The assurances on al-Qaeda to Syrian Kurds
The fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has dominated the fundamentalist al-Nusra organization during clashes in Ras al-Ayn next to Ceylanpınar has dramatically revealed the dilemma Turkey is facing.
Ankara’s northern Syria dilemma can be characterized in two questions: Which one of the options below is more amenable to Turkey’s interests?
A) For Ras al-Ayn to be controlled by the PYD, which is in line with the PKK, with whom Turkey has started a peace process.
B) For the town to remain under the control of the jihadist al-Nusra, which does not hide the fact that it is in league with al-Qaeda and which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.
PYD leader Salih Muslim spoke to M. Ali Çelebi from daily Özgür Gündem and from this interview, we understand that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has gone for the first option.
While Muslim has explained his contacts with Turkish Foreign Ministry and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) officials, he admits that al-Nusra took up a lot of the agenda. When the PYD leader told his Turkish counterparts that “Al-Nusra is coming from your side,” here is the reply he has received:
“No, al-Nusra is not under our control. It is an enemy to everybody, so an enemy to us also. We do not have relations with it. Because of this, we will side with you, against the al-Nusra front.”
The response Muslim has conveyed coincides with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s proclamation to daily Radikal the other day. In his interview to Ömer Şahin, Davutoğlu said – implying radical groups like al-Nusra – that “these groups constitute the biggest damage to the revolution in Syria; they are betraying the just cause. It is absolutely not correct to create an image that Turkey is supporting radical groups.”
Let’s remember that one of the most important agenda topics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s White House visit in May was the Obama administration’s expectation that Turkey would put some distance between itself and such groups as al-Nusra. To sum up, we can say that Ankara, which supported al-Nusra, especially at the initial stage of the civil war to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime, today has come to a more cautious line or is about to get there.
Another outcome of the talks in Ankara can be said to be the assurance the PYD has given to Turkey about border security. Muslim, in his Özgür Gündem interview, said: “We said, ‘No harm will come to you from the borders under our control.’ I assume they understood it.”
Regarding another sensitive topic of Ankara, Muslim has also given assurance that in order to provide some services to the people under war conditions, an “interim administration” would be formed in northern Syria but that the administration would not be permanent. Ankara, in turn, has softened its opposition to this, under the condition that this is temporary and that it is conducted with a pluralist mentality, featuring all ethnic groups.
With the end of Muslim’s visit to Ankara, the conjecture can be said to rest on these assumptions:
Kurds – with or without al-Assad – will have a new status in the future of Syria. We do not know today the nature of this status or the size of the Kurds’ gains. However, Kurds who were able to set up an autonomous administration with constitutional foundations in northern Iraq should not be expected to settle for a status that doesn’t resemble this in Syria in light of the Iraqi example.
In any case, we can say that Ankara has reached the stage where it accepts that for the next decades, it will live together with a “Kurdish entity” as a neighbor along a very long portion of the Syrian border.
This being the case, instead of approaching the Syrian Kurds with animosity, building a permanent friendship with them starting today appears to be a wiser, more realistic policy. The path to this passes along a road that approaches them with respect, knows them and talks to them as counterparts.
From this aspect, Muslim’s visit has been a positive step in the sense that a dialogue has been launched between Turkey and Syrian Kurds; also, it complements the peace process launched with the aim of solving the Kurdish issue domestically.
Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on July 31. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.