Petting Hamas While Killing Kurds, The Double Game of Turkish President Erdoğan

by November 2023
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan during the “Great Palestinian Rally” in Istanbul, October 28, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya.

“We will tell the whole world that Israel is a war criminal. We are preparing for this. We will declare Israel a war criminal,” said Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan during the “Great Palestinian Rally” that took place in Istanbul on October 28, exactly three weeks after Hamas murdered over 1400 Israeli and other citizens, including women and children, and kidnapped 240. Earlier, Erdoğan had claimed that Hamas was not a terrorist organization, but a liberation group.

The huge crowd waving Turkish and Palestinian flags was ecstatic. But many of Erdoğan’s critics online were rather skeptical. “Great Palestine Rally in Istanbul. What if Kurds held a “Great #Kurdistan Rally? They’d call this a terrorist gathering and participants would be tear gassed, homes raided and then jailed with a significant number of them being shot dead,” Diliman Abdulkader, President of the American Friends of Kurdistan wrote on X.

A few days later, another X user posted footage of a Turkish military parade, celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the Turkish republic, in the largely Kurdish city of Sirnak, saying “Imagine Israeli army doing that in a Palestinian city.”

The analogy is instructive. Between the two world wars, when empires collapsed and nation states in the Middle East first appeared, both Palestinians and Kurds emerged stateless. Both engaged in armed conflict, the Palestinians against Israel and the Kurds against Turkey (and later against Iran, Iraq and Syria). Today Turkey, as well as the other three countries, enthusiastically support Hamas, dubbing its terrorist activities a fight for liberation. Turkey designates the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), as well as other Kurdish parties and militias based in Syria, as terrorists.

Back in August 2015, Turkey accused the BBC of supporting terrorism after it aired a report on why Kurdish and Yazidi women join the PKK to fight ISIS, blaming the network for “glorification and support for terrorism.” This happened while Turkey was actively supporting organizations that other countries have designated as terrorist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qa’ida affiliates. For years, Hamas leaders were operating from Turkey, as well as senior members of Muslim Brotherhood. While Ankara happily embraced other countries’ terrorists, it was oppressing Kurds at home and attacking them across the border in Syria and Iraq. 

These days, with the world’s attention focused on Israel and Gaza, Turkey is reigniting its fight against the Kurds. Between October 5 to 9, Turkey attacked over 140 civilian objectives in northern Syria, including residential homes, electricity networks, gas stations and educational centers. Some were completely destroyed and taken out of order, while others suffered material damage. Two hospitals in the Syrian regions of Jazira and Kobane were completely destroyed. As a result of the attacks, 44 people died, including civilians and fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians formed to fight ISIS in alliance with the US) while 55 were injured.

“Targets belonging to PKK/YPG terrorists in northern Syria’s Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring operation areas were hit strongly all night long,” the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced on October 7. It also informed 58 militants were “neutralized” in operations carried out under self-defense rights. No attacks on hospitals or other civilian targets were mentioned, and the Reuters report on the Turkish operation didn’t include any such details or reaction from any Kurdish official.

“During the past 72 hours, Turkey targeted more than 145 locations in our safe region, including power stations, water and energy facilities, hospitals, and schools,” Mazloum Abdi, the general commander of SDF.

Smoke rises from the majority Kurdish city of Qamishli in northern Syria, October 5, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Orhan Qereman.

While media around the world were busy covering Gaza, just a handful reported the escalation in northern Syria and Erdoğan’s war against the Kurds there. The threat of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan that all SDF-linked facilities were “legitimate targets” didn’t draw any international criticism or the ire of protestors around the globe.

It is worth remembering when Erdoğan vigorously attacks Israel for “expulsion of the people in Gaza,” that some 130,000 Kurds had to flee Turkish military incursions in northern Syria. The Kurds fled to the province of Aleppo where they now live in makeshift camps. The policy of terror, confiscation of property, arrests, kidnappings, torture, and looting practiced under the aegis of the Turkish occupation army by the Arab and Turkmen Islamist militias pushed about 130,000 Kurds and others to leave. Their homes, land and businesses have been donated to pro-Turkey militiamen. 

Since 2018 Turkey has relocated around 400,000 Arabs and Turkmens into the canton of Afrin in Syria, diluting what was once a Kurdish majority into what is at present only one quarter of the population. The canton is for all practical purposes now part of the Turkish governorate of Hatay. The Turkish flag flies over buildings, schools teach in both Arabic and Turkish, electricity and telephone networks are now connected to those in Turkey, in what appears to be a de facto annexation of a once mostly Kurdish canton of Syria. 

It’s rather incredible that Erdoğan can simultaneously bomb Kurdish hospitals in northern Syria, strike civilians still suffering from the effects of the 2022 earthquake by destroying their infrastructure and homes, and displace thousands of Kurds in favor of Arabs and Turkmen, while at the same time waging a fierce political campaign against Israel under the pretense of “support of the Palestinian people.” 

Erdoğan’s political party the AKP also fuels antisemitism in Europe. Just recently Fatih Ünal, a prominent member of the ruling Turkish AKP party and deputy chairman of the Ankara City Council, traveled to Stockholm at the invitation of the Swedish branch of the Union of International Democrats, closely connected to the AKP. Unal is famous for his hatred of Israel and the Jews. Here is his post in X from October 19 : “O Israel, O Zionists, O Jews: One day, a Moses will emerge to dismantle the paper castles you have constructed. The trees that provide you shelter will offer no refuge, either… There is no benefit in fearing unavoidable (death).”

Countries in the West refrain from sharply criticizing Turkey’s cross-border attacks into Syria and its treatment of its own Kudish minority. Among the many geopolitical reasons for this silence are a preoccupation with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the need for Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. 

The northern Syria-based author of a Telegram channel, “Women. Life. Freedom,” bitterly noted the following. “Since October 7 the media often uses the phrase ‘the war in the Middle East.’ Certainly, it’s not a mistake. But while the world is busy with one war there is another one in the Middle East.” She, like many other Kurds fears that while the world is looking the other way, Erdoğan will step up his campaign of attacks, killings, extortion and ethnic cleansing against them. 

Those in the West who embrace Hamas and its Turkish backer should reconsider this position.

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
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