Fate of Our Kurdish Allies in Balance After Turkey Gives Way on NATO Expansion

Erdogan is demanding that Sweden and Finland stop supporting ‘terrorists’ such as the Kurdish Workers Party, but some see Ankara ‘going after Kurds in general.’

AP/Paul White
President Erdogan arrives for the NATO summit at Madrid June 29, 2022. AP/Paul White

Convincing Turkey to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO took some doing — including the revival of a shameful American tradition: throwing our Kurdish allies under the bus. 

This week’s announcement that Ankara would remove its opposition to the Nordic countries’ accession to the North Atlantic Treaty was short on details, but it addressed President Erdogan’s demands that Sweden and Finland stop supporting “terrorists” such as the Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK.

While the State Department has listed the PKK as a terrorist organization since 1998, Turkey “labels every Kurd as PKK,” the president of the Washington-based advocacy group American Friends of Kurdistan, Diliman Abdulkader, says. 

Ankara “is not just going after the PKK,” Mr. Abdulkader told the Sun. It’s “going after Kurds in general.” He said there is a secret list of 30 Kurdish individuals that Mr. Erdogan wants Sweden to extradite to Turkey. 

As part of his veto threat at NATO, Mr. Erdogan demanded Stockholm rid itself of the “terrorists” that he said “even sit in the parliament.” He was referring to Sweden’s sole Kurdish parliament member, Amineh Kakabaveh, who has nothing to do with the PKK. At the age of 19, Ms. Kakabaveh arrived in Sweden as a refugee from her homeland, Iran, where she opposed the Islamic Republic regime.

Ms. Kakabaveh’s vote earlier this month proved decisive in defeating a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Andersson. Her rescue of the government, Ms. Kakabaveh said, was based on an agreement with Ms. Andersson that it is “in this hall that Sweden’s laws should be enacted, not in Ankara.”

Details of yesterday’s NATO deal with Turkey are sketchy, and several sources say that Sweden, as a country of laws, will not allow innocents to be unduly extradited. Yet Sweden has long served as a haven for Kurds, and activists fear it will now become less hospitable. 

NATO’s expansion reflects a geopolitical shift in the West: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned it into top strategic menace, pushing the war against Islamist terrorists to the back burner. That shift presents yet another danger to Kurds in the Mideast, where they reside in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. 

In Syria, a Kurdish group, the People Protection Units, or YPG, is gearing up for a major confrontation with Turkey. “There’s a lot of anxiety that there is a secret NATO deal with Turkey that involves the Kurds” in Syria, a reporter for Kurdish Rudaw television, Majeed Gly, told the Sun. 

“This could turn into a bloodbath,” a source with ties to the YPG adds. The Kurdish group and its sister organization in Syria, the Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ,  have in recent years become America’s most reliable allies in the war against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists.

President Trump in October 2019 ordered the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, even as hawkish senators and senior members of his own administration berated him for betraying the Kurds. The 900 CIA agents and American service members who nevertheless remain in Syria are based in a Kurdish-controlled territory. 

Some 11,000 Kurdish fighters lost their lives in last decade’s American-sponsored war against ISIS. Yet, Washington now supports a plan proposed by the United Nations, Turkey, and Qatar to resettle Syrian refugees in northeastern Syria. 

The fear is that Mr. Erdogan will flood the Kurdish de facto autonomous zone there with Arabs from around the region, including some who had never lived in Syria, as well as Islamist terrorist groups long supported by Ankara. Kurdish villages could then be ethnically cleansed by Turkish-backed militias. 

The Swedish parliamentarian, Ms. Kakabaveh, said earlier this month that she would support Ms. Andersson’s government on the condition that Sweden would prevent such a plan. Yet, with NATO having now become a top issue, “it seems that Andersson feels she no longer needs Kakabaveh’s support,” the leader of the American Kurdish Information Network, Kani Xulam, says. 

According to Biden administration officials, America has not agreed to any side deals with Turkey aside from an agreement for a “yes” vote on NATO expansion, which requires consent from all existing members. A day after Ankara removed its opposition, however, Washington threw its support behind the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, which it had previously opposed. The announcement was yet another victory for Ankara. 

“It has cost Erdogan nothing to throw a bunch of roadblocks” at NATO, a Turkey watcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Sinan Ciddi, said. Now, he added, Mr. Erdogan can use all the concessions he won from America and other allies to amass political support at home, where he stands for re-election  next year. 

Ankara would have likely withdrawn its objections even without the concessions, Mr. Ciddi said, adding that Mr. Erdogan deserves no prize for “basically removing a veto, which is an aggressive move.” Regardless, as “Biden doesn’t like to play hardball politics,” Mr. Erdogan got much of what he wanted, Mr. Ciddi said. 

The result could well strengthen a Turkish autocrat with ties to Moscow, Beijing, and some of the Mideast’s worst Islamist terrorist — and do so on the expense of Kurdish allies who have long fought and died on America’s side. 

The New York Sun

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