Turkey faces new reality in Syria

Turkey faces new reality in Syria

Developments in Tal Abyad, a strategic border town in Syria just south of the Turkish town of Akçakale, are proving again that developments in Syria are not determined by Ankara’s desires and needs. What we have today is more than just a victory against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

The U.S.-led international coalition against ISIL is now allied with Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara sees as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The links between the PKK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is no secret, of course. 

The U.S. and many EU countries have outlawed the PKK as a terrorist organization, and this is a point Ankara likes to underline. But extraordinary times produce extraordinary circumstances. The mother of all evils, as far as the West is concerned, is not the PKK today but ISIL. 

At any rate, Washington has shown no inclination to outlaw the PYD or the YPG. U.S. officials are also aware that the Turkish government has been negotiating with the PKK for some time, whether it is doing this directly or through proxies. 

This is a key element of the “peace process,” or “Kurdish opening,” which has stalled during the election period, but which according to government officials, is ongoing despite the difficulties faced.

While the PKK may continue to be the nemesis of most Turks – given the number of deaths it has caused in the past – Ankara is not on the firm ground when it comes to trying to isolate this group and its offshoots in Syria. It is also on shaky ground when telling others not to cooperate with the PKK at a time when it is in contact with the group.

The reality of the situation as it stands is that the YPG has proved to be one of the most successful forces against ISIL, and neither Washington nor any Western country actively involved in the Syrian crisis is prepared to forgo the advantage this provides.

This leaves the Turkish government with few choices. It will either have to continue rowing against the current, and most likely fail in achieving what it wants to see in Syria, or try to develop policies that acknowledge the reality on the ground. Given the confusing picture it is faced with, Ankara will have to engage in a subtle juggling act if it wants to come out of this situation with some gains. 

At first glance it is good for Turkey that ISIL lost in Tal Abyad, but bad that the PYD and YPG won. It is also good that these developments will weaken the position of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which Ankara wants to see the back of as soon as possible. 

But there is the fact that Turkey will most likely end up with an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria adjoining its border, and which is linked with the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. It seems now that another town in Syria along the Turkish border, namely Jarablus, may be the next to be emptied of ISIL elements by the YPG with support from the U.S. Air Force.  

There was a day, when “Turkey’s Kurdish phobia” was at a peak, that all of this might have been seen as a “casus belli” by Ankara. But as the Turks say, “He who grabbed the horse is long past Üsküdar.” It is the PYD and the YPG who have grabbed the horse this time. 

This is a reality Turkey has to live with and manage. The way to do this is clearly not to continue alienating Kurds in Turkey, but to work out a modus vivendi that serves the best interests of all involved. This will require courage and determination. 

Ankara has lost ground with the Kurds since the battle for Kobani, when it was not clear if it favored the Kurds or the jihadists, but the domestic political equation has changed fundamentally since the elections. It is important now to show the Kurds that Turkey’s friendship is better than its enmity.  

It is also time for Ankara to wake up to what is going on in the region and to stop relying on jihadists to topple al-Assad, if that is indeed what it is doing.