Turkey may have to accept Syrian Kurdistan if radical PYD-PKK wiped out

If such an autonomous Kurdish region manages to involve moderate Kurds and do away with the Syrian Kurds who engage in violent methods to reach their goals, Turkey might be pushed to recognized this new formation.

In early 2014, Syrian Kurds declared three autonomous administrations — Jizira, Kobani and Afrin — in the northern part of Syria, called Rojava in Kurdish, three years after Syria’s civil war broke out. As a result of intense conflicts in the country, over 220,000 people have died and a huge influx of refugees to Turkey and other neighboring countries has been created. Over 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced and 3.5 million have fled, according to data released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in March.

However, the Turkish government has multiple concerns regarding the de facto Kurdish administration on the Syrian side of its southern border. First, the autonomous region is controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey is still pursuing its decades-old fight against the PKK, which has fought an armed campaign against the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in an effort to create an autonomous region inside the territory.

Second, with the support of the PKK, the YPG may manage to joing its three cantons and a connection with the Mediterranean Sea could be created for Syrian Kurds because Afrin is only 80-90 kilometers away from the Mediterranean. The possibility of three connected PYD-controlled cantons that stretch along the southeastern part of Turkey is considered unacceptable by Ankara.

The town of Jerablus occupies a key position since it is on a route that connects Jizira and Kobani to the Afrin enclave and the Kurdish region to the Mediterranean Sea through the coastal city of Latakia. Thus, the Kurds — whose entire population is estimated at over 40 million in four countries, mainly in Turkey and Iran but also in Iraq and Syria — are close to an independent state for the first time in modern times.

From this perspective, some experts on the Middle East conclude that an autonomous Kurdish region where the PYD-PKK elements are eliminated or remain out of the equation might be more negotiable or even tolerable for the Turkish government.

In an effort to block the creation of a Kurdish region controlled by anti-Turkey elements such as the PYD and the PKK, which the Turkish state has fought for more than 30 years, emerging in northern Syria, Turkey has urged the international coalition created to eliminate the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to establish a no-flight zone and a safe zone.

However, while Ankara is pushing for a safe zone in Jerablus in order to stop the Kurdish advance towards the Mediterranean Sea that would extend around 98 kilometers beyond the Turkish border by trying to convince the international community, this plan is being challenged by the PKK-PYD-YPG and now Russia.

In the aftermath of a recent crisis when Turkish warplanes downed a Russian jet after they accused it of violating Turkish airspace, Russia seems to have intensified its air strike campaign on rebel-controlled areas, which has come as a godsend to the Kurds fighting ISIL, thus facilitating the Kurdish advance in the area.

In addition, top PKK figures such as Cemil Bayık, who runs the PKK’s terrorist actions from the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, have warned the Turkish government not to launch a ground operation on Jerablus, saying that the PKK would increase its attacks in Kurdish-dominated Southeast Turkey in response to any Turkish military intervention in Jerablus.

As for the post-ISIL scenario in Jerablus, Turkey plans to settle most of the Syrian refugees that have been temporarily settled in Turkey since the eruption of the crisis in that area, as well as continuing to press the US to keep the PYD-PKK out of Turkey’s proposed safe zone. However, Syrian Kurds have gained ground in Syria’s north after battles with ISIL and increased their territory at the expense of the extremist group.

The Turkish government has concerns that the possible emergence of a federal administration in Syria could mobilize its own Kurds to pursue the same path, which it considers a threat to its vital interests. Such a perception has led the Turkish government to have an inconsistent policy toward the PYD. Its leader Saleh Muslim was first treated like an interlocutor by Ankara after he visited Turkey several times for consultations in 2014, but later a campaign to discredit him was launched.

Turkey should seek way to cooperate with Syrian Kurds

Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman to evaluate the Turkish government’s recent policy on Syrian Kurds, former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakıs recalled that in 2001, “The government was against a separate autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq and the defense minister at the time announced that such a formation could not be allowed. I had raised my objection to the idea of building Ankara’s foreign policy on such a baseless point of view and said that only Iraq’s people have right to determine their future. What Turkey must do is form good relations with the regional Kurdish administration. Now, Ankara has managed to build this desired type of relation with Iraq’s Kurds.”

According to Yakıs, if the previous Turkish government managed to develop a relationship with the Kurds in Iraq, it is possible to do the same with Syria’s Kurds, but he emphasizes that the Kurds in Syria aim to create a corridor that will reach the Mediterranean Sea, something that Turkey strongly opposes.

“In order to prevent this from happening, Turkey is pushing for a no-fly and safe zone in an area 90 kilometers [from the Turkish border], including Jerablus. After ISIL is wiped out, Syria’s Kurds intend to place Kurds there,” he narrates.

Yakıs underlines that after the Turkish jets recently downed the Russian warplane, Russia has launched an initiative to ruin Ankara’s plans for the creation of the safe zone. In addition, according to Yakıs, the international coalition led by the US against ISIL is also not supportive of the settlement of Kurds in the area but it now needs the PYD-PKK and the YPG to defeat ISIL. “That is why the coalition arms these groups despite its concerns it may turn on them or their allies,” he adds.

Stressing that he does not consider an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria to be a threat to Turkey, Yakıs notes that “if reality brings about something that Turkey is unable to control [such as a Kurdish entity in Syria], then a deal should be reached with the Kurds to prevent the Turkmens from being hurt and any decision being made against our interests.”

Asked whether Ankara is trying to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria by undermining it by supporting ISIL, Yakıs responded: “No such option is possible. This structure [ISIL] will finally be eliminated. Any policy based on ISIL is doomed to collapse.”

He believes that the idea that political autonomy for Syria’s Kurds would encourage Turkey’s Kurds to demand an independent state is baseless since mainstream Kurds have no such desire, contrary to those having radical mindset.

İbrahim Guclu, a Kurdish author and politician who knows Syria and the Kurdish groups operating there, told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey has no right to raise an objection to an independent or an autonomous Kurdish state since it is the right of Syrian people to make such a decision.

Defining Turkey’s foreign policy reflex on the region’s Kurds as a Kemalist approach, Guclu went on: “Ankara made the same mistake in Iraq by making threats about the local Kurdish region. Iraqi Kurdistan under … [Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud] Barzani proved to be liberal, democratic and peaceful toward neighboring countries over time.”

“However, PKK-PYD collaboration poses a threat since the PKK is at war with Turkey. Ankara is not pleased with such cooperation and is ready to take action to stop it from being a threat. But, there are also divisions between Syria’s Kurds because apart from the PKK-PYD, they are moderate and democratic. Turkey can support the moderate ones. The number of these Kurds is higher than the radical wing but the PKK-PYD coalition controls the military power,” Guclu said.

He stressed that an autonomous region under the PYD-PKK would also stir up conflict between the rest of the Kurds in Syria and the armed wing. “This radical group, which resorts to violence to reach its goals, is a regime similar to that of [embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], which is a dictatorship,” he added.