Idrees Mohammed writes in a guest column for Levantine Routes
Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds is a sensitive and major longstanding political issue. Paradoxically, Ankara is aware that it needs to better address Turkish-Kurdish ties and implement reforms, yet its inability to achieve genuine progress is a liability for Turkey’s national interests and foreign relations. This is exemplified by Turkey’s precarious relationship with Syria.
The Syrian civil war has created two primary concerns for Turkey. If Syrian Kurds inspired by the Iraqi Kurdistan model create an autonomous region in Syria, this will threaten Turkish sovereignty. Turkish Kurds could become emboldened to demand greater rights including their own autonomy, a policy Ankara resolutely rejects.
However, even if the Syrian Kurds achieve autonomy, it is unlikely they will seek full independence or unite with Iraqi Kurds. Nonetheless, Kurdish autonomy in Syria would influence Iranian Kurds to also seek limited rule, which could ultimately result in three separate Kurdish regions divided between Iraq, Iran and Syria. Turkey will strive to prevent this scenario from occurring inside its territory, but if successful, Ankara will have to struggle to prevent the Kurdish grand dream of a “Greater Kurdistan.”
There are also fears Assad will exploit the Syrian conflict by unleashing the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK — designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States — in retaliation for Ankara’s alleged military support to the Syrian opposition. This scenario is perhaps as dangerous as the possibility of Kurdish autonomy, although the security threat exists on a short-term scale.
However, a leading Kurdish opinion repudiates Turkish claims of reviving the Syria-PKK alliance. Nevertheless, the political consolidation of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with close ties to the PKK, and its domination of Kurdish politics in Syria may well end in a situation which ultimately would not simply strengthen the Kurdish movement in Turkey but also further complicate the Kurdish issue, and facilitate the emergence of a legitimate PKK influenced region in Syria.
There are limited effective instruments at Turkey’s disposal to deal with these scenarios. Turkey views Iran as an unreliable partner to deal with the Kurdish issue in Syria. Although Iran is also not immune to Kurdish aspirations of greater independence, it may turn a blind eye to a limited Kurdish ascendancy in Syria.
Turkey acknowledges that Iraqi Kurdistan carries much influence regarding the Kurdish issue and has enlisted the region’s cooperation in Syria. This cooperation may be shortsighted. In the final analysis, Syria’s crisis has critical implications for Kurds in Iraq and the Turkish strategy could backfire.
In spite of these obstacles and paradoxes, Turkey continues to play a significant role in Syria. Though Erdogan failed to persuade Assad to reform, he may find limited success with the Syrian National Council. But that would not provide him with too much political flexibility.
After the Kurds in Syria declared some regions liberated, Turkey threatened that it has a “natural right” to intervene in Syria. That Turkish option, however, is not strategic given domestic, regional and international implications. A Turkish assault against Syrian Kurds could incite Turkish Kurds to rebel and perhaps undermine Ankara’s relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, it would receive a harsh regional and international response, especially from Russia and Iran. The United States has already expressed concerns regarding Turkish mobilization along the Syrian border.
Considering these constraints, Turkey’s best available option may be to engage with the Syrian Kurds. Turkey’s refusal to hold dialogue with the PYD is a main obstacle because ignoring their influence means ignoring a significant component of Kurdish society. Turkey justifies this decision based on its ties with the PKK, thereby viewing it as an extension of terrorism.
This is not an appealing strategy for Ankara but perhaps the only way to overcome the many internal and external challenges it faces.
(Idrees Mohammed holds an MA in International Relations from Warsaw University. His thesis was on Turkey’s policy towards the Kurdistan Region. He writes on Turkish foreign policy and Kurdish issues and is based in the Kurdistan Region. He tweets @IdreesMohammd)