Turkey doesn’t want Syria to be left to the regime and the Kurds
“You have fought a war with the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK for 30 years but you have not won,” said a foreign leader recently, talking to a Turkish interlocutor.
“The PKK has fought Turkey for 30 years. It hasn’t won either. Perhaps it too should be told,” was the reply.
Many people blame Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition to change Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential system for the collapse of the ceasefire with the PKK and the suspension of the peace process last summer. Indeed, if the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had succeeded in getting enough votes to form a single-party government after the June 2015 election, we could have faced a different picture both in Turkey and in Syria.
The end of the ceasefire and the ensuing conflict in the southeast, together with deadly attacks in cities like Ankara and Istanbul, ended up helping the AKP win the subsequent Nov. 1 election, enabling it to form a single-party government.
While those who blame the president and the AKP for the instability and violence in the country may be justified, one should also not ignore the role played by the PKK in sabotaging peace in Turkey. The PKK leadership in the Kandil Mountains eagerly, willingly and almost with joy jumped on the opportunity to turn Turkey into a bloodbath.
In the eyes of Ankara, there is no difference between the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia force of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Prior to the June 2015 elections, while the peace process was still ongoing, the PYD was seen as a “meaningful interlocutor” in Syria, though it was being repeatedly warned by the Turkish authorities not to pass west of the Euphrates River and attempt to open a link with the Kurdish-controlled canton of Rojava.
Now that the peace process in Turkey has been suspended, the PYD/YPG is a hostile actor as far as Turkey is concerned. Ankara’s Western allies - the United States especially - have not come out with any statement proving that the PYD/YPG has nothing to do with the PKK. But with the PYD/YPG being the most successful force on the ground fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Washington’s short-term interest dictates that it turn a deaf ear to Turkey’s fury at the PYD/YPG.
That is part of the equation we are faced with, shortly after the ceasefire began in Syria. Now let’s talk about another dimension of the equation: Under normal circumstances, the ceasefire would have made the government happier than any other country, as the war has had devastating effects on Turkey.
But Turkey is concerned that the ceasefire will consolidate the Syrian regime, as well as the Syrian Kurds, and thus the PKK. Attacks against ISIL and al-Nusra will also continue, as they are exempt from the U.S.-Russia deal. The Russians will most probably continue to bomb other opposition forces anyway; whether you call these forces “moderate” or “less radical Islamists,” in the end they represent Syria’s dissenting Sunnis.
If the cease-fire consolidates the position of the regime and the Kurds, while weakening even more of what is left of a group that can be seen as reasonable Sunni interlocutors, then we will end up with a similar kind of situation to post-Saddam Iraq: A Shiite central government in a coalition with Kurdish autonomous regions, sidelining alienated and ever-angry Sunni groups. The marriage of a Shiite-dominated, Sunni-oppressing central government with Kurds has failed in Iraq due to the frustration of Sunnis.
“You may be able to eradicate ISIL and al-Nusra,” Turkish officials have told their American and other interlocutors, but if the fundamental reasons that led to the birth of these two groups remain we will end up seeing new radical groups replacing ISIL.
If America and Turkey’s Western allies want to stop the bloodshed in Syria, stop the refugee flow, and strike a serious blow to ISIL, they need to think more seriously about unintended negative consequences of the ceasefire on reasonable “Sunni” interlocutors, however small in number they might be.
Meanwhile, the quicker the Turkish government and the PKK get back on speaking terms, the easier it will turn the ceasefire in Syria into a permanent one.
For that, Turkey’s Western allies should stop fueling or contributing to the perception campaign that demonizes the Turkish government and glorifies the Kurds. Turkey-bashing only makes the government more frustrated and less cooperative, while the PKK should not feel that it will continue to have a stronger hand against an isolated Turkey.