Is the time ripe for Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation?

Turkey, Syrian Kurds seem to be shifting tone from war preparations to preparing for negotiations.

By JONAH NAGHI
July 13, 2019 21:33
4 minute read.
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together near the village of Baghouz

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 1, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)

On July 5, Ahval News reported that a new peace process would be launched between Turkey and the Kurds on September 1. It would be the first set of negotiations since the collapse of the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015. If negotiations are coming up, the difference this time may be that it will include a regional dimension. Indeed, recent events have indicated that the next peace process may not just be between Turkey and the PKK, but may also include the Syrian Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Just a few months ago, many feared that a violent conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds was about to break out. After US President Donald Trump announced that America was planning to withdraw its troops from Syria, Turkey indicated that it was going to invade the North to drive out the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), and the Syrian Kurds signaled that they were willing to negotiate with the Assad government for protection. However, tensions seem to have lessened since an exchange of concessions between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In early May, Turkey allowed Ocalan to meet with his lawyers for the first time in eight years. Soon after, Ocalan delivered a message through his lawyers urging the Syrian Kurds in the SDF to refrain from a violent conflict with Turkey and instead to seek a diplomatic solution with Ankara.

Regardless if one believes that the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK or not, Ocalan is nonetheless an influential figure in Syrian Kurdish affairs and their leaders seem to have heeded his advice. For instance, on June 2, SDF commander-in-chief Mazlum Kobane said he was ready to negotiate with the Turkish government and emphasized that he trusted Ocalan to play a big role in resolving the conflict.

Indeed, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds seem to have shifted their tone from preparing for war to preparing for negotiations over the past few months, and the United States can help them take the next step.

In a Foreign Affairs article in April, Merve Tahiroglu and Andrew Gabel discussed how the United States can help strike a deal between Turkey and the SDF. The first idea is to create economic incentives. One of the main factors behind the relatively positive relations between Turkey and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) today is their robust economic cooperation over gas, oil and other resources. As a world power, the US can provide the tools and mechanisms necessary for similar forms of economic cooperation between Turkey and the SDF as part of negotiations.


TAHIROGLU AND Gabel also emphasized that there needs to be further decentralization within the Syrian Democratic Forces in order for it to become a viable negotiating party. While the SDF is certainly more decentralized and democratic compared to other parts of Syria and the broader region, they still can and need to take a step further, especially in a post-ISIS Syria.

Originally, the Kurdish YPG and local Arab tribes in northeastern Syria agreed to form the coalition to work together to defeat their common enemy in ISIS. However, now that the Islamic terrorist group has been mostly suppressed, the Arab tribes have begun focusing more on their living conditions and representation within the SDF. For example, beginning on April 20, Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor held mass protests against the Kurdish administration over their poor living and security conditions and disproportionate arrests of Arabs. This caused concern that some of the Arab tribal members would defect from the SDF and join the Assad government and its forces.

However, the SDF leadership has taken a couple of initiatives recently to address their Arab tribal partners’ concerns and enhance their representation within the coalition. On May 3, SDF leaders held a forum in response to the protests in Deir ez-Zor, where they invited up to 70 Arab tribal leaders to come and discuss how they could address local grievances.

Then, on June 23, the SDF announced the formation of six new local military councils. The hope is that this will improve the living and security conditions of the Arab areas by giving them more control over their local security forces and enhance the local authority of their civilian councils.

Further integrating the Arab tribes into the SDF helps it become more of a viable negotiating party in a couple of ways. First, it may allow Turkey to see the SDF as more of a Kurdish-Arab coalition rather than just as a YPG-dominated organization and thus may become more willing to negotiate with them. Second, by further integrating the Arab tribes into the SDF, the semi-autonomous Rojava will have more legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the locals residing in the northeastern region of Syria for a long-term status agreement with Turkey.

For years, tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds have contributed to the Syrian conflict and hindered its resolution. The time may now be ripe to overcome their differences. The US must take advantage of this rare opportunity and assist the parties to strike a comprehensive agreement in the upcoming negotiations. Doing so may enhance the stability and security of the broader region and help overcome one of the main obstacles in resolving the Syrian crisis.

The author is a contributing writer for the Israel Policy Forum.


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