Turkey’s Kurdish Conundrum in Syria

Turkey’s military operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin—with a mobilization of 15,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters—has raised many questions in Washington. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that the next military target will be the Manbij region and other cities in northern Syria “up to the Iraqi border.” Upon Erdoğan’s threat to “strangle” the Kurdish-led army “before it is even born,” Washington withdrew its decision to form 30,000-strong border protection units for northern Syria. Nonetheless, the Pentagon gave a clear signal that the US Army will continue to work with the YPG by training “local security forces” that are “internally-focused” to protect the local population and prevent Islamic State (IS) fighters from fleeing Syria. What also deeply disturbed Ankara was US Secretary of State Tillerson’s declaration regarding the US commitment to an indefinite military presence in Syria. Turkey fears that the so-called “tactical” alliance between the United States and the YPG—the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—may be turning into a strategic alliance in the post-IS era.

Russia’s response to the Turkish military operation has illustrated its delicate dance regarding Afrin. While the Russian foreign ministry stated that Moscow was “alarmed” by the operation, Russia relocated its forces in a way that enabled Turkey’s incursion, and it did not defend Afrin’s airspace against Turkish air strikes. Given that controlling Afrin’s airspace has provided Moscow leverage over Turkey, the Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime—and thus, making Russia the kingmaker in the western Euphrates—Russia’s apparent green light for the operation sparked intense debate. Moscow not only blamed the United States for its “provocative” policy in Syria but also effectively warned the YPG that it should negotiate with the Assad regime. YPG leaders claimed that Russian officials demanded Afrin’s handover to Damascus in exchange for protection from the Turkish military, which was rejected by the Syrian Kurds. Slamming the Turkish offensive as “support for terrorism,” Damascus swiftly responded with a military advancement in Idlib and took over Abu Duhur airport, a strategic location to cut the rebel supply route between eastern Idlib and southern Aleppo.

Aiming to establish a 30-kilometer cordon inside Afrin, Turkey’s military incursion, called Operation Olive Branch, faces challenges on multiple fronts. Several Turkish soldiers and a dozen Syrian fighters already lost their lives. Unlike the previous military action in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, the Afrin offensive carries risks for domestic politics. Moreover, the Syrian regime’s attacks on Idlib, which were among the main causes of Turkey’s Afrin offensive in collaboration with Syrian rebels, may escalate tensions and derail the Astana peace talks. Finally, Washington’s long-term commitment to protect YPG forces in the eastern Euphrates—in the Kobane and Hasaka regions—will further strain already impaired Turkish-American relations.

Turkey Faces a Domestic Challenge

The pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish parliament, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), called all citizens to condemn the government’s decision and took to the streets. In a harsh response, Erdoğan warned the public that any street protests would be “crushed” as the issue at stake is “a national struggle” and that security forces would hover over the “necks” of HDP organizers. The current emergency rule, which was declared after the July 2016 coup attempt, grants extraordinary powers to law enforcement agencies; several pro-Kurdish protesters were already arrested in Istanbul’s anti-war demonstrations.

Turkey faces a dilemma similar to the Kobane crisis in 2014. The HDP organized mass protests in Turkish cities when the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria was captured by the Islamic State and the Turkish government denied help to Kurdish civilians. Turkey’s Kobane policy has inadvertently galvanized Kurdish nationalist consciousness beyond borders. Besides, the fate of civilians under IS threat has not only led to favorable global attention for Kurdish fighters but also enabled close cooperation between the Pentagon and the YPG for the first time. Soon after the Kobane fallout, Turkey’s peace negotiations with the PKK were derailed.

Aware of the power of media images, Turkish officials organized an urgent meeting with top media representatives, presenting a list of demands. The list instructs 1) not to report incidents that could morally support the enemy; 2) to be “vigilant” about the foreign media’s critical news about Afrin; 3) not to quote critical voices that portray Turkey as an invader; 4) to get updates from the government; and, 5) to consider the national interest while reporting.

Conversely, pro-Kurdish sources started utilizing social media platforms to circulate images of civilians who were killed in the past few days. Istanbul’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s office announced that authorities would be closely monitoring social media accounts to open legal probes against critical voices. More than 75 investigations were launched and 30 people have already been detained for their social media activism, including representatives of pro-Kurdish parties and local journalists.

Moreover, the 15 missiles that were fired into Turkish border towns, namely Reyhanli and Kilis, have also stirred public debate as Turkish civilians lost their lives or were wounded. The YPG claimed that the attacks were orchestrated by Turkish state agencies and denied the group’s involvement. Expectedly, Turkish officials framed the attacks as PKK aggression, finding a further excuse for military operations.

Unlike during the Kobane crisis, what helped the Turkish government in suppressing trans-border Kurdish unity is the relative silence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq regarding Afrin. Following the fallout from the battle of Kirkuk in October 2017––when the Iraqi army swept the area in the aftermath of the failed Kurdish referendum, the recent negotiations between Ankara and Irbil have specifically mentioned an agreement against the PKK’s “de-stabilizing” activities at the Turkish borders, which the KRG promised to mitigate by sealing its borders and forming “safe zones.” The main opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, namely Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, demanded that the Kurdistan parliament issue a public condemnation of the Turkish operation and hold an extraordinary session to discuss the situation in Afrin.

The Idlib Question: Have Turkey’s Nightmares Become a Reality?

Operation Olive Branch is deeply interlinked with the developments in Idlib, the rebel stronghold region on Turkey’s border. The Assad regime’s latest launch of military operations, with Russian air bombardment, in Idlib have long been expected by Ankara, with a major concern. In the past few weeks, more than 210,000 civilians have fled to Turkey’s Idlib border as a result. With a growing population that reached 2.5 million after being declared “a safe zone” by the Astana agreement, Idlib’s civilian population poses remarkable challenges to Ankara, including its need for humanitarian shelter for refugees as well as border security control.

As a response, Turkey summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors and called on the two powers to halt the Syrian Army operations in accordance with the Astana agreement. Drone attacks by rebels targeting Russian airbases and naval facilities also led to accusations between Moscow and Ankara. A few days later, with a desperate and urgent need for action, Ankara announced its military operations in Afrin with the support of Free Syrian Army fighters. The Syrian opposition appears to be divided over the Afrin operation. Some are skeptical about Turkey’s intentions, pointing out how the Syrian rebels’ support of Turkey for the al-Bab operation led to the tragic fall of Aleppo into the regime’s hands. According to an FSA commander who joined the Afrin operation, however, the rebels’ aim is to capture Tel Rifaat and other key locations going east toward the Manbij region.

Thus, Turkey appears to be pushing the Syrian opposition to mobilize eastward in order to gain leverage in Idlib. The town of Manbij witnessed major demonstrations against the Kurdish YPG forces last week, which led the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to ask tribal leaders for help in mediating efforts to end the protests. Most recently, three senior SDF commanders were killed in a car bomb in the town. It is unknown, however, how Russia and Iran will respond to Turkey’s escalating operations with Syrian rebels in Idlib.

Ankara Suspects Nation Building in Northern Syria

Washington’s declaration of its “indefinite military presence” in Syria is widely interpreted as an open challenge to Iran, while Turkey reads it as an American commitment to Kurdish state building. The US State Department has used selective words to ease Ankara’s concerns: “We fully understand Turkish concerns about the PKK. It’s a terrorist organization…But we need to stabilize the north and we very much hope that Turkey works with us…” Yet, despite calming messages from Washington to Ankara, the field observers note that US Army officials continue to organize “border security guards” of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In a graduation ceremony on January 20, 500 fighters were added to patrol territory and protect borders in northern Syria, with provocative statements made against Turkey. The number is expected to reach 30,000 eventually, given that the border is quite long and porous.

Turkey has long emphasized that it will not tolerate Kurdish enclaves in the western Euphrates, pointing to the Afrin and Manbij regions. Ankara’s promise to launch a Manbij offensive, however, ushers more trouble for Washington, compared to the Afrin operation. Manbij is strategically located in the hinterland needed to secure Raqqa from the reemergence of insurgent groups. Thus, given that American officers’ lives may be at risk, US military advisors may defend a hardline position vis-à-vis Turkish policy. As a pragmatic politician, however, Erdoğan is not likely to risk such military skirmishes with US forces. His statements may be interpreted as a demand from Washington to consider the Syrian Interim Government and other Turkey-backed groups to increase their influence in shaping the future of the Manbij and Raqqa areas.

Facing such serious risk of confrontation between Ankara and Washington has seemed to be inevitable since the days of the Obama Administration, which perceived its relations with the YPG as tactical, ephemeral, and necessary to crush IS. To be fair, when the Obama Administration decided to engage with the YPG in late 2014, Turkey’s peace negotiations with the PKK were still in place and many Turkish officials were mulling over differentiating the YPG from its political platform, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). As late as November 2015, for example, Feridun Sinirlioğlu—then Turkey’s foreign minister—stated that political representation of Syrian Kurds should be separated from the military wing. “The PYD … is a [political] party, just like the [pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party] HDP in Turkey,” said Sinirlioğlu referring to the legal pro-Kurdish party represented in the Turkish parliament. He continued, “But the PYD doesn’t hold arms in its hands.”

No Way to Counter Iran without a Process for Turkish-Kurdish Peace

In the long term, Washington appears to “own” the eastern Euphrates in northern Syria. Trump had promised not to engage in more “nation building”; the countering-Iran instinct within the administration, however, dictates the US strategic vision. The reality is that Washington’s Syria policy cannot possibly curb Tehran’s influence without a renewal of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK. If Turkey’s gradual acceptance of the Assad regime was a facilitator of Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, then the anti-Kurdish stance in Syria and Iraq has been the linchpin of Ankara-Tehran cooperation. No one could have imagined that such warming Turkey-Iran relations would quickly turn into a strategic partnership. Ankara has signed new major contracts for Iranian gas and even agreed to penalize its neighbor—the Kurdistan Regional Government—by rejecting to pay its border customs duties,just like Tehran had decided to do.

From the outset, it looks impossible to expect Erdoğan and Turkey’s Kurds back at the negotiation table. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war has ensured Erdoğan’s power grab at home with a nationalist zeal. Yet, further militarization and a long war may threaten Erdoğan’s position against Turkish generals if he wins the 2019 presidential elections and wants a return to politics as usual in the country. On the other side, the Syrian war has led to the consolidation of the PKK’s power vis-à-vis popular Kurdish politicians such as Selahattin Demirtas, whose 2015 electoral success not only challenged Turkish nationalists but also PKK guerrilla leaders. In this atmosphere, the United States could thus be a wild card and impartial broker to shepherd negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, in the process calming tensions on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here