When waging war, picking the right allies is a careful business. You must make concessions, without giving in too much. You need to rely on someone else, without becoming too dependent. You need to stand firm, and be flexible at the same time. War-time allies can turn into bitter enemies after victory has been declared, and your worst enemy might in fact prove to be your best friend after all.
No country in the world knows this better than the United States, which hasn't gone through a single decade without waging war since it was founded in 1776 – in fact, the U.S. has been at war for a shocking 222 years out of its 239 years of existence.
The U.S.'s latest war against the fascist militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) is little different from the ones that preceded it: it has no-one but itself to blame for the escalation of the conflict, the excuse is self-defense, the method is extreme violence and the goal is democracy – or whatever can be labeled as such. One war is the breeding ground for the next and as long as the ultimately fictitious goal of peace and stability is kept dangling in front of the crowd like a carrot on a stick, there never really is a reason to actually lay down the arms.
Fighting IS, or not?
Recently, the U.S. picked a new ally in the fight against IS. Its refusal to put any boots on the ground – not that this would solve anything – means that it is constantly looking for other groups that are willing to clean up the mess on the ground while the it commits itself to dropping bombs from safe heights on suspected enemy positions.
The choice between two potential allies was a tough one, since it was basically a zero-sum game. The two allies' mutual hatred and distrust meant that choosing one over the other would almost certainly lead to a deterioration in the relationships with the other.
One ally had already proven its worth on the battlefield, adding a string of sounding victories over the Islamic State to its name after several successful operations in the last few months. This ally consisted not of mercenaries, drafted soldiers or radicals of any kind. On the contrary, they were the locals of the region, fighting to protect their land, villages and families. They were not only fighting against IS, but at the same time also for such important values as real democracy, gender equality and ecological sustainability.
The other ally had an entirely different agenda. Over the past few years it had shown next to no interest in fighting against IS. In fact, IS was free to brainwash and recruit young men within its territory; injured IS fighters had been welcomed and treated free of charge in its public hospitals; and, thousands upon thousands of aspiring jihadists had been allowed to cross its borders into IS territory. Also crossing the borders were tons of arms and ammunition, truckloads full of construction material and enough consumer goods to keep the local shops of Raqqah well stocked. Recent findings also revealed that it had been the number one recipient of the IS oil smuggling business, in return supplying the jihadists with millions of dollars every day to continue their campaign of terror.
The first party are the Kurdish militias called the Peoples' and Women's Defense Forces (YPG and YPJ). They are the armed wing of the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish party with close links to the PKK. The other party is the Republic of Turkey, home to approximately 17 million ethnic Kurds and whose government perceives the YPG and YPJ as a greater threat to its national security than IS.
My enemy's enemy is my enemy
While relying on 222 years of experience in waging war one would assume that the above wouldn't be much of a conundrum to the American Chiefs of War. And indeed it wasn't. While the fighters of the YPG and YPJ were risking their lives fighting man-to-man combat with IS militants the U.S. and Turkey triumphantly announced a deal had been brokered that allowed the US warplanes to take off from Turkish airbases in return for the US' support for a “safe zone” in northern Syria that would not only be off limits to IS, but to the Kurdish forces too.
Turkey had finally decided to take the fight to IS after a suicide bomb attack took the lives of 33 young activists in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey, wary of the increasingly close relationships between the US and the YPG and YPJ in Syria and at the same time worried that its comradely treatment of IS might eventually come back to haunt them, decided that it was the right time to declare war on the terrorists.
However, in a move that surprised friends and foes alike, after a half-hearted attempt at bombing IS positions in Syria it quickly launched an all-out war against the PKK, both in Turkey and northern Iraq. Effectively bombing the precarious peace process that was supposed to bring an end to 35 years of civil war into non-existence, Turkish jets flew thousands of sorties, throwing the country back into the chaos so characteristic of the nineties when the civil war was at its height.
The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization, and as such its attacks – in many cases mere retaliations for similar acts of violence committed by the Turkish state against its Kurdish citizens – are per definition illegitimate. Both the U.S. and NATO dutifully recognized Turkey's right to “defend” itself against “PKK aggression”. What is left out of the equation here, however, is that Turkey could hardly do IS a bigger favor than by attacking the Kurdish guerrillas that have proven to be the Islamic State's most determined opponents.
It was the PKK that fought back IS in Shengal, rescuing tens of thousands of Yezidis, when even the U.S.-backed and armed Peshmergas had left the battlefield with their tails between their legs. The battle-hardened PKK fighters have been integrated in the ranks of the YPG and YPJ, and without them such important victories as the ones in Kobane, Tel Abyad and, most recently, Hassaka would never have come to pass.
War over peace
If the U.S. was serious about fighting IS, it would not only have been providing full support – both in deed and in word – to the YPG and YPJ and its sister organization, the PKK, but it would also confront Turkey on the mountains of evidence that they have in fact been supporting IS, demand that the borders with the Kurdish regions in Syria would be opened, request that the bombing campaign against PKK positions and the terror campaign against Kurdish civilians be seized immediately, and most importantly, take the PKK of the terror list.
Unfortunately, the U.S.’s actions have shown that it is interested in no such thing.
Rather than defeating IS, its objective is the preservation and expansion of its influence in the region. For this, Turkey is a much more valuable partner than either the YPG and YPJ or the PKK. Action speaks louder than words, and in choosing its allies the US has shown clearly where its priorities really lie: power over democracy, influence over honesty and war over peace.
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine.