Kurdish impasse in Syria talks

Kurdish impasse in Syria talks

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, said on Jan. 25 that the conference on Syria’s future, which had been planned for Jan. 25 but failed to go ahead, could meet on Jan. 29. He was speaking after a telephone conversation earlier in the day between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The main reason for the failure of the talks scheduled for yesterday was the disagreement over the composition of the delegations – made up of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad government and the opposition groups fighting against Damascus throughout a five-year civil war that has devastated the country.

Neither al-Assad and his allies, nor the opposition groups who had meet in Riyadh earlier in the month, consider the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the main fighting Kurdish group in the Syrian theater – to be one of themselves, as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put it yesterday in Ankara during a press conference with EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 23 in Istanbul that Turkey regarded the PYD as one and the same with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on both the U.S. and the EU’s official “terrorist organizations” list. Ankara would therefore not accept the PYD as part of the opposition in the conference, because it says the PYD is not fighting against al-Assad’s forces, but rather for them.

Indeed, while fighting an extensive campaign against the PKK - which last month resumed acts of terror after a three-year silence during dialogue with the government - Ankara for security reasons does not want a PKK-linked Kurdish group controlling an entire belt along the 910 km Turkish-Syria border. The Turkish government thinks that a stronger PYD means a stronger PKK, which could further antagonize Turkey’s terrorism problem originating from the Kurdish issue.

The PYD, however, is one of the major ground forces fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. The U.S.-led coalition air strikes, mostly taking off from the strategic Turkish base of İncirlik, get ground help from PYD militias. In return, the coalition helps the PYD make advances to take ISIL-held positions. 

The PYD is also helping the Russian military, but not only against ISIL, also against the forces fighting against al-Assad, according to the opposition alliance. Meanwhile, Russia continues to try to block Turkish moves in Syria, especially moves against al-Assad, and especially since Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over border violations on Nov. 24.

So the picture is very complicated. There is a Kurdish impasse on Syria’s future. If Turkey withdraws its support from the planned conference, it could make life difficult for the Turkish government, but it will not make it easier for other countries and parties. Eyes are now on invitation letters to the conference, which are due to be sent to the various parties on Jan. 26 by Mistura. These letters could ultimately make the process even more complicated, rather than making it easier.