Turkey’s new Kurdish predicament

For Ankara to have a strong role in the ever-changing region, it needs to reconcile with the Kurds. Anything less than that would backfire against Turkish interests across the Middle East.

August 9, 2015 22:43
3 minute read.
TURKISH RIOT police use water cannon as Kurdish demonstrators throw fireworks during a protest in ce

TURKISH RIOT police use water cannon as Kurdish demonstrators throw fireworks during a protest in central Istanbul, July, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Intensive strikes by Turkish warplanes last week against Kurdish targets in Mount Qandil ended a two-year cease-fire between the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The cease-fire was put in place as a starting point for a peace process between the two sides after three decades of bloodletting.

Turkish attacks on the Kurds are not surprising. Despite the fragile ceasefire, the two parties did not fully trust one another. Over the course of the past two years there have been occasional skirmishes. But what’s different this time is that the air-strikes are taking placing simultaneously with Turkish strikes on Islamic State (IS) positions in Syria. This was the first time Ankara engaged in a direct combat with the terrorist organization since the US-led coalition, of which Turkey is a member, began its campaign in June 2014.

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Ankara says its objective is to fight terrorism abroad and at home – by attacking PKK and IS. But Kurdish groups accuse Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of using the IS threat as a pretext to sabotage the peace process and to prevent Syrian Kurds from furthering their autonomy.

Their argument is that IS has been around for well over a year, while Ankara has done nothing. Kurds even point at the government for allowing IS to grow inside and outside of Turkey.

The Suruc bombing on July 20, where over 30 civilians were killed, was the last straw for all involved sides.

While all suspicion was directed at IS, Kurds accused the government facilitating the group in carrying out the suicide attack. And therefore the PKK took responsibility for killing two Turkish police officers in the Kurdish southeast. The air-strikes against PKK bases in Mount Qandil in Iraqi Kurdistan were a prompt response from the Turkish military.

The Turkish government is not happy with the Kurdish advances on its southern borders. Syrian Kurdish forces are in control of the majority of the nearly 1,000 km. border with Turkey. The Kurdish group that fights IS in Syria is called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and is closely allied with the PKK. Turkey considers both groups to be terrorist organizations.

But the recent Turkish air-strikes against IS in Syria seem to be a deterrent for Syrian Kurds. The Turks are pushing to create a safe zone in northern Syria. Syrian Kurds feel that Turkey’s intent in making such a move is to prevent them from establishing a contiguous autonomous region in northern Syria. Kurds also believe that Turkey is not serious about battling IS militants in Syria and that the airstrikes against the group are only for public consumption.

What disturbs Turkey the most is the newly-established relationship between Washington and Kurdish forces in Syria, who have proven to be one of the most effective fighting forces on the ground in relation to the war on IS. The US-led coalition has provided air support to the YPG on various fronts. As a result, strategic towns such as Kobani and Tel Abyad have been liberated from IS terrorists.

This has allowed the Kurds to consolidate control of their territories and further their self-rule in Syria.

One thing that Turkey still needs to overcome is its Kurdish phobia. The idea that Kurds are getting more relevant in the regional scene has terrified Turkey. But that fear is unjustified. It is certainly better for Ankara to have a Kurdish force secure its southern borders with Syria rather than an extremist militant group such as the Islamic State that recognizes no borders.

If Turkey is genuine about making peace with the Kurds, then Ankara must have a comprehensive approach towards the Kurd across the Middle East, not only toward its own Kurdish community. Especially with Kurds in Syria having strong cultural and communal bonds with their brethren in Turkey, any change in the latter immediately leaves its effect among the Kurdish population in Syria.

The role of the Kurds in the Middle East is growing and will continue to do so. Turkey must acknowledge that.

Living in denial won’t bring anything to Turkey but violence and instability.

For Ankara to have a strong role in the ever-changing region, it needs to reconcile with the Kurds. Anything less than that would backfire against Turkish interests across the Middle East.

The author is a Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington, DC.

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