following Erdogan’s orders in Idlib.
But weren’t these Kurds the fighters we had celebrated as “our heroes”? Clearly they are no longer. In fact, we Italians are giving Erdogan substantial wartime aid. To the point that the Turkish raids are using Italian Mangusta helicopters (the AgustaWestland AW129) manufactured in Turkey under license from Italian Leonardo.
Of course, Prime Minister Draghi (who on Wednesday received Finnish leader Sanna Marin) is unwilling to talk about any of this, just like he only speaks in vague terms about sending arms to Ukraine, a topic on which he was set to address Parliament on Thursday, before deputies and senators which could only be spectators to his speech.
But for Erdogan, complicit silence is not enough: to wipe out the Kurds, he wants more weapons. The Sultan – who is blackmailing Europe with allowing refugees through and has seen inflation explode to 70 percent, with the Turkish lira at historic lows versus the dollar and euro – is raising the price of not vetoing the new NATO enlargement. Ankara, in addition to an end to support for the Kurds and hosting alleged PKK members, is demanding the lifting of the arms sale embargo decided by Sweden and Finland after Ankara’s attacks on Syrian Kurds. Adding to this, Sweden has taken in members of the organization of Fethullah Gulen (in exile in the U.S.), considered by Erdogan to be responsible – along with the Americans themselves – for the failed coup against him on July 14, 2016.
To bolster his claims and get better armaments, the Turkish Sultan has just dispatched his “Grand Vizir,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, to the United States for talks with Secretary of State Toni Blinken on the arrangements envisioned in the “Turkey-US Strategic Mechanism,” the bilateral diplomatic format established in 2021 by Biden and Erdogan. Relations between the two countries have gone through ups and downs, but the lowest point was reached when the U.S. excluded Turkey from the expensive new F-35 fighter jet project as retaliation for Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system.
On the other hand, the U.S. is now in talks with Ankara to sell 40 F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits for the Turkish fleet that patrols the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa (via Libya), the contested theater of Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” plan for expansion to divide up areas of influence and offshore gas fields.
And even that is not enough. Erdogan’s Turkey, inside NATO but outside the EU, which like Israel has not put sanctions on Moscow – in line with almost the entire Middle East and North Africa – remains a geopolitical puzzle. It has been so since the times of the Treaty of Paris in 1856, when the Ottoman Empire allied with France, the United Kingdom, Austria and the Kingdom of Sardinia in the Crimean War against Russia. That agreement declared the Sublime Porte’s opposition to Russia and bolstered Istanbul’s aspirations for a European geopolitical identity, later dramatically dashed by its defeat in World War I, which began in alliance with the Central Empires and the Ottoman attack on Russian bases on the Black Sea.
With the end of the Turkish Empire, the Republic inherited by Ataturk sought protection from the USSR’s territorial claims in NATO membership, which for the military elites confirmed the country’s Western identity. Then, with the Cold War over, Ankara perceived Moscow as an acceptable partner, but in the last decade – with crises involving Georgia, Crimea, Syria, Libya and finally Ukraine – Russia is once again a rival, especially with Putin’s current advance in the Black Sea.
But despite the geopolitical incompatibility between Ankara and Moscow (which nevertheless greatly suits NATO and the U.S.), Putin and Erdogan engage in pragmatic relations, both in Syria and Libya. In 2016, at the time of the failed coup, Erdogan closed the U.S. base at Incirlik for a week and received Moscow’s full support. With the gradual (but relative) U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, Erdogan is experimenting with multipolarity with Russia and China. “We are in a post-Western world,” Turkish diplomacy has long proclaimed. But a world that is neither safe nor pacified, and which has made Turkey an even less democratic and tolerant country. With our complicity.