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The geopolitics behind Joe Robinson’s dramatic escape from Turkey

16 December 2018

6:28 PM

16 December 2018

6:28 PM

Whenever someone mentions the words ‘escape’ and ‘Turkey’ in the same sentence, I immediate think of the classic film, Midnight Express. While the details of how a former British solider jailed in Turkey for fighting against ISIS managed to flee the country are scant, this definitely has the beginnings of a Hollywood plot.

To sum it up so far: In 2015, Joe Robinson from Accrington, Lancashire, travelled to Syria where he spent time with armed Kurdish groups, including the YPG. He says he was working as a medic, though he also admits to fighting Isis. He returned to the UK, but in 2017 made the fatal mistake of holidaying in Turkey. While there, he was arrested, convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation and sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years in jail.

By now you’re probably wondering what the problem is. He was fighting Isis, that’s a good thing, right? Well not in the eyes of Turkey, if you did it alongside a group like the YPG. While not proscribed in the UK, in the ‘Erdogan Empire’ it’s regarded as a terrorist group. So, in the eyes of Turkish courts, plain old ‘G.I. Joe’ is an enemy of the state. But why, you might be asking, is the YPG seen as such a threat when Turkey’s NATO allies, including the US, are supporting it?


Well, in a nutshell, Turkish authorities see the YPG and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, as being one and the same. The PKK have been waging a decades long insurgency in Turkey with the aim of obtaining equal rights and Kurdish autonomy. Turkey accuses the YPG/PKK of using the internal conflict in Syria to threaten its own territories and has launched incursions across the Syrian border to clear the group from its enclaves. Last week, President Erdogan also warned that a third operation is on the cards.

The YPG is an issue Ankara and Washington have long locked horns over. The US has previously stated it considers the Kurdish-led forces a critical battlefield partner and has equipped them in the fight against Isis. Meanwhile, as Turkish military forces have been fighting against the US-armed YPG, that’s led to claims that Turkey has actually been secretly supporting ISIS. Now it appears the tension could be about to be ratcheted up a notch or two. The US, which set up observation posts on the Syrian side of the border in order to lessen tensions, has warned Turkey against a new incursion.

As expected, the papers in Turkey are teeming to the brim with news of this fresh assault. Headlines scream out warnings from Erdogan, that there is no time to waste in the fight against YPG terror. That and the unusual rhetoric which portrays the President as unfathomably just and right in his every pronouncement. But what’s caught my eye even more, is that the papers seem to be completely void of any news of Joe Robinson, a convicted YPG sympathiser and his secret escape from the country. Clearly that’s not quite on point.

For the moment, this could be good news for the former soldier who was on bail pending an appeal against his sentence. He’s described the ordeal as draining and insisted that he’s not a criminal. So, instead of putting his fate in the hands of the Turkish justice system, he ran for his life. And who could blame him, when a quarter of judges and prosecutors in the country have been dismissed or jailed since the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

There is a chance Turkey could make moves to extradite the Lancashire lad. But even if it does, it’s not clear if UK authorities would agree to it, particularly when they have concerns about the country’s human rights record. Joe it seems now wants to be average, keep his head down and spend time with his nearest and dearest. Given the charges against him in Turkey, I doubt he’ll ever willingly return.


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