Turkey’s slippery slope to Syria

Faced with the prospect of a Kurdish “statelet” emerging on its border, the chances of Turkey charting its own course in Syria are on the increase.

A car bomb at the heart of Ankara last week dragged Turkey further into the Syrian war, making it harder to disentangle the changing map on the northern Syrian front from the refugee crisis and Turkey’s own domestic Kurdish issue.

A Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, related to Turkey’s own Kurdish rebel group, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), has claimed responsibility for the attack that took place a stone’s throw away from the Turkish parliament and claimed 28 lives. Most casualties were Turkish military personnel and the group said the attack was retribution for Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebels in the east of the country.

With the beginning of a full-fledged insurgency inside Turkey and military posturing on the Syrian border, Turkish-Kurdish enmity is becoming the single most significant dynamic defining the near-term political fortunes of Turkey.

While Turkish and Kurdish accounts of the identity of the attacker differed, Ankara insisted that the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military outfit, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), were behind the attack, thereby intensifying its shelling of Syrian Kurdish positions across the border. Turkey considers both groups to be terrorist organisationsdue to their affiliation with the PKK – even though Washington has a burgeoning military alliance with the YPG and considers the group one of the most “effective” partners on the ground for fighting Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria. The PYD have denied all accusations that they carried out the attack.

The United States’ “compartmentalisation” and differing treatment of the PKK and PYD/YPG is already adding a good deal of tension to transatlantic ties between Ankara and Washington. Even before the Ankara attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent much of the past week calling on the West, and in particular the United States, to recognise the PYD as a terrorist organisation. Turkish criticism of the Obama administration’s alliance with YPG forces is loud and clear, but hasn’t attracted much serious attention yet in Washington. US policy makers continue to view the PYD/YPG as an effective fighting force and a critical component in any potential operation against ISIS in Raqqa.

Despite tensions running high and publicly divergent views on the issue of Syrian Kurds, the Turkish and US presidents held an 80 minute phone call on Friday. According to a White House statement, President Barack Obama used the call to reiterate his government’s view that Syrian Kurdish forces should not seek to exploit recent gains by the Syrian government to seize additional territory, but that Turkey must in turn “show reciprocal restraint” by stopping its artillery strikes in the area.

This political and military quagmire pinpoints one particular area inside Syria. The situation on the ground in the tiny stretch between Turkey’s Öncüpınar gate (across Kilis) and the Syrian town of A’zaz, where the situation on the ground is more complicated than ever. This is the area that Turkey wants to make into a “safe zone” for refugees – but it is also a place where Russian planes are bombing Syrian opposition groups, where Turkey is shelling the Kurds, and where tens of thousands of refugees that have fled Aleppo over the past few weeks are awaiting entry into Turkey. It is adjacent to a longer and more strategic stretch of land (from Jarablus to Mare) that is controlled by ISIS — but too busy fighting one another, none of the actors at this point are focusing on the fight against ISIS.

The demands of the Kurds are clear, and chief among them is joining up the two non-contiguous YPG-controlled regions of Rojava and Afrin to create an undivided Kurdish zone on Turkey’s southern flank. This is precisely what Turkey fears, and, resentful of the US and Russian backing of the Kurds, it has revised its entire Syrian policy to prioritise the prevention of a Kurdish zone on its borders.

One of the underlying reasons for Turkey’s phobia about there being a Kurdish enclave in Syria is the precedent it would set for Turkish Kurds. With Iraqi Kurds openly talking about independence and Syrian Kurds talking about an autonomous region within Syria, Ankara is worried about the longevity of the Unitarian structure of Turkey. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for over three decades, initially for an independent homeland, and over the past decade for greater autonomy within the state of Turkey – this was a significant issue in the negotiations between the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan over the past few years. However, talks broke down last summer under murky circumstances with both sides blaming the other. Since then, Kurdish declarations of self-rule on border towns adjacent to the Syrian border have met a harsh response from Turkey.

There are also significant ideological differences between Turkey’s conservative ruling elite and the left-wing Kurdish movement, inspired by Öcalan. The PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, have developed a multi-ethnic template for decentralised governance, with a strong emphasis on diversity, socialism, and feminism – albeit reinforced by the power of an armed movement. These ideological and organisational principles happen to be at odds with the AKP’s conservative Islamist leanings, which allow for an independent expression of Kurdish identity and culture, but emphasise Islamic solidarity between Turks and Kurds. The AKP’s success in good governance and development, and its promise to alter the rigid structures of the Kemalist regime led to significant Kurdish support in its early years. But over the past few years Kurds in eastern Turkey have overwhelmingly been voting for the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party).

Back in Syria, much to Turkey’s chagrin, the Kurdish YPG forces have been steamrolling through the Syrian countryside despite Washington’s warning that they should not to take over key towns like Mare’ or Münbiç airbase (on grounds that it would further alienate Ankara). Eager to link the two self-declared Kurdish “cantons”, over the past few weeks, the YPG has been taking territory from ISIS and other opposition groups, advancing towards the Turkish border in defiance of the “red lines” Turkey has put in place. They have now stopped at the gates of A’zaz – faced with US warnings and Turkish shelling.

Combined with the Syrian military advances north of Aleppo, Turkey’s access to Sunni opposition groups in Idlib and Aleppo is effectively cut off. Hence Ankara’s policy of regime-change in Damascus is replaced by the more moderate – but equally challenging – policy of preventing the emergence of a Kurdish “statelet” on its borders.

Since the collapse of the Kurdish peace process last summer, Turkey’s outlook on the Kurdish issue within and across its borders has very much reverted to a more myopic and security-based paradigm that resembles policies from the 90s. Inside Turkey, following a string of declarations of autonomy in the south-east, urban fighting and military mobilisation have created internal migration flows in the tens of thousands, from towns like Sur, Cizre, and Silopi. Outside its borders, Turkey’s bitterness about the rise of a Kurdish entity in Syria, and its relationship with the West, is creating a sense of vulnerability that has the potential to strain Turkey’s relationship with allies. The Ankara bombing will only make things worse, deepening feelings of abandonment and betrayal, pushing Turkey to chart out an independent course in Syria.

But even in this climate, a unilateral incursion into Syria seems unlikely because of the risk of Russia using this as a pretext to strike at Turkey partly in revenge for the downing of the SU-24. According to media reports, the Turkish military remains unwilling to confront Russians without a UN mandate or international backing. Turkey still hopes to create a “safe zone” in the border region (between Kilis and A’zaz) hosting the new wave of refugees from Aleppo. But Turkey’s allies remain unwilling to commit to a no-fly zone, rendering the area anything but safe. According to press reports, Turkey has ushered in “friendly” opposition groups from the Idlib area and north of Latakia to defend of A’zaz, but cannot provide cover against Russian air patrols and surface-to-air missiles. There are discussions but no agreement between Turkey and Washington in terms of the exact nature of the force that can protect a potential safe zone.

In many ways, having publicly committed itself to an anti-PYD position, Turkey’s Syria policy will very much remain hostage to the Kurdish issue in the foreseeable future. So far, Turkish leaders are ruling out the possibility of a change in policy in relation to the PYD or a return to the negotiating table with the PKK. The Ankara bombing and Turkey’s internal dynamics – with Erdoğan’s push for a referendum on the constitution – eliminate the chances of a reconciliation in the short term. With a mounting death toll from clashes with the PKK, and a surge in nationalism amongst Turks and Kurds, it is hard to imagine how Turkey will break off the current impasse, untangle itself from the Kurdish issue, and once again become a key player in the Syrian gambit.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.