The Case for “Re-opening” Turkey-Rojava Dialogue – Washington Kurdish Institute

 Dr. Ozum Yesiltas June 18, 2019

 Turkey’s approach to Syrian Kurds, and especially to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara sees as an extension the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed by Turkey and has been engaged in armed struggle against the Turkish state for decades, has not always been inherently antagonistic.

 Steps towards easing mutual suspicions were first taken when Salih Muslim, then co-chair of the PYD, visited Istanbul in 2013.

While it did not represent a “U-turn” in Turkey’s policy towards Syrian Kurds, Muslim’s visit was a result of Ankara’s strategic calculations both on the domestic and external fronts. Opening communication channels with the PYD not only served to help avoid disruptions in the then ongoing Kurdish solution process in Turkey, but also prevented Ankara’s Middle East policy from sinking in its entirety, as Assad regime was regaining strength vis a vis the Turkish-backed opposition in Syria, at a time when Turkey was already dealing with a weakened hand in the region following the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt, a short-lived regime closely allied both practically and in ideological terms with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

 What changed everything was the siege of Kobani in 2014 during which many Kurds in Turkey were outraged by Ankara’s refusal to allow Kurdish fighters and supplies to cross into Syria to prevent the fall of the city into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). The victory of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, against ISIS in Kobane, coupled with the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s 2015 general election, culminated in the collapse of the nascent peace talks between Ankara and the PKK. The PYD’s declaration of the Democratic Federation of Rojava in northern Syria in March 2016 was the final nail in the coffin that killed off the opportunity for a Turkey-Rojava rapprochement.

 Turkey stepped up its military campaign against the PKK in southeast Turkey throughout 2015 and 2016 and engaged in two military incursions into Syria in 2016 and 2018 to contain the expansion of Kurdish forces. As the Syrian war enters its ninth year, however, with Assad set to stay in power, ISIS remaining a persistent threat despite their loss of territorial control, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) controlling one-third of Syria, now might be the perfect time to reassess Turkey’s Syria policy and deliberate over the prospects for “re-opening” the Turkey-Rojava dialogue.

 First off, reminiscent of the fierce competition emerged between Turkey and Iran to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. in Iraq in 2011, both Ankara and Tehran engaged in proxy wars in Syria. While Tehran invested itself in keeping historical ally Assad in power, Ankara threw its support behind the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition. With the impending defeat of Syria’s various Sunni Arab rebel groups, Ankara’s leverage over Syria has greatly diminished and, with Russian and Iranian support, Bashar Al-Assad is set to remain in power and has vowed to make Turkey pay for its hostility. To make matters worse, the escalating situation in Idlib is exposing the limits of Turkey-Russia-Iran cooperation within the Astana process. Under these circumstances, establishing a working relationship with Rojava would increase Ankara’s ability to determine the contours of a future Syria, with Rojava providing a bulwark against both the Assad regime and Iran’s influence.

 Second, with the U.S. withdrawal from Syria off the table for now, negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. have recently centered on establishing a buffer zone inside Syria along the Syrian-Turkish border. The U.S.-Turkey conversation over a safe zone came immediately after Ankara vowed that it would launch an operation east of the Euphrates to root out the YPG, which Turkey asserts is a threat to its national security. A unilateral Turkish safe zone would mean that most of the SDF-controlled areas along the northeast Syrian frontier, including many densely populated areas such as the city of Kobani, will be occupied by Turkish forces which could have deeply destabilizing consequences. Such a campaign will likely prompt a fresh wave of Kurdish outrage in Turkey and would create an arena of contention in northeast Syria between Turkey and the YPG, and potentially between Turkey and the Assad regime, which is intent on undermining any expanding Turkish influence. The resulting instability could in turn create a favorable environment for the remnants of ISIS to regroup, which is not in the interest of either Ankara or Washington. Not to mention, renewed conflict in the northeast would create an even greater refugee crisis, which would work against the very purpose of creating a safe zone in order to resettle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

 Through a working relationship with Rojava, Turkey would not only have security and stability along its southeast borders but also would have a buffer to both Assad’s forces and ISIS. Although warring with the Kurds is seen as a vote-winning strategy by Turkey’s ruling AKP, the potential cost in lives to Turkish soldiers, the possibility of a remerging ISIS, the risk of redrawing regime forces to northeast Syria and the risk of an intensified PKK insurgency in Turkey far outweigh any meaningful strategic advantage Ankara seeks to gain domestically. If March 2019 local elections proved anything, it’s that Kurds are increasingly becoming a key kingmaker in Turkish politics. Turkey’s recent decision to allow imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan access to his lawyers indicates the AKP’s awareness of this situation. Given the close bonds between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds, diplomacy with Rojava could effectively boost Ankara’s efforts to secure peace with the Kurdish citizenry of Turkey. 

Finally, and more importantly, dialogue with Rojava would put Turkey and the U.S. on the same page in the region. The two NATO allies have been deeply estranged due to the U.S.’ backing of the YPG in the fight against ISIS. President Trump had already threatened to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if the Syrian Kurds are attacked. The U.S. is also preparing to slap sanctions on Turkey and cut Ankara out of the F-35 program – a significant source of revenue for Turkish defense firms – due to Turkey’s decision to purchase the advanced S-400 air defense system from Russia. The U.S. move will have dire consequences for Turkey’s already fragile economy and President Erdogan’s popularity as his party faces the prospect of losing the Istanbul mayoral election for a second time.

 Turkey could reap a number of strategic benefits by pursuing a campaign of dialogue, rather than confrontation, with Rojava. Doing so means making hard choices that may not align with the AKP’s short-term interest calculations, but it could offer long-term benefits toward peace and stability at home as well as safeguarding Turkish interests in the Middle East.


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