Turkey Spotlight: The Kurds & Ankara’s Foreign Policy Dilemma

Ali Kemal Yenidunya  – EAworldview – 18-11-2013 – In recent months, Ankara has taken steps to reduce its isolation in the region, striving to boost its relations with Syria’s neighbors, hoping to replace the regional power struggles of the last two years with an active foreign policy through soft power.The problem? given the Turkish ruling party’s limited perspective, which is conditioned on domestic gains, there is no second part of the would-be “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

One of the central issues in Turkey’s attempts to reposition itself in the region is the Kurdish question. After lengthy disputes with Baghdad, with Damascus, and with Kurds outside Iraqi Kurdistan, Ankara has finally shown concrete signs of a shift in its tactical approach toward this issue.

First, Ankara set out a bound-to-fail “reform package”, a move that ended prospects of a bilateral solution for Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The package did not address Kurdish demands for the right to education in their mother tongue, or the issue of the imprisoned members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).

However, this failure does not necessarily mean a return to armed conflict with the Kurds. The main reasons for the continued cease-fire stem from imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan’s strategy of maintaining a neutral role in Syria; the development of social institutions, related to self-governance, inside Turkey; and the pursuit of a legal ground upon which Kurds can enshrine their own identity. The PKK is fully aware that Ankara is playing to its internal audiences and that no momentum can be reached before the local elections on March 30, 2014.

Further, Ankara has increased its level of cooperation with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the light of friction between Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) and KRG leader Massoud Barzani.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Barzani on Saturday came after key developments in Syria. These include the Syrian Kurdish PYD’s convening of a “temporary” General Assembly, the establishment of three autonomous cantons with assemblies, and preparations for elections.

Meanwhile, other Syrian Kurdish parties such as the Kurdish Democratic Party (El-Parti) and the Azadi Party declared they would take part in the Geneva II peace talks as part of the opposition Syrian National Coalition rather than under the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s foreign affairs chair Hemin Hewrami condemned the PYD for failing to allow other Kurdish parties to operate in towns like Kobani, Qamislo and Afrin, and for failing to unite military power under the KNC. Finally, Barzani denounced the PYD for pressuring Syrian Kurds through the YPG.

Against a background of these events, Ankara has worked to improve its economic relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan. A visit by the KRG’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Istanbul resulted in a joint multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipeline project. With their meeting this weekend, Barzani and Erdogan are putting out a clear message to the Kurds: “Ocalan is not the only Kurdish leader, and the PYD cannot make it without us.”

Ankara has also softened its tone against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In late October, rather than denouncing al-Maliki for his pursuit of sectarian politics, Erdogan sent his Foreign Affairs Commission Chairman and Ambassador Volkan Bozkir to Baghdad. In return, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zabari has paid a visit to Ankara. Turkey wants to balance Iraq’s central government with the northern regional government, by finding a new path of “shuttle diplomacy” that can break the ice between the two authorities. Ankara has also understood that there can be no advance on its Syrian position without the backing of regional Shia groups, hence Davutoglu’s attempt to break the image of a “Sunni Turkey” with his visit to the Shia holy city of Karbala.

Ankara also saw that there is no need to exacerbate relations with Tehran. After meeting with Iranian Ambassador Alireza Bigdeli, Davutoglu said: “The future of bilateral relations is positive.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also made a visit to Ankara, and Davutoglu has declared that Turkey and Iran agree on three points on Syria: humanitarian issues, address of the democratic demands of Syrian people, and a peaceful political transition period.

Finally, Davutoglu has suggested that Turkey could normalize its relationship with Armenia, if Azerbaijan agreed. He said, “We are working on opening the border gate. If we can convince Azerbaijan, we can make a surprise.” Since this move would antagonize Baku, and Ankara is not in a position to risk its relations with the Azeris at this juncture, this suggestion is not realistic.

However, there is a possibility that Turkey’s relations with Cairo could improve in the coming months. Turkey’s Ambassador Huseyin Avni Botsali gave a signal in late October when he told Egyptian daily Al Ahram, ‘The Mediterranean could be a sea of peace if both countries come closer.”

Taken together, these steps could end Turkey’s isolation in the region and create a new momentum for mediation between regional actors.

However, Ankara must not forget that there can be no long-lasting gain without backing from Ocalan and the Syrian PYD. Two years ago, Erdogan tried to align with Barzani and Leyla Zana of the Peace and Democracy Party, a move that failed.

The Kurdish reality in Syria is a fact, and Ankara cannot reverse the process. If the dispute between the KDP and the PYD is nothing short of a power struggle for the future of Syrian Kurdistan, Ankara must embrace all factions without prejudice to maintain its role in the region.

About the Author: Ali Kemal Yenidunya is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Birmingham, writing about Israeli security policy. Ali has written extensively on Turkey’s foreign policy and the Kurdish question.