Turkey’s future approaches to Kurds in Syria

Up to a few months ago, the phrase that “Kurds in northern Syria should not approach the western banks of the Euphrates” was one of the redlines of the government in Turkey and it clearly proved that Ankara would by no means accept that Kurdish forces affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would gain more power in northern parts of Syria. However, in his latest position on this issue, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the United States must remain committed to its obligations and does not allow Kurds to remain in the west of Euphrates for a long time. In order to better understand the reasons behind the softening position of Turkey and the gradual change in categorical stances taken by its officials in the past, we must go back to two previous junctures. The first juncture was when the ruling Justice and Development Party (which is known as the AK Party by its Turkish name) had not taken any decision to recognize the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and did not cooperate with that region. At that time, Turkish leaders were by no means willing to have any relations with the Kurdish government in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. However, the time has changed and at the present time, the depth of political, security and oil relations between Erbil and Ankara is no mystery and everybody knows that President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani as well as his nephew and son-in-law, Nechervan Barzani, who is also the region’s prime minister, are trusted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and have close relations with the AK Party government.

Now, let’s move forward from that juncture to those days when the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani was under siege by Daesh terrorists and Erdogan announced that Kobani would fall “today or tomorrow.” Many analysts noted that this remark by Erdogan was an evidence to his anti-Kurdish positions, but the reality was different. By saying this, Erdogan was actually sending a message to the United States, the PKK, and Erbil, indirectly telling them that if Turkey could secure a share in the epic liberation of Kobani for its close ally, Barzani, then it would allow Peshmerga forces from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to go to Kobani using land and air routes and carrying heavy weapons in order to help the PKK-affiliated Kurdish guerrillas in their fight against Daesh and this is what actually happened in reality. It may be difficult for some Kurds to accept this point, but the truth is that Erdogan and Barzani were both instrumental in the liberation of Kobani. Now, let’s analyze these apparently surprising changes.

These are the realities of the world of politics and developments that take place on the face of the earth. I want to say that Kurds – both followers of Barzani and the PKK – and AK Party converge on a point, which can be described as pragmatism and protection of interests, and at that point, they are willing to change their positions once in a while. So, if such changes were possible in the past, why it must not be like that at the present time? Such an opportunity and possibility exists right now and nobody can firmly claim that Turkey does not agree with the emergence of a second semi-federal Kurdish state close to its borders. Of course, it is possible for Turkey to accept the existence of a second Kurdish region under specific conditions. Turkey is earning billions of dollars through this Iraqi Kurdistan Region because it has a big market for its products there and takes good advantage of friendship with Kurds to supply its needed energy and to promote security cooperation between the two sides.

Of course, there is one basic difference here, which is the serious difference between Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is led by Barzani, and the PKK, which is led by Abdullah Öcalan. The difference is that through its radical leftist viewpoints, the PKK seeks to realize certain ideals, which are totally different from those of Barzani and due to this reason, the PKK is very hostile to Barzani as well. The PKK is, in the meantime, fighting against the Turkish government and has embarked on many acts of terror during past months, which have left scores of civilians dead. In other words, for the AK Party government, working with the PKK is not anything similar to working with Barzani.

At any rate, the PKK is now at its weakest and perhaps gaining power in northern Syria and simultaneous cooperation with the United States, Russia and Europe is the sole trump card to be played by this group. Without a doubt, if the situation in Syria continues in the current manner, not only Turkey and Syria, but also Americans would not and could not want to take Kurds to the previous situation of oppression in which Syrian Kurds were when President Bashsar Assad was at the peak of his power. Therefore, just in the same way that all involved parties in Iraq finally had to include Kurds in their games, they will have to allocate a share to Kurds in the future Syria as well. At that critical juncture, and in order to interact with the political and military currents affiliated with the PKK in northern Syria, the United States and other involved parties would tell them to “reach an agreement with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in order to have a clear position defined for you.”

This article was written by Mohammad Ali Dastmali for Iran Review on Aug 18, 2016. Mohammad Ali Dastmali  is Expert on Turkey Affairs.