A solution in Syria? Turkey and the Kurdish Question

By Vahap Coşkun

Turkey began began laying the diplomatic groundwork for its recent military operation in Jarabulus several months before its invasion of the ISIS held stronghold on August 24.

Turkish troops. Source: Middle East Monitor (file photo).

Turkish troops. Source: Middle East Monitor (file photo)

For the best part of the five-year-old Syrian civil war, there have been three regional actors active within Syria: Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime. Turkey, following its downing a Russian jet, was trapped inside its own borders, unable to influence the war escalating in Syria.

Further, Turkey was unable to take on an active military role in Syria because its policy called for the decisive removal of Assad, a position that was strictly opposed by Iran and successfully resisted by the Assad regime.

In May 2015, the AKP witnessed an internal power transfer at the will of President Erdoğan when Ahmet Davutoğlu was replaced by Binali Yıldırım as the new prime minister. This reshuffle also marked a shift in Turkish foreign policy that focussed on ‘improving friendships, decreasing enmities,’ to aid the recovery of their relations with neighboring countries.

The first friendly step was toward Russia. Turkey apologised for having shot down the Russian aircraft, as Russia had demanded, and relations swiftly began to normalize. Next, the Turkish government sought out closer ties with Iran. These two moves have consequently redefined Turkey’s stance on the conflict in Syria.

Its insistence on Assad’s unconditional removal has been shelved and the government gave the green light for a transition period in Syria that includes Assad. Syria’s territorial integrity has been emphasised in an effort to counter the formation of a Kurdish corridor under the control of Democratic Union Party/ People’s Protection Units (PYD/YPG – classified by Turkey as terrorist organisations) in the north of Syria, parallel to the Turkish border.

Turkey has since gone so far as to declare itself the guarantor of Syria’s territorial integrity. Binali Yıldırım framed these shifts in policy as the Turkish commitment to reach a better mutual understanding with Syria within six months.

The importance of Jarabulus

It is these developments that have made the recent operation in Jarabulus possible. All three national actors within Syria – Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime itself – were not opposed to Turkish intervention, despite having some reservations.

The strategic importance of Jarabulus, a town just across from the Turkish border, can be explained in two ways. Firstly, Jarabulus was the only ISIS-controlled territory on the Turkish border and acted as a bridge for jihadi infiltrations from the declared capital of ISIS, Raqqa, towards Turkey.

Secondly, to the east of Jarabulus lies Kobane, a town controlled by the PYD/YPG. In controlling Jarabulus through the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey intended to prevent the PYD/YPG from gaining ground on the west bank of the Euphrates River in Syria.

Furthermore, in conducting its military operation in Jarablus, Turkey sought three things. Firstly, to clear ISIS out of its border and minimise the risk of a terrorist threat. Secondly, to secure territory for a ‘buffer zone’ 90 km long and 40-45 km deep into Syria, as advocated since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Finally, to prevent the PYD/YPG from crossing to the west side of the Euphrates in Syria, thus eliminating the chance of a “PYD Belt” across the northern borderline of Syria.

The Jarabulus operation has altered the power balance in the Syrian conflict, in part by redefining the role of major actors in Syria.  It allowed Turkey to make a return as a regional power after several years as a bystander. Through Jarablus, the government showed a strong will to get involved in the ‘re-ordering’ of Syria in the post-ISIS era by asserting its own weight and identity as well as through supporting the anti-regime FSA. There are two possible outcomes for Turkey from here on out.

Turkey’s hand in Syria will have been strengthened if a buffer zone is established between the Turkish borders and ISIS territory, especially if FSA forces prove to be successful in maintaining control over this area. However, if the attempt to establish a buffer zone fails because the FSA are unable to keep effective control, Turkey might be forced to stay in Syria longer than anticipated. In this case, Turkey’s military presence may lead to new tensions in the region.

A narrowed area for PYD/YPG

The expansion of Turkey’s operational space in Syria in turn constrains the PYD/YPG’s ability to act. On one hand, the PYD/YPG can no longer claim to be the only force effectively fighting ISIS given how effectively Turkey swept ISIS out of a considerable area in a short span of time. Yet this claim long gave the PYD/YPG a degree of international legitimacy and support.

On the other hand, Turkey’s military intervention created a serious obstacle to realising the PYD/YPG goal of linking the Kurdish cantons in Syria. Previously, the PYD/YPG made territorial advances thanks to US political and military support, while Turkey was effectively a bystander in Syrian affairs. Following Turkey’s operation, further Kurdish advances in Syria seem unlikely.

The altered power dynamics in the fight against ISIS forces all actors to reassess their strategies. From the beginning of the operation, Turkey resolutely stressed that the PYD/YPG will be targeted if they fail to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates in Syria. Given this, the PYD/YPG has two options.

One of them is to keep moving towards the west, turning a blind eye to Turkey’s warnings. In fact, during the first few days of the operation, Kurdish forces initially signalled that their intention was to attempt advances to the west as ISIS withdrew.

Calling Syria a “quagmire,” Saleh Moslem, the co-chair of PYD, warned that Turkey would incur huge losses and face a defeat “similar to ISIS” in the territory west of the Euphrates in Syria. YPG officials also stated that a withdrawal from the region was off the table. If PYD/YPG opts for this, clashes both in Syria, between Turkish army and Kurdish forces, and in Turkey, with the PKK, will deepen and both conflicts are likely to escalate.

The other option is the withdrawal of the Kurdish forces to the east of the Euphrates, as pledged by the US to Turkey. The US is currently working with both the PYD/YPG and the FSA-Turkey in Syria. It does not wish to see these allies clashing with each other.

As commonly acknowledged by the American authorities, such a conflict would only benefit ISIS. According to the US, the focus of the operations in Syria should be ISIS and allies should unite in the fight against this common enemy.

Political rationale

Political rationale suggests that the PYD/YPG and Turkey would avoid a direct clash in Syria for two reasons. First, the PYD/YPG owes its success to its close relation with the US. The PYD/YPG provides a much-needed ground force for the anti-ISIS coalition; thereby the US grants political and military support. Without such an ally, the PYD/YPG could not have achieved the position it has in Syria today.

However, if the PYD/YPG chooses to clash with Turkey, it would lose its game-changing US support. In fact, some high-profile American officials have already declared that the cooperation they established with the PYD/YPG is limited, and will be lost if the Kurdish units cross west of the Euphrates River.

Second, there are four local actors fighting in Syria. The PYD/YPG, ISIS, the FSA and the Assad regime.  The PYD/YPG has recently engaged in a harsh conflict with the regime in Hasakah and it has been fighting ISIS for a long time. It is also no secret that the FSA and the other Syrian rebels are not sympathetic towards the PYD/YPG, whom they view as supportive of the Assad regime.

In short, the PYD/YPG is either fighting with other local groups and factions or at risk of a clash with them. Adding Turkey to this list would make things worse for them. A conflict with Turkey could easily cost the PYD/YPG a considerable part of its gains on the ground.

Possibility of a new political process in Turkey

In this sense, the PYD/YPG’s withdrawal from the west bank of Euphrates would be a politically savvy move. This would not only rule out the possibility of a direct military confrontation with Turkey, but also provide a more efficient fight against ISIS. Furthermore, such a compromise could pave the way for a process towards a political solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey. Two key factors are required for a resurrection of this political process.

The first is to reach a minimum agreement between Turkey and the PYD/YPG, and thus the PKK, in Syria. The Kurdish peace process between 2013-2015 failed partially due to the conflict in Syria. Under the current circumstances, Turkey does not object to Kurdish control to the east of Syria’s Euphrates River and the Efrin canton towards the western border of Syria. Turkey is mainly concerned with preventing the PYD/YPG from becoming a force in the designated buffer zone between the eastern and western Kurdish cantons. A mutual agreement on this could both trigger reconciliation in Syria, and contribute to a potential revival of the peace process in Turkey.

The second key factor would be the declaration of a decisive ceasefire and the PKK’s renunciation of violence in Turkey. In my opinion, the PKK’s use of violence does not serve as a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question and it also puts the Kurdish gains in Syria at risk.

One thing is undoubtedly clear: As long as bombs and guns speak in Turkey, neither stability nor order will be achieved in the north of Syria, nor will a new process for a democratic solution of Turkey’s Kurdish question be initiated.

 

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