Turkey’s Kurdish Initiative May Affect Syria’s Kurds

By: Cengiz Çandar for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse Posted on April 14.

As we have previously noted, linking Syrian developments to the Kurdish issue means that the PYD [Syria’s Democratic Union Party], identified as an extension of the PKK [Kurdish Workers Party], has taken over control of most Kurdish settlements along the 911-kilometer (566-mile) Turkey-Syria border, or at least has the power to do so.

Turkey’s rulers have long seen the Kurdish majority in Turkish border towns and villages separated from Syria only by a railroad track as a “security issue.’’

Similarly, forecasts that Syria cannot return to its former self when the Damascus regime collapses and that it may become decentralized, either as a federal structure or with the birth of autonomous Kurdish regions, bring with them the possibility of a unification with the Kurdish Regional Government on the Iraqi side.

For many observers of Turkey, all these factors blended to prompt Erdogan to launch a solution process now. The process in Turkey, developed in cooperation with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader serving a life sentence at Imrali Island, may also have the effect of altering Turkey’s relationship with Syrian Kurds. There has been a perceptible change in the language of Turkish officials who were once uncompromising against the PYD. For example, there has been a detectable softening of the language of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who long described the PYD as a puppet of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, placed it in the same category as the Syrian regime’s Shabiha militia and even labeled it as the ‘’Kurdish Shabiha.’’

PYD leader Salih Muslim several times sent word via a variety of back channels that he wants a dialogue with Turkey and that he has no intention of threatening Turkey’s security. These back channels cover a wide spectrum from Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of [Turkey’s] legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Development Party [BDP] to Moaz el-Khatib, the leader of the umbrella organization of the Syrian opposition, the Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.

I heard it personally from Moaz el-Khatib in Cairo that Salih Muslim is ready to talk to Turkey and had asked him to be an intermediary.

A recent statement from Salih Muslim calling Davutoglu’s conditions “meaningless” makes clear that the back channels are indeed operating. In a news report of carried by the ANF [Euphrates News Agency], also known as the PKK news service, Muslim was quoted as saying: “We are ready for dialogue. Whenever he wants, we are ready to sit down without conditions.’’

The lead of the ANF report said: “Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the largest party of west Kurdistan, assessed the conditions listed by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to accept the PYD as an interlocutor.” It went on: “According to a report in the daily Yeni Safak, Davutoglu signaled a new process that would accept the PYD as an interlocutor. Davutoglu said Turkey has three conditions for anyone who wants to talk to Ankara. 1) That it won’t be on the side of the [Damascus] regime. 2) That it will avoid any fait accompli until a parliament elected by the Syrian people is formed [that is, it will not declare the region to be under its control.] 3) That it won’t support terror in Turkey.

Muslim, who spoke to ANF, had this to say about Davutoglu’s conditions: “We are who we are. If they [Turkey’s leaders] want to establish relations with us, we are all for it. We never had relations with the [Syrian] regime. We have always had conflicts with the regime. This is easy to see from the current situation. We are fighting against the regime. What does it mean to create fait accompli or a situation on the ground? Are we to give up our rights?  Is he trying to impose conditions on us in advance? We can’t accept that.”

Although Salih Muslim says, not very convincingly, that the PYD has no relationship with the PKK, he alluded to the talks between the Turkish state and Abdullah Ocalan and labeled Davutoglu’s conditions as “meaningless.” He added as PYD they have no preconditions to establish relations with Turkey. “We have no conditions whatever. If we are going to be enemies than he should know who is the enemy and who is the friend, if we are going to be friends. This is why we are saying we are ready for dialogue. We are ready any time without preconditions to sit down and talk,” he added. If read carefully, these polemical statements by Davutoglu and Salih Muslim can be interpreted as “laying the ground” for a dialogue that could be initiated soon. Contrary to Davutoglu’s earlier remarks that “there could never be talks with the PYD, which is an extension of the PKK,” this time he spoke in terms that could well signal that the door is ajar for dialogue. Anyway, Davutoglu’s conditions are of a nature that could be easily be softened.

As the government makes progress with Ocalan in the ongoing process, the argument of “the PYD supporting terror in Turkey” will be a non-issue. Furthermore, it will be possible to easily test whether the PYD is supporting the Damascus regime or not. The bloody clashes of the last two weeks between the PYD and the Assad regime in Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud Kurdish district is evidence that the ties between the PYD and the Assad regime are severed. As such, the condition that “PYD must not support the regime” is already fulfilled.

Davutoglu’s second condition is a face-saving formula subject to interpretation. It is not of a nature that would impede dialogue between the PYD and Turkey parallel with the dialogue with Ocalan. The Iraqi dimension of the affair pertains to Ankara-Erbil and Kandil-Erbil relations. The former have developed close relations. The second has a working mechanism. A positive impression of Kandil, the Kurdish base in northern Iraq, of the dialogue with Ocalan will minimize Ankara’s problems with northern Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan. The most curious aspect is the Iranian dimension of the affair. The role of the PJAK [Party of Free Life], identified as the Iranian extension of the PKK, in parallel with the process in Turkey is worth pondering.

There were heavy clashes between the PJAK and Iran on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan that ended with a cease-fire in August 2011. Simultaneously with the Iran-PJAK ceasefire, PKK operations on Turkish soil were stepped up. Although it has not openly said so to the public, Turkish officials became convinced that Iran was supporting the PKK.This is why there is now speculation in Turkey that a reconciliation the Imrali process could bring about between Turkey and the PKK could also be the end of the PJAK-Iran cease-fire, or at least be a “Kurdish card” to be used against Iran when need be by Turkey’s Western allies.

No matter one’s vantage point, the PYD in Syria and the PJAK in Iran are seen as “derivatives of the PKK.” The upper echelons in both organizations are Turkish Kurds. Their political headquarters are at Kandil Mountain and their overall leader is Abdullah Ocalan.

If Turkey’s irrevocable objective of its reconciliation with the PKK is the decommissioning of the movement, the additional decommissioning of the PYD at this point is not realistic. The West also doesn’t want decommissioning of the PJAK at this phase.Then the question arises as to whether Turkey’s goal is to end PKK actions in Turkey or to totally disarm the PKK. The latter doesn’t seem to be feasible. If it is the former, then we are talking of a long truce instead of a solution.

The coming days may show that there might be a third formula.

Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History.