New Kurdish equation, Turkey’s new game plan

New Kurdish equation, Turkey’s new game plan

Lately BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) and PYD (Democratic Union Party) leaders have been talking about their unity and raising a new strategic Kurdish role in the region. The upper hand recently gained by the PYD against Islamist groups in northern Syria delivered a power boost to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the BDP. As a result they have made northern Syria the top item of their agenda, pushing even the peace process in Turkey aside. While this segment of Kurds is flexing its muscles, tension is still a factor in the Kurdish equation.

Let me illustrate the current dynamics with a simple incident. BDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş paid a visit to the U.S. last week to “seek support for the role that Kurds will play in the Middle East” as publicly announced and held high-level meetings. PYD Co-Chair Saleh Muslim, who was supposed to accompany Demirtaş, however, was not able to enter the country. He was not only denied permission to leave the Kurdish region in northern Syria, but also a US visa. It is rumoured that Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) had a role in this visa denial. 

This all speaks for itself. While the US engages with the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, it keeps its distance from Syrian Kurds. This is mainly due to the fact that the PYD refuses to join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which also upsets Turkey. Muslim insists that Kurds should represent themselves separately at the upcoming Geneva peace conference, a position backed by Russia and opposed by the US and Turkey. Tension is also mounting between the PYD and Barzani. The problem is not only the PYD’s affiliation with the PKK but PYD objection to the KRG favouring its own interests above everything else. On the other hand, the PYD is also reluctant to share power with its rivals over northern Syria. 

There are many other elements in the big picture. Turkey’s alleged proxy war against the PYD looks to be over. Muslim argued in an interview last week that there are no jihadists coming from Turkey anymore as before and that Turkey has ended its support for these groups, which had been fighting against the PYD. Turkey is also fixing its ties with Baghdad with which it had been at odds with for a long time. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said during Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s visit last week that Turkey has always considered Iraq-Turkey relations as key to regional stability. Apparently Ankara is setting up the right environment for its emerging investments in Iraq. Barzani is also warming his relations with Baghdad. A recent law passed by the KRG Parliament forms the legal basis for the settlement of its outstanding issues with the central government. 

It is now obvious that more Kurdish autonomy is unstoppable and actors are positioning themselves accordingly. Yet, still, some more adjustment is needed. Like Ankara, at some point the US will also have to give its consent, however grudgingly, to the formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Kurds, on the other hand, have to overcome their internal problems if they are seeking for more autonomy and a new role in the Middle East. Fractured relations among themselves weaken their common case: Self-determination. And last but not least, this Kurdish context requires the urgent settlement of Turkey’s own Kurdish question. For now both the PYD and the KRG avoid confrontation with Turkey, but that would not be the case if the ongoing peace process fails. It is also ironic for Turkey to act as the main partner of the Iraqi Kurds while unable to solve its own domestic Kurdish question. 

This all allows and actually demands Turkey’s assumption of a major player role in the Kurdish equation. Ankara could bring Iraqi and Syrian Kurds together and into its sphere of influence by developing economic, social and cultural integration. It looks like this is Ankara’s game plan.