MESOP COMMENTARY : Turkey’s Rojava Dilemma

Author: Bekir Halhallı, PhD Candidate, Sakarya University & Comenius University      Date: Mar 21, 2015   Foreign Policy, New Post, Political Analysis

Abstract : The case of Syrian Kurds has generally been very complicated both for Turkish foreign policy and for the other Kurdish people beyond the borders. The main purpose of this article is to discuss the policy of Turkey on Rojava and the results of these policies. Furthermore, by focusing on Syrian Kurds –who constitute one of the key issues on the Turkish foreign policy in the sense of ethnic and sectarian contradictions both in Syria and in the region right after the Arab Spring–, the article aims to interpret the reflections of these developments at both national and international levels. Additionally, the article emphasises ambiguities of Turkey’s policies in its perceptions of the Kurdish political movements within its own borders, while supporting discourses of freedom, democracy and the will of people which have become ubiquitous in the region.


For the first time Syrian Kurds have started to be influential on the politics of the region at high-profile levels right after the Arab Spring in Mesopotamia. This period has started when they were exposed to the political, economic and social marginalisation under the power of Syrian Baas Party government. All these waves of changes have blazed up when a young man named Muhammad Buozizi set himself on fire in Tunisia leading to the expansion of the changes to Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and lastly Syria. Turkish government addressed remarks to the leader of the Partiya Karkêren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers Party) (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan in the framework of ‘resolution process.’ In the northern part of Syria, three cantons, named Cezire (Kamışko), Kobane (Ayn-ul Arap) and Afrin, declared autonomous government with the pioneering of the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party) (PYD). As a result of these developments, first and foremost Turkey, several regional and global powers have paid attention to Kurds. In the last months, Turkey’s allegedly support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and also other fundamentalist Sunni groups against the PYD and the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units) (YPG) in Kobane –that is the second biggest Kurdish city of Syria– together with the street demonstrations in politically active Kurdish areas and in other big cities have severed the resolution process. Kurdish issue has always been significant for the foreign policy of Turkey –regarding its neighbouring countries that consist of Kurdish population– mainly regarding Syria throughout the history of Republic. Due to the changes in political and historical structures, it has been impossible to disregard the transfrontier relations of Kurds/Kurdistan for both Syria and Turkey. Kurds in Syria, namely the biggest minority group in the country, constitute the continuation of Kurds in Turkey. However, their interactions have not been taken so seriously by Turkish state until the Arab Spring. Syrian Kurds, who are led by the PYD, try to remain distant from both Assad’s regime and dissident groups. It will not wrong to say that before the Arab Spring, there had not been a real role of Syrian Kurds on the uneven relations between Turkey and the Assad regime.

In the north of Syria, the transformation of de facto cantons into the legal (de jure), autonomous-independent ones after/continuation of the Assad regime is not only a case about the future of Syria but it also considers the domestic politics of Turkey as an important issue of the Middle East in the sense of its geopolitical structure and risk. Considering above-mentioned discourses and perceptions as well as Turkey’s re-shaped attitude towards Syrian Kurds and radical rise of the ISIS, Turkey has become obliged to re-evaluate its existing stance towards Kurds. In that sense, the process in Turkey –named as ‘resolution’ or ‘peace’– has been stonewalled. This causes a weakening of Syrian Kurds against Assad’s regime and the ISIS. This situation means that political deadlock will be driven to obscurity. Furthermore, from the geopolitical perspective, it can be argued that the deployment of illegal radical Sunni actors in most parts of the southern border may bring along significant risks. It can easily be imagined that not only the resolution process may be interrupted but also in the near future, the security gap might occur with the southern neighbours of Turkey because of petrol, water and agriculture issues.

Turkey’s Stance towards Syrian Kurds after the Arab Spring

There are so many parameters/variables which decide the foreign policy of the countries. These parameters can be shaped by conjuncture and/or the situation of other state/non state actors. However, sometimes it can be shaped by citizen’s demands. In other words, foreign policy can depend mainly on domestic dynamics. Although there are various parameters –political, economic– related to Turkey’s policy on Syrian Kurds, microstructural parameters –cultural, historical– have generally become more influential recently. Besides, an international dimension of Kurdish issue in Turkey has brought the relations of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) –in general terms– with Syria and –in specific terms– with Rojava to a deadlock.Although the parameters about water, the PKK, Hatay and Israel have changed cyclically in the relation between Turkey and Syria, their controversial phase has mostly remained on the agenda in the aftermath of Arab Spring. However, the most challenging period of Turkish foreign policy has been in the agenda only after the Arab Spring. The unifying policy of Turkey on Syrian Kurds can be understood within two main parameters: domestic and foreign politics.

The first parameter that has induced Kurdish political movement is the Syrian civil –since 2011– together with the changes in political, economic and military balances between Syria and Turkey. Kurdish movement has gained a new discourse and political acceleration with the emergence of Arab Spring’s last wave in Syria. It has been easily observed that the declaration of Rojava canton regions has threatened traditional security reflex of Turkey since this declaration is very similar to autonomous model in Iraq formed after Saddam Hussein’s rule. Following the legalisation of the autonomous administration in Rojava where there is the highest number of Kurdish population in the world, AKP government has been concerned about an increase in the demands of Kurds in Turkey.

There have been some ‘key’ neglected issues devoted to Turkey’s policy both on Syria and Rojava. This negligence mainly includes providing education, giving a logistic support and free movement opportunity to Sunni Islamist/Dissident powers in other words the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other dissenters within Turkish borders. Moreover, the fact that Turkey was not able to read the pragmatic choices of Kurds who live in the border area between Turkey and Syria and to consolidate Kurds together with other groups from the very early period of the Arab Spring is also among the key neglected issues. Under the leadership of the PYD, Kurds are following a third way that is not affiliated with either Assad’s regime or the FSA. Together with a cantonal Kurdish region resisting the ISIS that attempts to cause trouble to the region, they have put through Turkish foreign policy’s paces. Moreover, Syrian Kurds have blamed the AKP government for the encompassment of their region by the ISIS because the co-chairman of the PYD –Salim Muslim– occasionally had meetings with Turkish government officers without reaching the agreement on any of the cases.

The AKP government could not reach a direct agreement with the PYD. Instead, they have preferred to be in contact with Massoud Barzani who is the leader of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Barzani has attempted to gather all Kurdish political parties in Syria under a single roof in Erbil on January 28, 2012; yet he failed. In the aftermath of the attacks of the IS(IS) in Shengal and Kobane, Ankara has once again preferred to be in contact with Barzani instead of Syrian Kurds. Turkish government has allowed peshmerga to pass through Turkey to go to Syria and fight against the ISIS during the Kobane resistance. This situation has regionalised the Kurdish nationalism which had been confined to the borders. Three reasons have played an important role in the current polarisation between Turks and Kurds. First, the AKP government has seen the PYD as an equivalent of the PKK. Second, it has been disregarding the Kurds in the southern border, who are non-state actors, whereas they have been very active at high-profile politics. Third, the AKP government did not make any move during the Kobane encompassment of the IS(IS).

As a second parameter, it can be seen that the chaos in Syria has highly affected Turkey’s relations with Kurds in Turkey by complicating even further. It has also induced the Kurdish movement in the country. The PYD has declared mobilisation when there was a danger of the fall of Kobane located in the border region between Turkey and Syria, and called for help from both regional and global powers while the demonstrations in politically active Kurdish regions of Turkey lasted for months. On November 1st, 2014 concurrent protests flared up not only in Turkey but also in different parts of the world in order to support Kobane’s resistance that provided opportunity for increasing transitional Kurdish nationalism and the reactivation of Kurdish nationalism. Consequently, the conflicts which had been lasting for years among Kurdish organisations, have been replaced by agreements between these groups after the attacks of IS(IS) in Shengal and Kobane.

All in all, after the Arab Spring, Turkey has become vulnerable to the Kurdish populated regions that have relations with cantons. This is mostly because of the deficiencies regarding Kurdish case, miscalculation of –from a foreign policy perspective– the fact that Kurds in Rojava are socially and historically continuation of Kurds in Turkey, misreading on the rational demands of the people in Rojava and the IS(IS) as a new phenomenon in the southern borders of Turkey. All of these facts have left the AKP government in the reality of a ‘wait and see’ policy. Kurds who lived in Rojava were exposed to marginalisation, slaughter and forced immigration by the IS(IS) because of the loose border policies of Turkey. This has been strongly criticised at both Kurdish and international levels. Another type of Kurdish regional government like the KRG in the north part of Syria has strengthened the bargaining power of the PKK. This has brought so many dilemmas in the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP government. In the middle and long term, there are still economic and social problems due to the high number of incoming refugees. Furthermore, the PKK has regained strength in the region resulting from the international legitimisation of its defence war against the ISIS. This has facilitated further debate about the demands on local administration that has been discussing between the AKP and pro-Kurdish political actors for several years.

On the other hand, the crisis in Rojava has demonstrated that the U.S. and one of its most important allies in the region –Turkey– have come into conflict about supporting the YPG militants led by the PYD. Heavy and sophisticated weapons belonged to the IS(IS) have signalled to put a question mark in the minds in terms of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Turkey, and the position of Turkey in NATO. The US Government has at least tried to defuse the IS(IS) through air bombardment and guns given to the YPG militants by air delivery during Kobane resistance whereas Turkish government made its all troops and tanks wait in the frontier zone. Thusly, Turkey seemed to be reluctant to give political and logistic support except protracted refugee case of Kurds behind the borders. The AKP government has rather focused on the fall of Assad’s regime that has become its sworn enemy after the Arab Spring. The AKP did not perceive the difference between the PYD related to Syrian Kurds and the IS(IS). In addition, the AKP pointed out that there is no common strategy and perception between the United States and Turkey.

Conclusion: Miscalculations of Turkey and the Future of Rojava

After the attacks of the IS(IS) to Kurdish regions such as Shengal and Kobane, Turkey’s Kurdish political agenda and its instability started to boom. The rise of IS(IS) in Iraq and Syria which has been a new phenomenon in the Middle East has caused some changes in Turkey’s foreign policy leading to the possibility to revisit its policies of securitisation. In addition to the changes in the region that has become an object of interest in the sense of the region’s geography, mentality and future; the main concern has become the expectation from Turkey to achieve the resolution process. While this new phenomenal organisation –the IS(IS)– has been turning the value judgments of the region upside-down in a monolithic way, it has once again unveiled transfrontier and transitional dimensions of the Kurdish issue which has been existing throughout the history of Republic of Turkey.

For many years, ruling parties have paved the way for understanding Kurds as the PKK; now they are again trying to balance their relation with Syrian Kurds by referring to the PYD as the PKK. The fact that Turkey’s policies did not carry any objectivity anymore has become evident when the IS(IS) encompassed Kobane. In order to see all these developments as an attributed step for pro-active policies of Turkey, the AKP government should demonstrate its policy on Rojava without losing any time. In that case, there might be a chance to compensate what had been lost in the past. Turkey –that plays an important role in the region together with the United States and that accelerates the democratisation process–, should see the existing cantons in Rojava not as a threat but as an opportunity to defend the country and the region against the IS(IS). This is very important considering the regionalisation of Kurdish case and the emergence as well as involvement of the new actors. The main point at the same time the weakness of Turkish foreign policy on Rojava derives from the mentioned issue. This necessitates a change in the AKP government’s traditional reflections on Turkish foreign policy in both conceptually and materially. Unlike the Assad regime, the IS(IS) has never been inclined to Kurds in Rojava. Consequently, as the future of Rojava is in the hands of Turkey, the future of the Kurdish case which is one of the crucial problems in Turkey is also passing through Rojava. Turkey has started to seek new and alternative foreign policy in order to eliminate political chaos which can affect the resolution and peace process and to prevent the intervention from other states in the region. In a nutshell, Turkey’s new policies concerning Rojava will provide an opportunity to take alternative decisions. This will be particularly influential on understanding transboundary Kurdish case that has a heavy hand in Turkey’s future policies in both middle and long term.

Bekir Halhallı, PhD Candidate in International Relations at both Sakarya University and Comenius University in Bratislava

Please cite this publication as follows: Halhallı, B. (March, 2015), “Turkey’s Rojava Dilemma”, Vol. IV, Issue 3, pp.94-100, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (