Extremism is losing in the Middle East, but one NATO member is getting in the way of progress

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On a number of fronts in the Middle East, Daesh (Isis/Isil) is facing increasing pressure from its many opponents. But the Turkish government – which has supported the extremist group in the past – has its own geopolitical interests in mind. And its efforts are significantly hindering the fight against Daesh.

Progress in Iraq

The Battle of Mosul started on 17 October. It has sought to push Daesh out of Iraq’s second-biggest city. It has already displaced tens of thousands of civilians; and Daesh has killed a number of civilians to discourage resistance. But more than a third of the city’s eastern side is now under the control of Iraqi armed forces.

The Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – Shia-led militias fighting alongside the Iraqi military – are also moving forward to the west of Mosul. They aim to reach the Daesh stronghold of Tal Afar, and thus cut the roads between Mosul and Raqqa (the terror group’s self-declared capital in Syria).

Tensions with Turkey

Working with the PMU are the YBŞ/YJŞ. These are Yazidi (or Êzidî) militias which recently announced an “Operation to Avenge Êzidî Women”. In 2014, Daesh killed thousands of Yazidis in the Iraqi town of Shengal, taking at least 7,000 women as slaves. The YBŞ/YJŞ – which are affiliated with the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – said they’d take areas to the south of Shengal back from Daesh. They also promised not to stop fighting until the liberation of all enslaved women in Tal Afar.

Turkey, however, has reiterated its opposition to the presence of PKK-affiliated groups in northern Iraq. And a Turkish intervention to back this stance up is not completely out of the question.

Advances on Daesh territory in Syria

In Syria, meanwhile, anti-Daesh forces continue to advance on Raqqa. They’ve liberated dozens of villages in the process. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the self-defence militias of the autonomous Syrian region of Rojava-Northern Syria – launched the operation on 6 November. The YPG/YPJ (the main forces in the SDF) are affiliated with the PKK.

The SDF-linked Syrian Democratic Council is currently preparing for a local civilian administration to run Raqqa after the expulsion of Daesh. It insists that the SDF operation comes as a response to calls for help from people in Raqqa. And one of its key aims is to liberate women held captive by Daesh. But YPJ spokeswoman Nisrin Abdullah says this won’t be easy, as Daesh has fortified the city in preparation for the attack.

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Turkey undermining SDF efforts in Syria

Elsewhere, Turkey has continued its own intervention in northern Syria, which intensified in late August. Responding to SDF victories over Daesh, Ankara helped largely nationalist forces (some with links to al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliates) to push southwards from the Turkish border. Their aim was to stop the SDF taking more land from Daesh and having greater influence in the area.

At the moment, the SDF and Turkish-backed forces are competing to take the Daesh stronghold of al-Bab. Thanks to Turkish bombing of the SDF, the pro-Turkish groups now look likely to reach al-Bab first. According to Royal United Services Institute–Qatar director, Michael Stephens, the conflict over al-Bab could put the SDF’s Raqqa operation “in jeopardy”.

Intensified crackdown on dissent in Turkey

But Turkey isn’t only fighting against PKK affiliates abroad. Since ending promising peace negotiations with the PKK in July 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been waging war on almost all his political opponents. And on 4 November, his purge intensified. Authorities detained a number of MPs from the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – which Erdoğan has long sought to link with the PKK. The HDP denies this link.

HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş is currently in prison alongside al-Qaeda convicts and other dangerous criminals. Authorities have even detained his lawyers.

At the same time, there has been a crackdown on independent media outlets. And the government has shut down at least 1,570 Kurdish and left-wing organisations – including those of lawyers and journalists.

Turkey as a ‘bad shepherd’ for the Middle East

European Parliament President Martin Schulz now says the EU will discuss economic sanctions in response to the ongoing crackdown on dissent in Turkey. Erdoğan allegedly responded by saying EU leaders would “burn in hell” if they imposed such sanctions.

Erdoğan, who has long sought greater presidential powers, recently said:

Those who don’t comprehend the philosophy of shepherding can’t manage people. I am also a shepherd.

And he is indeed like a shepherd. In the last 15 months, he has manipulated many people in Turkey into supporting the country’s descent into authoritarianism and his destructive military campaign against largely Kurdish areas like Nusaybin and Cizre.

Impact on the fight against Daesh

The power Erdoğan has obtained through his crackdown is also having an impact abroad. Ankara’s allies in the West, for example, largely recognise PKK-affiliated forces in Syria and Iraq to be some of the most effective fighters in the battle against Daesh. But Erdoğan’s opposition to peace with the PKK is proving to be more and more of a hindrance to regional efforts to defeat the extremist group.

And if the current situation in Turkey is anything to go by, no one should want Erdoğan’s plans for the Middle East to come true.

Get Involved!

– Read more Canary articles on TurkeySyria, IraqRojava, and Daesh.

– Write to the British Prime Minister and your MP. Ask them to urge Turkey to resume peace talks with its Kurdish communities and focus its efforts on defeating Daesh.

– Join at least 400,000 Brits who have already cancelled holidays in Turkey, and support the boycott campaign here.

– Find out about what life is like for women in Daesh-controlled Raqqa here and here.

Featured image via North India Times

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