Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish issue

Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish issue

Syria, as always, is more than just Syria. The outcome of the deepening civil war or the violent fragmentation of the country will have a bearing on developments in the region, particularly for neighboring states.

The strategies chosen by the regime to fight off the challenge against it have intensified sectarian divisions. A prolonged civil war that further consolidates these divisions is likely to engulf neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have had their own sectarian calamities, and put pressure on Jordan and Turkey and possibly Israel. On the other hand, the fate of the regime and the future course of the country will also be determined by the geopolitical games that have intensified in the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq.

As had often been the case in the past, Syria is at the center of a strategic power play that pits Arab countries, Turkey, the United States and Europe against Iran. Russia, in turn, seething with anger after what it considers to be a double cross in Libya, is using its power and ties to the regime to sustain President Bashar Assad and family in power.

The all-important contiguity between Iran and Syria and, beyond that, with Hizballah in Lebanon, is secured by the Iraqi government’s support of Assad. Such choices on the part of the Iraqi leadership help deepen the sectarian dimension of the geostrategic game and increase the pressure on all regimes in the region where religious minorities exist and may be restless.

So far, the picture suggests that the Syrian regime can deploy enough violence to have the strategic upper hand on the ground. as long as Iran continues to back Syria it and Russia does not withdraw its protection, the incentive for the regime to accept a mediated solution or a plan to leave power is very weak.

This configuration and the weighing in of Tehran and Moscow, with Beijing tagging along, have thrown Ankara off balance. Turkey invested heavily in the Syrian regime in the past decade; arguably, Syria was the centerpiece of Turkey’s much vaunted “zero problems” principle in its regional foreign policy. Now, this principle is in tatters. In fact, since the departure of the Americans from Iraq and the failure of Turkey’s efforts to convince Assad to reform his system, Ankara’s relations with the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria are highly problematic to say the least.

After the effort to convince Assad proved futile, Turkey estimated (wrongly it now seems) that the regime did not have much staying power. Convinced of this prognosis and desiring to hold the moral high ground, Ankara toughened its stance and rhetoric vis-a-vis Damascus. It supported the opposition, allowed it to organize inside the country, settled refugees in camps and hosted the commander of the Free Syrian Army. After last ditch efforts in August failed to change Assad’s ways, Ankara began to strongly condemn the Baathists and cut all dialogue, albeit while keeping its embassy open.

Soon it became evident that Turkey had a soft spot for the Muslim Brotherhood among the groups that make up the hapless Syrian National Council. Long insistent on presenting itself, a secular country, above the fray in sectarian issues, Turkey ended up being accused of siding with the Sunnis in Iraq, too, by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. With its position diametrically opposed to that of Iran in both Syria and Iraq, Ankara’s relations with Tehran also soured. This tension had already been building up as a result of Turkey’s inclusion in NATO’s missile shield and the deployment of the radar for this system in the Turkish province of Malatya.

Given their long shared border, Turkey will be part of any plausible development concerning Syria. Recently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that Turkey was considering the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria. Given that this would mean an infringement on Syrian sovereignty and that Turkey is against international military intervention and is reluctant to intervene militarily itself, how the buffer zone would be protected is not clear. Nor is it clear where the legitimation for such a move is going to come from or whether the backing of the self-selected “friends of Syria” would suffice.

The issue of the buffer zone also brings to the fore one of the most downplayed issues related to developments in Syria and one that ties Syrian developments to those in Iraq. Since the Iraq war, and now with the unfolding events in Syria, the region’s Kurdish issue has become truly transnational.

Already in Iraq, the Kurds enjoy a near independent stature in their autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Ironically, after years of writing off the Iraqi Kurdish leadership as simple tribal leaders, Turkey has established the closest of ties with the KRG. The Kurds have emerged as Turkey’s natural ally in Iraq, its most important trading partner and investment destination not just regionally but globally, and a partner in containing the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whose stronghold is the Kandil Mountains inside the KRG.

Now, Syria’s Kurds have finally emerged as part of the picture nationally and regionally. Assuming Syria does not break up, it is highly likely that Syrian Kurds will enjoy more rights than they ever had before. What makes this interesting is that Turkey’s nemesis, the PKK, enjoys a fair degree of popularity in the KRG and is politically very strong among Syrian Kurds. Therefore, whatever the future status of Syrian Kurds in the new Syria, an element of trans-border solidarity and perhaps cooperation will flourish. This should increase the KRG’s power and influence and pit it against the PKK’s presence in Syria.

As Idrees Muhammed, an observer of Turkey’s foreign policy, notes, “Should Syria’s Kurds be granted rights, while not replicating the situation of Iraqi Kurds, they will certainly enjoy a better life. . . . Turkish Kurds will feel themselves further oppressed by state-inspired obstacles to greater freedoms and, encouraged by their co-nationals, will be motivated to obtain greater Kurdish rights.” In other words, it would be much more difficult to contain the Kurdish problem in distinct countries as a national issue. If regional sectarian strife does not break out and Syria remains territorially intact, this emergence of trans-border Kurdish politics may be the most important consequence of the Syrian crisis.

Under such circumstances, the Turkish government ought to be careful about the kind of buffer zone it wishes to establish. As Gokhan Bacik from Zirve University warns, Turkey should make sure that the zone’s borders are not drawn along ethnic or sectarian lines.

Soli Ozel teaches at Kadir Has University and is a columnist for Haberturk newspaper. This article was originally published in bitterlemons-international.org