Turkey´s Kurdish policy in the context of the civil war in Syria and the Islamist advance: A dilemma for EU?
March 31, 2015
Guest blogpost by Dr. Gülistan Gürbey, Associate Professor at Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science, Free University Berlin, Germany.
The civil war in Syria, the advance of the IS and the Kurdish resistance against the IS, particularly in the Syrian-Kurdish town Kobane, has significantly increased both internal and external pressure to conform to the Turkish government’s stance on the Kurdish issue. The first reason is an increasing regional expansion of the internal Kurdish conflict and the question of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The battle for Kobane is symptomatic of this development and represents a high point in the political power struggle. It has highlighted the interdependence between the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) internal and regional management of the Kurdish conflict and the PKK. It has also shown that the future of the peace talks with the PKK depends closely on the Turkish Kobane policy. Kobane has brought the Kurds across borders closer together, despite persistent political differences. However, it remains to be seen whether this cooperation process between the PKK, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, will last. Secondly, the increased importance of the Kurds as a strategic factor in regional and international politics has also given the PKK and PYD a special role in the fight against IS. However, their increasing significance may push Turkey to seek arrangements offering the Kurds greater autonomy in the future.
Primary goals in Turkish politics
The primary objectives pursued by the ruling AKP since the civil war in Syria and the rise of IS are the military overthrow of the Assad regime and the containment of the Kurdish PKK and its Syrian offshoot PYD. The AKP government’s strategy to achieve these goals includes offering political and military support to the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist forces – including IS – as well as demanding a military Safe-fly and safety zone across the border with Syria. From a Turkish perspective, it would be a bonus to accommodate the conflict’s refugees on Syrian soil, to undermine Syria’s Kurdish cantons and take control of the PKK and PYD.
Turkey plays an ambiguous role in the conflict with IS, acting as both an important transit country for IS fighters and a place of replenishment and refuge for the anti-IS coalition. But numerous reports demonstrate the government’s charitable policy towards IS. This includes permitting border crossings for the treatment of injured IS fighters, logistical support and even arms shipments. The government wants to make an active Turkish involvement in the anti-IS coalition dependent on the development of a plan for the overthrow of Assad. The government does not allow the anti-IS coalition to use the Turkish Incirlik base for air raids, but it does participate in the training and arming of Syrian moderate rebels from Iraqi Kurdistan.
The strategy of “containment” regarding PKK and PYD and its implications
The Syrian civil war caused the abrupt end of Turkish ambitions within the policy concept of “strategic depth” and brought both partners – Turkey and Syria – into confrontation. Syria was a vital strategic factor in this concept and served as a stepping stone on the way to becoming a leading regional power, to the containment of the Kurdish factor and the regional influence of Iran. At the same time the Syrian civil war and the advance of IS resulted in increased regional expansion of the internal Kurdish conflict, mainly because the PKK and its Syrian offshoot PYD gained regional manoeuvrability. Conversely, the AKP government came under increasing pressure to act on the Kurdish issue. Because the government is concerned that in northern Syria controlled by the PKK and PYD, the second Kurdish autonomous zone could arise as in Iraqi Kurdistan, which could affect the Kurds in Turkey by spilling over the border. The PYD built three autonomous cantons in north and north-east Syria after the troops of the Assad regime had retired in June 2012. Since then, the PYD systematically operates the local organisational structures. The autonomous cantons Afrin, Cezire and Kobane are mentioned in the Kurdish language as the Syrian Kurdish autonomous region Rojava (West Kurdistan). It is a historic first opportunity for the PKK and PYD to implement their political society model of a “democratic autonomy” in Syrian Kurdistan. Finally, the alliance of the PKK, PYD and the Kurdish-Iraqi peshmergas gives increasing international attention to the fight against IS in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish Canton Kobane and enhances the reputation of the PKK and PYD. This again is not in the interest of Ankara.
Therefore, the containment of the PKK and PYD by all available means is of vital importance for Turkish strategy. On the one hand this includes the peace talks with imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK, ongoing since 2012, which are part of the containment strategy and can be seen in a regional context. On the other hand, the AKP government is trying to marginalise the PKK by exerting influence on the Iraqi-Kurdistan Regional Government and in particular on the president of the federal Kurdistan-Iraq region Masoud Barzani and his KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party). In response to growing internal and external pressures to offer solidarity with the Kurds of Kobane, the Turkish AKP government allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga to cross Turkish territory to defend the city in October 2014. This step, in turn, was in line with the strategy of containment and “divide and conquer” to separate the PKK and PYD from the Iraqi Kurds.
Turkish Policy a Dilemma for the EU?
From the perspective of the European Union, the Turkish containment policy regarding the PKK and PYD is of secondary importance, because the PKK is already classified by Brussels as a terrorist organisation. On the other hand, the strategic importance of the PKK and PYD in the fight against IS continues to increase. With its growing strategic importance, this classification as a terrorist organisation is hardly justifiable: a rethinking will have to occur.
However, the IS-friendly stance of the Turkish government is already a dilemma for Brussels. On one hand, the EU has to reckon with internal political and security repercussions, because IS terrorists can quite freely across the Turkish border and the danger of terrorist attacks within in EU is very real. On the other hand, Brussels is facing the challenge of persuading Ankara to abandon their IS policy, which is not easy. Brussels has the opportunity to find ways to specifically embed these issues in the accession negotiations in order to influence Ankara. But the Turkish containment policy regarding the PKK and PYD also has domestic political repercussions for Brussels, because Kurdish and Turkish migrants live in EU. The unresolved Kurdish conflict has a negative impact on the coexistence of these communities. Therefore, it is in the interests of Brussels to support the peace process between Ankara and the PKK and make the collaborative approach regarding the PKK and PYD stronger than before and to take further autonomous or federal forms of conflict resolution both internally and regionally. A state of peace would be a win-win situation for all parties, including the EU.Blogactiv Team