Turkey’s Syria policy changes as Israel enters Kurdish game

Turkey’s Syria policy changes as Israel enters Kurdish game

Israeli flags have recently been waved during independence rallies in the cities of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. 

That is just the latest in a series of events unfolding at dazzling speed, which have brought the situation in the Middle East to the brink of a new set of political fault lines. But it is safe to say that the statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sept. 14 that Israel “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state” ramped up the already flammable situation in the region.

Netanyahu’s statement came a day after Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani’s turning down of a message conveyed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s coordinator in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), saying there is no “alternative” solution to the independence referendum he announced for Sept. 25. 

Barzani definitely welcomed the support from Israel, which brought to mind an event from the 1960s, when his father Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), received support from Israel’s Golda Meir.

Israel has actually never hidden the fact that it favors a non-Arab, Muslim but secular state as a buffer zone with Iran, while also making Iran’s access to Israel’s neighbors Syria and Lebanon more difficult. Israeli strategists give little credit to scenarios that Kurdish independence from Iraq is going to anger Turkey and Iran and force them to cooperate, increasing Tehran’s influence over Iraq and the Persian Gulf region and disturbing Saudi Arabia, which has been supportive of Israel as an ally of the U.S. 

Eyes have now turned to Netanyahu’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19. 

Before departing for New York on Sept. 17 for the U.N. sessions, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he had rescheduled the Sept. 27 National Security Board (MGK) meeting to Sept. 22, after his return from the U.N. (where he is announced to have a meeting scheduled with Trump) and before the Kurdish referendum (as well as before the German election on Sept. 24). Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said “all options are on the table” for Ankara, including cooperation with Baghdad, after speaking on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi on Sept. 15, a day after Netanyahu’s statement.

Meanwhile, also on Sept. 17, Hamas announced that it would dissolve its Gaza Administrative Committee, which could end the 10-year hostility between itself and the Fatah government in the West Bank. The two Palestinian parties have been having indirect talks for some time in Cairo under the auspices of the Egyptian intelligence agency. The talks intensified after Qatari Sheikh Tamim al-Thani’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas weakened due the crisis over the blockade on Qatar by four Saudi-led countries (including Egypt), accusing Doha of helping terrorism. 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is having its own domestic crisis. Stuck in the civil war in Yemen and in Syria, there are reports that Muhammad bin Salman, the son of the King Salman bin Abdulaziz - who was announced as the new crown prince in June amid the Qatar crisis - will soon become the new ruler. It is unclear what will come with the new king, who is obviously much younger and more ambitious than his father.

The only recent news deescalating tensions somewhat was the extension of the de-escalation scheme between Turkey, Russia and Iran, establishing a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war in the city of Idlib near the Turkish border. Each country has committed to allocate 500 soldiers each for the monitoring of the ceasefire and the prevention of clashes between forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition groups. 

The scheme is focused on the fight against terrorism – ie. ISIL and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. For Turkey, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliate - the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is acting as ground troops for the U.S. - is also a terrorist group in the area, but there is no mention of that in the deal reached in Astana last week.

The Idlib plan demonstrates a silent change in Turkey’s Syria policy. Up until recently, Ankara was giving full support to rebel forces in Syria, especially those linked to the Free Syria Army (FSA). But now it is trying to prevent clashes between them. It is too early to say that this has brought Erdoğan and al-Assad closer together, but some people are drawing a link between U.S.-backed efforts of the PKK to establish Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Israel-backed efforts of the KDP to claim Kurdish independence in Iraq.