What the Media Aren’t Telling You About Turkey and the Kurds

Mainstream media are taking occasional breaks from 24/7 impeachment coverage this month to lambaste the Trump Administration for abandoning our Syrian Kurdish allies at the insistence of Turkey’s despotic rulers. Since the original withdrawal announcement, Administration policy has taken on a helter-skelter quality: rushing out sanctions, threatening airstrikes and deploying troops elsewhere in the Middle East. Ultimately Trump policies are producing more foreign adventurism and less freedom of commerce for American companies. But the original decision to pull out was the correct one, and consistent media criticism of the withdrawal often omits important facts that the American public needs to consider. Specifically:

  • As a member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has been a US treaty ally for as long as most of us can remember; the Syrian Kurdish forces are not a recognized state and thus cannot be an ally, a term used in diplomatic parlance to refer to states formally cooperating with one another.
  • The Syrian Kurdish forces are connected with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which was designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in 1997 and remains on the list in 2019.

Widespread media hostility to President Trump’s decision to relocate American troops away from the path of advancing Turkish forces has two sources. On the right, many want US forces fully deployed everywhere and never withdrawn, which is perhaps why the US still has a huge footprint in Germany three decades after that country ceased to be at the front line of the Cold War.

While on the left, many find fault with whatever the President does: a risky approach since even a stopped clock is correct twice each day. Humanitarian interventionists aside, many truly antiwar Progressives and libertarians also find Trump policies disappointing, because they don’t amount to anything approaching real non-interventionism: As Justin Amash recently tweeted: “President Trump’s bluster about ending endless war, he’s not ending anything. Our troops aren’t coming home; a small number were moved so Turkey could escalate the war. And the president has expanded our role in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and kept us in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Cherry-picking facts or reporting distortions in support of an anti-Trump or pro-intervention narrative does a huge disservice to the American public, who, as the President rightly noted last week, have spent $8 trillion and lost thousands of soldiers on endless wars in the Middle East since 9/11. And, as major media are failing to tell us,, several of those US casualties have been in Syria. So let’s drill down on the two facts I presented earlier, to get a more balanced picture.

When Turkey acceded to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1952, it agreed with the US and other NATO allies to "maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack," as stated in Article 3. Further Article 5 states that an attack on one NATO member shall be considered an attack on them all, triggering a right of collective self-defense. In the original 1949 treaty language, this provision applied only in North America and Europe, but was expanded to include Turkey in 1952.

Turkey has been fighting an armed Kurdish insurgency for decades. The PKK has Marxist-Leninist roots, placing it within the range of adversaries contemplated by the framers of the original NATO treaty. But, like virtually everyone else in the United States, I lack the information needed to say who is right and who is wrong in the Turkey/PKK conflict and suspect that the answer lies somewhere in between. But that notwithstanding, we can be sure that PKK operations in Turkey have caused civilian casualties.

The most recently published State Department report on terrorism cites two PKK attacks in Southeast Turkey that killed a total of six people and wounded 19 others. The report also states that "As a counterterrorism partner of the United States, Turkey continued to receive U.S. assistance to address the terrorist threat posed by the PKK in 2017."

Turkish media report many more attacks continuing into this year. For example, the Hurriyet Daily News reported last month that a PKK Improvised Explosive Device killed seven forestry workers while injuring nine others. The report goes on to state that PKK attacks have claimed 40,000 lives since the 1980s. More recently, Turkey’s Defense Ministry alleged that "PKK/YPG terrorists in northern Syria are hiding in schools and hospitals and attacking civilian settlements in Turkey with rockets, wounding innocent civilians."

Given this apparent fact pattern, it is understandable why Turkey would want to have a buffer zone on its southern border. After all, Israel occupied portions of southern Lebanon for 17 years at least in part as a response to PLO rockets being fired into its northern settlements, without triggering widespread condemnation in American media.

Ignoring or downplaying our NATO ally’s struggle with Kurdish insurgents is just one of the many ways in which mainstream media oversimplifies the complex situation in Syria. For example, Americans may be forgiven for not knowing that Turkey’s Recep Erdogan has had five summits with Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani to discuss conditions in Syria since 2017. Turkey, Russia and Iran are not natural allies. Indeed, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet shortly after Putin initiated Russian intervention in Syria. But shared concerns over ISIS and al Qaeda brought these three to the negotiating table to make difficult compromises because, as Secretary of State James Baker said, "you negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends".

The Erdogan/Putin/Rohani meetings have coincided with a diminution of violence in Syria and a slowing of refugee outflows that brought havoc to Turkey and much of the European Union (as well as the lives of those forced to move). Further, these negotiations cannot resolve all of Syria’s troubles, nor will they result in the implementation of a Jeffersonian-style democracy in Syria for the foreseeable future.

But of more concern to most Americans is the risk that we will lose our own Jeffersonian democracy – or, more precisely, our Republic – if we don’t start trimming back the US empire. Military adventurism overseas since 9/11 has been associated with the loss of domestic freedoms. Further, there would never have been a good time to remove troops from the Turkish-Syrian border: Turks and Kurds have been at odds for centuries. The US military cannot assure optimal results everywhere: in many cases, we’ll have to tolerate the outcomes that local states and regional powers achieve. Otherwise, the loss of American lives and treasure will continue until our country will no longer be able to take care of itself, let alone others.

Marc Joffe is Senior Policy Analyst at the Reason Foundation.