Turkey steps into Kurdish minefield

Friday 25/03/2016

After withdrawing a large portion of its troops and aircraft from Syria, Russia is leaving a minefield — although it has left a few mines for those who remain, not least Kurdish aspirations for a federal state of their own. It is clear that the Kremlin wants to use the issue to settle scores with Turkey, as well as advance its interests.

Russia claims that the objectives of its military intervention in Syria have been “largely fulfilled”, although it was not able to achieve all its objectives, especially after it became clear that what remains of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces were not able to benefit as much as they should have from Russian air strikes.

Still, Russia secured its own strategic objectives and it is clear that Moscow views Syria as firmly within its influence. So even if Moscow’s military adventures are coming to an end, Russia is preparing for the long game in Syria.

Russia is now seeking to wield the Kurdish card in its regional struggle with Turkey, including inviting the leading Kurdish political organisation in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara regards a terrorist group, to open an office in Moscow, not to mention the announcement of a Kurdish federation in northern Syria.

This serves to unnerve Turkey, while also clearly announcing Russia’s unchanged intentions towards Syria and Assad. But how will Turkey respond?

Ankara is concerned about the Kurdish question, particularly as Turkey’s own Kurds want independence. Turkey also fears any US-Russian collusion on Syria, including on the Kurdish issue.

Moscow is pushing the Kurdish issue, facing off with a US administration that has no overall Middle East strategy. US President Barack Obama, who has less than a year remaining in office, will not seek to make any furtive moves at this late stage. The White House’s only concern is to appease Iran and avoid confrontation with the Kremlin.

If we look at Russian policy towards Syria, it is clear that Moscow is gambling on the patrition of the country.

The division, or federalisation, of Syria is an open secret. Russia simply does not believe in the prospects of a united Syria. This is a belief that is shared in Tehran, despite the fact that Iran is less keen to use the pretext of Kurdish federalism.

This shared concern about the Kurds has led to Turkish- Iranian rapprochement, seen in Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent visit to Tehran. However, this has not reached the level of a common political vision on Syria, particularly regarding the fate of Assad.

Russia resorted to the Kurdish card after it realised that it would not be able to keep up its military campaign in Syria, despite its relative success. This is based on Russia’s weakening economy and the decline in oil and gas prices. Moscow determined that remaining in Syria was just too costly.

Even if Turkey does intervene, will this be enough to stave off Syrian division?

The fact of the matter is that there is no consensus in Turkey, whether on how to engage in Syria or how to resolve its own Kurdish issue. This lack of consensus ultimately hurts Ankara and prevents Turkey from taking its place at the negotiating table where Syria’s fate will be decided.

Can Turkey, which finds itself in an increasingly difficult position, afford to remain on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis given what is at stake?

Time is running out for Ankara. Turkey made a mistake by believing that Assad’s fall was just a matter of time. This outlook has been shown to be wrong and now, with Russian and Iranian influence next door, Turkey must decide what, if anything, it can do. And what, if anything, it should do.

Turkey is in a difficult position vis-à-vis Syria and even more so now that the Syrian Kurds want their own federal region.