No lack of drama in Turkish-US-Kurdish triangle
This week, Washington hosted the third annual Kurdish conference organized by the Kurdish Policy Research Center (KPRC) since its establishment as a D.C.-based forum since 2016. This year’s discussions were mostly focused on the new phase of the Syrian conflict, which has so far deepened United States-Kurdish relations like never before.
As much as the KPRC now stands out as a leading platform on all matters concerning Kurds in U.S., it is worth remembering that the first ever Kurdish conference in Washington was organized in 2013 by the U.S. office of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) at the time, which was one of the pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey.
The following year, the BDP’s successor, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), organized a similar event in Washington. Both in 2013 and 2014, the two heavy weights of the panels were Selahattin Demirtaş—first the co-chair of the BDP and then the HDP—and Salih Muslim, the chairman of the PYD in Syria.
The first has been behind bars for two years now in a high-security prison in Edirne with accusations of Kurdish separatism and membership in the outlawed PKK. The latter has been subject to an Interpol “red notice” issued by the Turkish government.
The year 2014 had especially become high time for Kurds in the international arena as the PKK’s Syria branch, the YPG, went into a massive resistance against ISIL during the siege of Kobani. Their successful fighting on the battlefield coupled with the secular ideology offered by the PYD in a heavily jihadist opposition landscape helped the Kurds to win the hearts and minds of the West as well as to reposition themselves as a key non-state actor in the Syrian conflict.
Consecutively, the first annual Kurdish conference organized together by the KPRC and the HDP in 2016 in Washington has attracted unprecedented attention. A ceasefire between the Turkish military and the PKK had been broken following the July 2015 elections in which the pro-Kurdish HDP won 80 seats in the Turkish Parliament by obtaining 13 percent of the vote. At the time of the conference in the U.S. in April 2016, the Turkish government had just tabled a request for stripping the immunity of HDP lawmakers, including Demirtaş.
Despite the looming storm in Turkey against them, their popularity in the international community helped the Kurds to pursue a bolder strategy promoting their utopia for the region. The title of the 2016 conference spoke for itself, “Co-Existence through Democratic Autonomy and Self-Governance: The Kurdish Case.”
Demirtaş was in the room and Muslim was live from Brussels on Skype. It was only six weeks before the YPG had taken control Manbij, where the population is predominantly Sunni Arab, with the support of the United States. Two and a half years later, Ankara is still waiting for a total withdrawal of members of the YPG/PYD from Manbij.
The second annual Kurdish conference in Washington took place in 2017 at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was preparing to supply heavy weapons to the YPG ahead of the Raqqa offensive. Unsurprisingly, all of the focus was on U.S.-Kurdish collaboration in the course of shaping the Middle East. Not to mention, Turkey was only discussed as a troublemaker jeopardizing the global alliance to defeat ISIL.
Now that the U.S. backed SDF, heavily reliant on the YPG command, are effectively in control of 35 percent of the land in Syria after liberating key ISIL held areas, the Kurds are playing for the long game. This year’s theme at the Kurdish conference in Washington was set accordingly where the political representation of the Syrian Kurds at the negotiation table in Geneva has become the highlight of discussions.
Ilham Ahmed, a top leader from the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, said despite efforts from key Western powers and Russia, Ankara blocked their participation in the constitutional committee, which United Nations Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura is trying to put together.
She called upon the international community to put more pressure on Turkey for them to be at the table. “If that does not happen, Syria will be divided,” she warned.
When I asked her whether by that she meant the Syrian Kurds would seek self-determination, she replied in a diplomatic fashion, underlining that they do not believe a state-building project is the right path for Syria.
In fact, Washington has not picked a big fight with Ankara for Kurdish participation in the constitutional committee, knowing this would push Turks away from the Geneva process, which has yet to prove to be a functioning mechanism. Casting doubts over the Geneva process in Ankara might make it easier for Moscow to sabotage the whole thing, which Russians are contributing in half-heartedly, Americans believe. That is why efforts for a solution to the Kurdish participation in the political process are deferred by the U.S. side.
Although Ilham Ahmed implied they are not after self-determination in Syria, it is self-evident that Syrian Kurds with all the economic and natural resources they are sitting on will be open to fixing deals with any power center if they see Washington selling them out.
Whether Ankara will be encouraged to a new peace process with Turkey’s Kurds in the meantime is a key question for policymakers in Washington. Although today, all indicators in Turkey are quite the opposite and there is no real intellectual interest in Trump circles, it is hard to predict the direction of the wind in the upcoming years.