This is the second of a two-part series on the topic. The first of which was posted week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s transborder Kurdish problem

There can be little doubt that both Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists have been influenced by developments in Syria. Many of Turkey’s Kurds are inspired by the example of their Syrian counterparts. Although the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) may have prioritized a resolution in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) probably saw its struggle in a wider pan-Kurdish context. Many Kurds in Turkey were bitterly angered by Ankara’s passivity in the face of the Islamic State (IS) siege of the Kurdish border town of Kobane.

During 2011, Turkey moved fast towards demanding the Syrian regime’s overthrow once it became clear that Damascus was ignoring Ankara’s advice on how to respond to the popular revolt that Syria was now experiencing, and notwithstanding the earlier courtship between the two governments. Ankara sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and called on its allies to help establish a ‘no-fly-zone’ and a humanitarian corridor along the Syrian border with Turkey. Instead, Turkey found itself confronted both with the radicalization of the Syrian opposition and with a Kurdish dimension to Syria’s travails.

It was the Kurdish factor that loomed largest. Ankara reacted fiercely to the early 2013 declaration by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that the three self-governing and largely Kurdish entities that it had established were to be known as ‘Rojava’. Ankara did little to help Syria’s Kurds defend the border town of Kobane against IS, and criticized the US for air dropping supplies to the town’s defenders. Ankara also protested when the IS-held town of Tal Abyad fell to the Kurds in July 2015. Ankara fears being faced with a Kurdish self-governing zone along the length of its southern border, and has resorted to shelling Kurdish led forces in Syria in order to prevent their advance, intensified its support to groups that would obstruct Kurds on the ground – including Ahrar-al Sham and other decidedly jihadi elements – and prevented the PYD from participating in the Geneva peace talks on Syria.

Ankara’s problem with the PYD is that it is affiliated with the PKK. Kurdish self-government in Syria might give inspiration to the closely-related counterparts in Turkey. Turkey had tried to pressure the PYD to join the SNC and to commit to Assad’s overthrow, but the Arab nationalist SNC is also opposed to Kurdish self-government. Turkey’s hostility to the PYD has put it at odds with both Washington, DC and Moscow. The PYD’s armed wing has proved to be Washington, DC’s most effective and cooperative local force in its struggle against IS in Syria, while Moscow’s stance hardened in the wake of the November 2015 shooting down of a Russian jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. The repercussions were several, but have included a heightening of Russian support for PYD forces and a determined bombing campaign against Ankara-backed elements inside Syria. Moscow has joined with Washington, DC in arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces, and has called for the PYD’s presence at the Geneva talks.

The PYD hopes for a federal arrangement in Syria, which in any case seems the best and most likely outcome should the violence there ever come to an end. After all, Moscow and Tehran are now in a position to ensure the survival of the regime. No one force is capable of an overall victory in Syria, the Alawites were surely unlikely to submit to Sunni rule, and no-one inside Syria looks capable of defeating the PYD’s forces. Sunni Arab forces are hopelessly fragmented. Ankara can play the role of spoiler – although in doing so it is putting at risk its relationship with Washington, DC and might provoke an even harder Russian response – but it cannot engineer a Syria more to its liking. In short, Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish oppositionists in Turkey is now extended to Syria, and it is a struggle that looks set to extend far into the future.

Iraq’s ‘good Kurds’?

Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offers the exception to the rule of Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish identity politics. Turkey dominates the KRG’s economy, and enables the export of KRG oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Turkey has even trained Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Until recently at least leaders in both Erbil and Ankara spoke of the ‘strategic’ relationship between them. It was not always like this of course. Ankara greeted the 1991 emergence of the KRG with dismay, sought to destabilise it, declared its independence to be a ‘red line’, opposed its acquisition of further territory, championed ethnic Turkmen against it, and referred to its leaders as ‘tribal’. Turkey’s so-called ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy was part of the explanation for the shift. Trade and energy considerations also played a role. In any case KRG President Masoud Barzani is not a pan-Kurdish nationalist but a devout conservative concerned only with the fortunes of the KRG, or rather of his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) ruled part of it. He is prepared to cooperate with Ankara against the PKK, which he regards as ideological and political rivals, and is in desperate need of a regional friend.

However, with the June 2014 capture of Mosul by IS the atmosphere changed. Ankara failed to come to the KRG’s aid, leading some Iraqi Kurds to question the depth of Turkey’s commitment. The KRG’s economic crisis – caused by a combination of reduced oil revenues, an internal political crisis, corruption, the termination of its subvention from Baghdad, the IS threat and the burden of over a million refugees – has rendered the KRG a less attractive economic proposition for Turkish investors. Barzani’s legitimacy inside and outside the KRG has waned. Iran’s influence has become more pronounced, and there is now high profile assistance to the KRG from the west. Some senior Iraqi Kurds are disappointed at Turkey’s murky links with IS and other jihadi groups, and also at the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Turkey’s president.

Furthermore, the depth of the ‘strategic relationship’ between Ankara and Erbil will face considerable challenges in the future. How might Ankara respond to Barzani’s promised referendum on Kurdish independence? Will it assist the Kurdish Peshmerga in their already-developing struggle with Shia militias – and perhaps in due course with Sunni Arabs too – over the territories that Erbil disputes with Baghdad, such as Kirkuk? Will Ankara accept a territorial enlargement of the KRG? What if the KRG, perhaps via the more pan-Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran parties, becomes more supportive of the PKK/PYD?

Turks and Kurds as neighbours

Until the breakup of the Ottoman empire there was little antipathy between Turks and Kurds. The new Turkish Republic then chose to suppress rather than embrace Kurdish distinctiveness. Turks acquired a virulent and exclusive nationalism which they are yet to shake off. The reaction of many Kurds has been one of revolt and alienation. There is no reason to suppose that Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere, will resign themselves to the denial of self-determination that was visited on them a century ago. Sadly, there is little evidence that Turkey will embrace its Kurdish citizens and neighbours for what they essentially are – Kurds – and to allow them the self-identification that Turks so jealously guard for themselves. On what basis should we assume the next one hundred years of Turkish-Kurdish relationships will be much different from the last one hundred years, except in their detail?


Image: Putin and Erdogan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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