Syrian quagmire has intensified Turkey’s PKK nightmare

Syrian quagmire has intensified Turkey’s PKK nightmare

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is the government that has come closest to solving Turkey’s Kurdish problem. It is also the government that has helped bring the prospect of an “independent Kurdish state” closest to reality, though obviously this is an unintended consequence of its mistaken policies.

In recent years, the AK Party has missed the historic opportunity to be remembered as the political power that solved Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish question.

At one stage it engaged in speeding up reforms on the cultural rights of Kurds in Turkey, while its representatives sat down with representatives of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to try to negotiate the terms of a solution. 

Unfortunately, the peace process never progressed smoothly. One of the major stumbling blocks was the fact nationalist segments of society – in particular the supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with a voter base of around 15 percent - started to express discontent with the process. 

Ultimately the AK Parti lost its majority in parliament in the June 2015 election, partly as part of the reaction against the peace process. It won its majority back in the November 2015 election after the conflict had been reignited.

After the June 2015 election, the government reversed its Kurdish policy, the ceasefire with the PKK ended, and the authorities started to endorse a tougher stance. Fierce clashes took place in the southeast, with the government accusing the PKK of stockpiling weapons and ammunition in city centers (without explaining why it turned a blind eye to such efforts). Ultimately, the solution process with the PKK was sacrificed in order for the government to stay in power. 

It cannot be said that the AK Party won the November 2015 election only due to its 180 degree shift in Kurdish policy. After all, some MHP voters likely deserted their party in favor of the AK Party not only because of the Kurdish issue but also because of disappointment they may have felt in MHP head Devlet Bahçeli’s refusal to form a coalition government after June 2015.

The real game changer on the Kurdish issue actually has more to do with the AK Party’s policies in Syria than its domestic policy changes on the Kurdish issue.

Before elaborating on that point, let me say that playing the blame game for the Syrian mess is futile. Long before Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burst onto the international scene in 2014, seizing large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, the Turkish government warned its interlocutors in Washington and Europe that Syria could become a swamp for all kinds of extremists if action wasn’t taken. Thanks to Bashar al-Assad’s canny tactic of releasing Islamist radicals from Syrian jails - and even tacitly cooperating with them in certain regions - the focus in Western capitals was diverted from the “devil they knew” (the anti–Western but secular al-Assad regime) to the “devil they don’t know” (the anti-Western radical fundamentalists). Turkey thought it could topple al–Assad by supporting certain groups, which despite posing as “moderate” ultimately joined the ranks of the radicals in the slippery terrain of Syria.

Fast forward to today: The Turkish president is complaining that U.S. weapons are being distributed “free of charge” to PKK-linked Kurdish groups in Syria. He said that this is happening at a time when NATO ally Turkey is struggling to procure weapons from Washington. 

But who was it that pushed the Americans to cooperate with branches of the PKK in Syria? When the government neglected to prevent the crossing of jihadists into Syria it created the global perception that Ankara saw no problem in tolerating fundamentalist groups in order to topple al-Assad.

It took many months - and several attacks staged by ISIL in Turkish territory - for the AK Party to finally hear the calls of Western capitals to put a stop to the crossing of armed militants. It took months for Turkey to finally allow the use of the İncirlik air base in the fight against ISIL.
In the end, the U.S. military saw no problem in using the PKK in Syria against ISIL, as it was reluctant to put its own boots on the ground.

Considering all these developments, it is not surprising that Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani decided to take a bold step, after seeing the rival PKK getting stronger with the partial support of both the U.S. and Russia.

Had developments in Syria took another turn, the AK Party government may have shown a softer stance to the independence referendum decision taken by Barzani, with whom it has enjoyed good relations for many years. At least, Ankara’s main concern could have instead focused on the consequences of such a referendum rather than the referendum itself. 

Instead, what preoccupies Turkey is less to do with Iraq and more to do with Syria. This is because such a referendum could help consolidate the PKK’s stance in Syria, speeding up the creation of an independent Kurdish entity in Syria. In that event, any solution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey would be further complicated.