x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkey eyes Syrian crisis through lens of Kurdish stability

Operating in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, Kurdish parties and activists are seeking ways to use the Syrian crisis to their advantage, while Turkey tries to constrain them.

Turkey appears to be keeping all options open for intervening in Syria - even arming the opposition. But Ankara's failure to monitor the development of the Kurdish issue in Syria, and Bashar Al Assad's struggle for power, have left room for others to instil their agendas there.

In Syria's Kurdish-populated areas, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, is expanding its military front against Turkey. Leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan are stretching their political influence and campaigning for the establishment of a Kurdish region in Syria.

The PKK and Iraqi Kurdish agendas in Syria could open a Pandora's box of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, furthering Kurdish demands for autonomy and bolstering armed struggle. Turkey is in a state of alarm. It is using all means to influence the situation in Syria to avoid a domestic crisis of its own.

Turkey sees the Kurdish question as the most important threat to its stability. Kurds account for nearly 20 per cent of the Turkish population, and their demands range from the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights to the secession of the Kurdish-populated areas from the Turkish state. Since 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mitigate this question by granting Kurds some cultural rights, yet still preventing them from attaining significant autonomy and combating separatism.

Turkey saw the fall of the Assad regime as an opportunity to influence Syria's Kurds. Turkey had hoped to oversee negotiations on the Kurdish issue by hosting the Syrian National Council on its soil. Ideally, after Mr Al Assad fell, Kurdish rights would be recognised within "the unity of the Syrian state". Thus, Syria's Kurds would be prevented from gaining any form of autonomy, the PKK's branch in Syria - the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - would be undermined, and Turkey's own Kurdish separatist movement would not be further inflamed. Turkey was relying on the Iraqi Kurds to leverage the Syrian Kurdish parties to accept negotiations.

But Turkey's strategy backfired. Mr Al Assad has not fallen as Turkey wished. The Iraqi Kurds are pushing for their own agenda and Mr Al Assad is fighting back by allowing the PKK free rein in Syria.

The Syrian National Council failed to attract and retain Kurdish members. In January, Kurdish parties withdrew their membership from the Syrian opposition, and 11 of them eventually gathered in the Kurdish National Council under the Iraqi Kurdish umbrella. The Syrian National Council was left with only a few Kurdish members and without legitimacy to form the basis of negotiations.

Under the auspices of the Kurdish National Council, the Iraqi Kurds have expanded their political grip over the Syrian Kurdish parties. Although Kurdish demands in Syria were previously limited to decentralisation, the Kurdish National Council's executive body is calling for a higher degree of autonomy - applying the Iraqi vision of a Kurdish region to Syria.

As the Syrian crisis drags on, the Iraqi Kurds are empowering the Kurdish National Council as the sole representative of Kurdish demands. The Iraqi Kurds are aware that any political entity aspiring to govern Syria in the near future would need the Kurds in order to establish itself as a legitimate power. The council may raise the stakes and deal only with a counterpart that will accept its demands for a large degree of autonomy.

The PKK is also furthering its agenda and has found in Mr Al Assad a willing ally to consolidate and expand its military front across the Syrian frontier. In the past few months, the party has had carte blanche to conduct its activities in the northwest Syrian district of Afrin, in Aleppo. From Afrin, the PYD is expanding east and opening new offices in the Syrian-Turkish border cities of Ras Al Ayn and Ayn Al Arab. The PKK may now use the expansion of its Syrian branch to establish a military front that stretches from western Syria to eastern Iraq.

The escalation of the Syrian crisis into a long-term civil conflict provides the best opportunity for the PKK in particular to consolidate its influence and proliferate within Syria. As the Assad regime persists in its struggle to hold onto power, it could grant even more leeway to the PYD as its anchor for maintaining control of the northern Syrian Kurdish areas. If the armed conflict engulfs the Kurdish areas, it could help the PYD grow roots in the region. Being the only Syrian Kurdish party to bear weapons, the PYD could try to gain legitimacy as the protector of Kurdish civilians.

Turkey has tried to step into the Syrian crisis under the guise of an international front. But so far support for intervention, both military and humanitarian, has been met with resistance.

Therefore, a newly empowered Syrian National Council could be Turkey's best route to penetrate Syria and reinstate some degree of control over the Kurdish issue.

The Syrian National Council is now opening a military bureau, which should be in charge of organising the Free Syrian Army against the regime. Through this body, Turkey could attempt to channel the support of the Free Syrian Army, secure its loyalty in keeping the northern Syrian provinces under control, and halt the military advancement of the PKK.

Turkey might also hope to recast the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate opposition body in Syria, in order to bring the Kurdish members back into its fold, and regain oversight of negotiations on the Kurdish issue in Syria.

Channelling armed support through the Syrian National Council might serve Turkey's interest in stemming the PKK and Iraqi Kurdish agendas. But instead of helping the Syrian revolution to achieve the regime's downfall, Turkey risks plunging Syria into an extended domestic conflict.

 

Maria Fantappie is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut