31 Jul 2015

‘Turkey has hijacked the fight against IS’

The Kurdish YPG were hailed heroes in the fight against Islamic State. But one Brit who fought alongside them says that Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish separatists will put their entire mission at risk.

He held a regular job in London and had no military experience. But this 28-year-old former trader from Cambridgeshire remembers what drew him to Syria to fight against the Islamic State.

It was “watching the rise of the Islamic State and being utterly appalled,” Macer Gifford told Channel 4 News. “I was appalled at them, at their ideology, appalled that the British and American fighters had no plan to combat them and wanting to make a difference.”

Since returning from the battlefield last month, Mr Gifford is eager to raise awareness of the plight of the Kurds, who are seen by many as the unsung heroes of the fight against the IS. But during that time something has changed.

Turkey has opened its airbases to US-led coalition warplanes and is expected to create a buffer zone on its border. While joining the US-led coalition against IS has been welcomed, the country has simultaneously launched a series of strikes in Northern Iraq on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, extremists that have a long history of committing acts of terrorism against Turkish citizens.

But for Gifford this move has cast confusion over the central mission. “The Turkish government has hijacked the fight against the Islamic State for their selfish national interest,” he told Channel 4 News. “The Turks are incredibly angry, jealous and frustrated with the successes of the Kurds against IS. They would rather see all of Syria burn than have the Kurds on their doorstep.”

View from Ankara

Officials in Ankara deny this, saying they are only attacking positions held by PKK who they see as critical an enemy as IS. But the timing of this plan has doubtlessly complicated matters.

In the first two days of the Turkish campaign, for instance, Turkey said it sent only a few planes to bomb Syria while there were 185 air missions against about 400 PKK targets.”This is a crackdown on Kurdish separatism and it’s got nothing to do with Islamic State,” Mr Gifford says.

His views echo much of the writing in Turkish media and indeed some the Turkish community in London. Some even go so far as to suggest the US are deliberately turning a blind eye – a charge Washington denies.

“There is no way this deal with America would have gone ahead in return for just buffer space or a no fly zone,” one 29-year-old who declined to be named told Channel 4 News. “Someone has agreed to turn a blind eye on the PKK strikes. It may not be written on paper – but the timing cannot be coincidental.”

Picture: Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighbourhood in Hasaka city.

Domestic Tension

Meanwhile tensions inside the country are escalating. On Thursday Kurdish rebels raided a Turkish police station and fired on railway workers in two separate attacks inside the country that have left five dead.

The country’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said Turkey’s onslaught against the PKK will continue until its fighters lay down arms, despite calls from Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party for the resumption of peace efforts. “The dialogue — slow as it was — must resume,” Selahattin Demirtas, a popular Kurdish leader who recently scored well in the polls, said in televised comments. “Fingers must be removed from the trigger.”

Conservative MP Colonel Bob Stewart believes the onus is on the coalition to steer Turkey back to the task in hand. “The PKK aren’t the bigger threat here, [IS] is,” he told Channel 4 News. “But it’s up to Turkey to deal with its own domestic issues. We can’t get involved with that.”

But those who have fought with the YPG plead that their plight is not forgotten. Jac Holmes, 22, is from Bournemouth. He too fought in Syria alongside the YPG, motivated, he says, by “the plight of the Kurdish people”.

“All the Kurds inspire each other. When you’re on the front line with 18-year-old girls and guys they inspire you. It’s the same for them – we [the British] inspire them a lot. They know there’s no reason why we should be there. There’s no reason why we should care.

“Even the fighters who don’t speak English are really appreciative of people who are leaving their families at home in Britain to join them.”

Both Mr Gifford and Mr Fuller have not ruled out returning to the battlefield.

The Syrian conflict was always a complicated arrnagement – even before the Turks opened up another front against the Kurds, who are widely seen as vital of allies. How the US and Nato respond to this triangulation could play a major role.

Expect the most delicate of diplomacy.

Macer Gifford is a name adopted as a nom de guerre by the man referred to in this report. We have been asked to clarify that there is another individual whose real name is Macer Gifford who has no connection to this man and has not been engaged in any of the activities referred to.