After the October 1st bomb attack on the Interior Ministry, which is claimed by the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) affiliated group, Ankara has adopted a more hawkish stance both politically and militarily. This hawkishness happens on two fronts, one military and the other diplomatic with two operations challenging the West.
Statements from Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Minister of National Defence Yaşar Güler on October 4 indicated that the military action against the PKK in Syria and Iraq will not be limited to recent strikes in Iraq. Turkish jets have been striking PKK targets in Iraw for the second time in three days on October 4.
In particular, Fidan’s warning, referring to the US, that “third parties should stay away from the PKK/YPG, facilities and individuals” is a sign that targets in Syria will carry more weight in the upcoming operations.
Güler’s reiteration about “legitimate targets” is not a coincidence; his statement came after a meeting held at the Ministry of National Defense, which was almost like an informal “war council”. In addition to Fidan, the meeting was attended by Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, Chief of General Staff General Metin Gürak and Intelligence chief İbrahim Kalın.
It marks an extraordinary situation, a rare meeting even for Ankara.
Message to the West on two fronts
Iraqi Defense Minister Tabit Mohammed al-Abbasi meets Güler in Ankara on October 5. Baghdad had protested against Ankara after the October 1 bombings. On the other hand, the PKK has been basing itself on Iraqi territory and attacking Türkiye for almost 40 years, and Iraq, which has been invaded twice by the US, is in no position to do anything about it, even if it wanted to.
However, it is clear to the diplomatic community that by declaring PKK “facilities and personalities” in Syria and Iraq as legitimate targets, Türkiye is actually sending a message not to Syria and Iraq but to the West, especially the US.
In 2014, in the fight against ISIS, the US decided to cooperate not with its NATO ally Türkiye but with the PYD/YPG, the Syrian extension of the PKK, which it officially considers a terrorist organization. In 2015, the US established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so as not to appear to be cooperating with the PKK. Despite Türkiye ‘s reaction, it continues to provide weapons, training, money and most importantly political protection. It is hard to explain Fidan’s claim that the two terrorists involved in the October 1 attack were trained in Syria and sent to Türkiye to carry out the attack.
Second front for the West in the Caucasus
The second of the fronts to the West was opened as a diplomatic operation in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict with the announcement of an illness. On October 4, it was announced that all of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s programs had been canceled due to a cold.
Erdoğan could indeed have been suffering from a cold, as he looked tired during his opening speech to Parliament on October 1. On the other hand, among the canceled programs was his participation in the European Political Community Summit in Granada, Spain on October 5.
On the agenda of the Granada Summit were European issues of concern to Türkiye, from Sweden’s accession to NATO to the Kosovo-Serbia tensions, with the Karabakh issue at the spotlight. (*) The armed uprising by radical Armenian groups in Karabakh on September 19 was crushed by the Azerbaijani army in 25 hours. The European Union countries, France in particular, reacted to the migration from Karabakh to Armenia after this operation regarding it as “ethnic cleansing”. The EU Commission, Germany and France wanted to meet with Armenia and Azerbaijan in Granada. Azerbaijan’s request for Türkiye to attend this meeting was rejected by France and Germany.
Shortly after Erdoğan canceled the trip, Aliyev also announced that he would not go to Spain.
Not only Karabakh
Ankara has demonstrated not only its support for Baku in the Karabakh case, but also in the diplomatic arena that it takes risks against the West.
It is already possible to say that the EU’s formula of meeting only with Armenia without Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan’s three major neighbors, Türkiye, Russia and Iran, will not have any credibility. The same goes for Sweden’s NATO membership, where Türkiye wants additional measures against the PKK, or even Kosovo-Serbia.
The situation is different for military operations against the PKK presence in Syria and Iraq. In Syria in particular, it is not only the US, but also Russia and Iran, and Russia’s efforts to reconcile President Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have a role.
Ankara is aware that while it is challenging the West militarily and diplomatically, in two fronts, it is doing so at a time when it is looking not only to the West but also to rich Arab countries for foreign investment to help it out of its economic crisis. Therefore, the fact that Interior Minister Yerlikaya was not included in the “war council” photo of Treasury and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek perhaps indicates that economic risks were taken.
(*) Nagorno-Karabakh is the continuation of the name given to Karabakh during the Soviet Union rule. There is also no “Plain Karabakh” or “Lower Karabakh” and the name Karabakh is also used in Azerbaijan.