Fearing another autonomous Kurdish region next to its borders and an al-Qaeda-linked retaliation, as well as to keep from losing its influence on the divided Syrian opposition, Turkey has been cautiously trying to switch its friend-turned-foe Islamist allies with the Syrian Kurds amid the latter’s overpowering of the former in an ongoing fight.
Last week’s developments regarding the Syrian crisis and the role of Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK) offshoot Syrian Kurdish group pointed to a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy on the turmoil in its neighbors. The first signal came after remarks by the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who said “radicals in Syria are betraying the revolution.”
Davutoğlu’s remarks were remarkable since the top diplomat has so far avoided having a critical take on “radicals” in Syria, namely the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra, arguing it was the calamity created by the regime that gave birth to the notorious group. He even tried to convince Turkey’s American
allies that al-Nusra was “not such bad boys,” when the U.S. labeled the group as “terrorist.”
However, Turkey put unwanted distance to al-Nusra fighters after Western pressure but still gave unspoken support to the group by just keeping the border doors open for possible weapon or troop transfers. Turkey’s cold shoulder to al-Nusra even stirred claims accusing the group of a deadly attack in the southern Turkish province of Hatay’s Reyhanlı district in May. Defiant Davutoğlu appeared keen to turn a blind eye to the claims; instead he put blame on the Syrian regime and its “minions” in Turkey, again shielding al-Nusra fighters.
Acknowledging the fatal risks of a highly dangerous alliance with al-Nusra, Turkey’s tilt toward an unwished-for alliance with the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has been in a dire fight with the Islamist group, has not only aimed for an end to a sickly marriage with the al-Qaeda-linked group. Under the threat of an al-Nusra backlash for the tough divorce, Turkey wants to have something of a buffer zone, which it thinks it might create with a deal with the PYD.
Despite the fact that the power balance might change like the clappers in war-torn Syria, the Kurds have been cementing their power in their domain in northern Syria, and Ankara
now approaches the PYD in a different way thanks to the confidence created by the ongoing reconciliation talks with the PKK. Despite the snag in the PKK
talks and threats by the group to spoil the tentative lull in Turkey’s east and southeast, the Turkish government has been holding talks with the PYD and hosting its leader in Istanbul in order to boost its ties with the group.
Seeking to make the Kurds part of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Turkey aims at expanding both its influence on the “moderate” rebels and the front against the Syrian regime while also looking to net another oath from the PKK
via its Syrian arms that it will not leave the negotiation table.
The idea of a “holy alliance” featuring Turkey with the “non-radical” Syrian rebels and the Kurds is not new after all. It was the core basis of a historic message by the jailed PKK
leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in March when he actually heralded a new map for the region drawn by the “brotherhood of Turks and Kurds” perhaps not only in Turkey but in Syria, in Iraq and in Iran.
He did not mention anything about the SNC, but that is the least of the problems since the survival of the weak group is in the hands of Turkey. Furthermore, the threats and warnings from the PKK
leadership in northern Iraq appeared futile considering that Öcalan had already given the nod for the “blessed” pact.
That being said, politics are not often required to have a reflection on the ground, particularly the battleground. And that signal was also given last week during a meeting of the Syrian rebel chiefs in the southeastern Turkish province of Gaziantep. The Free Syrian Army commanders made it clear that they would not hesitate to fight with the PYD fighters if it is necessary, but that is not their priority as of now given a mightier enemy, Bashar al-Assad.
Nowadays, Turkey does not want to see possible friction with the fighting Syrian forces, but it would be the last nail in the coffin of its newly reconstructed Syrian strategy since the political arm SNC has little to say on the ground. The fighting rebels have been already at odds with the group over underrepresentation in political decisions.
The loss of the major Turkish support is likely to force the FSA to the gates of its foe, al-Nusra, since the group is well-connected to the Qatari and Saudi backing while the other did not have what it hoped for from the Western camp. Al-Nusra now has a standing vow of killing all FSA leaders but it would not fulfill its initial promises especially after seeing Turkey not getting any closer. Wishing for more in the Syrian quagmire, Turkey might end up losing its influence in the Syrian crisis.