Ankara and Washington walk separate paths on Kurdish issue
Ottawa - The declaration by Syrian Kurds of a federalist system for northern Syria is posing serious challenges to neighbouring Turkey, a country that has historically fought Kurdish separatism.
The announcement by the Kurdish semi-autonomous local administration, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is at odds with the Turkish government’s policy for Syria, especially considering the group’s consistent territorial advances along the Turkish border and Western backing.
Many have argued that the possibility of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is very toxic for the Turks and that such a move by the PYD would prompt Turkey to intervene in Syria. However, the options available to Ankara are limited.
“The situation in Syria has a direct influence on Turkey’s Kurdish question,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre for Turkish Studies in Washington. “I think the PYD’s success in fighting the Islamic State and the diplomatic and military boost that it received from Western world, especially the United States, has emboldened the PYD.
“All of these factors heightened Turkey’s fear of an independent Kurdish state.”
Although the toxicity of the Kurdish question is on the rise in Turkey, Tol said, the Turkish army is unwilling to unilaterally intervene in Syria against the PYD without international legitimacy.
The United States and some European countries are in support of the PYD’s fight and advances against the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey considers the PYD and its armed wing, People’s Protection Units (YPG), offshoots of the Turkish Kurd separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and terrorist organisations.
Though the United States lists the PKK as terrorist group, it views the PYD and YPG otherwise.
In an opinion piece in the Daily Sabah newspaper, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin blamed the YPG for a bombing on February 17th and criticised the United States for its support of the group in Syria, saying Turkey is reacting to US support for the YPG.
Birol Akgun, head of the international relations department at Yildirim Beyazit University and director-general of the Institute of Strategic Thinking, an Ankara-based think-tank, said Washington’s “half-hearted approach” in the region has harmed Turkey’s security interests.
“Turkey is trying to convince its allies, such as US,” he said. However, “if it deems necessary, [Turkey] may somehow use its rights to defend its territory from terrorist attacks and incursion coming from northern Syria, whether it is [ISIS] or PYD.”
Considering growing complexity of the war in Syria and the increasing number of involved parties, Washington seems to be reluctant to alter its policy regarding the PYD.
“At this point, I think the US is very unlikely to change its policy,” said David Pollock, former US State Department senior adviser and fellow at the Washington Institute. “I think the Turks deep down understand that and accept it,” he said.
US President Barack Obama announced that an additional 250 US special operations forces would be deployed to Syria, where about 50 others are already stationed in areas of PYD control, to advise and assist in the anti-ISIS war.
“The US continues that policy [of supporting the PYD] and Turkey is speaking against it but is not doing anything… We [are] still using Incirlik [airbase in Turkey] and the Turks haven’t retaliated in any form,” added Pollock.
During his visit to Washington for the nuclear security summit in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to US foreign policy specialists at the Brookings Institution, saying that the international community has to fight all terrorist groups “with the same level of earnestness”, referring to the Syrian Kurdish PYD. He added that his country would not tolerate the threat posed by Kurdish militias.
Despite the different agendas that Ankara and Washington have regarding the Syrian Kurdish militias, Tol noted that both countries have found a middle ground on the PYD.
The compromise, according to Tol, would allow the PYD to make small advances towards the west from its eastern cantons and retake the city of Manbij, which is controlled by ISIS, in exchange for allowing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to advance, under US air cover, and eject ISIS from a 20-25km-wide strip along the Syrian-Turkish border.
“I don’t think Washington is ready to dump the PYD,” she said. “If there is no alternative to PYD, at some point, [Turkey] really has to adopt a pragmatic approach.”