This article was published in Arab News on October 31, 2017.
What the Kurdish debacle means for Turkey
Turkey welcomed almost with celebrations the debacle that the peshmerga suffered at the hands of the Iraqi government forces. Nonetheless, it now has to handle the Kurdish issue all the more cautiously.
Turkey’s Kurdish policy has several chapters that have to be examined separately, but without losing sight of their inter-related nature.
The defeat of the Iraqi Kurds should not be perceived as a victory for Turkey. It is a domestic conflict within Iraq. Turkey may contribute to easing the tension between Baghdad and Irbil, but with only a limited effect. If it is not handled with care, it may even become a liability.
Oil-related deals between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) may become a complicating factor in Turkey’s relations with both Baghdad and Irbil, with Bagdad pressing for the revocation of these deals and Irbil for adherence its obligations.
Furthermore, if, after the negotiations with Baghdad, the KRG is transformed into a powerless administration, Turkey’s fight with its own Kurdish PKK terrorist organization may become more difficult, because this organization is nestled in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
The atmosphere of cooperation between Turkey and Iran may also help with more coordinated attacks on PKK targets, but this cooperation has never reached the level that Turkey wished to see.
Mutual recriminations between the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), started on Day One after the debacle and may not subside soon.
With the Syrian Kurds, how exactly the failure of the referendum will affect them depends on the attitude of Syria, the US and Russia. If Damascus agrees to meet the Syrian Kurds’ main expectations, such as the declaration of cantons, this chapter of the crisis may be closed without further complications. Both the Syrian Kurds and Damascus may have drawn the right conclusion from the adventure that Iraqi Kurdistan’s leader Massoud Barzani embarked upon. This may have demonstrated to the Syrian Kurds that aiming at too high stakes could be detrimental, and even fatal, for the interests of the people that they claim to represent. Damascus, in turn, may have learnt that there is no need to give everything that an ethnic minority demands. It should not forget either that it does not possess the trump cards that Baghdad possessed.
Everyone is taking different lessons from the humiliation of the Iraqi Kurds, and Ankara must handle its policy with the utmost care.
If the Syrian Kurds obtain from Damascus less than what they expected, American and Russian attitudes will become important. The US may stand, in such a case, behind the Syrian Kurds, with whom it cooperated in the fight against Daesh, and may have designs to continue to use them, this time against the Syrian regime.
Russia may not stand behind the Syrian Kurds as strongly as the US, but it cannot entirely turn a blind eye to their desires either, because the Kurdish cause will remain part of the long-term strategy of the superpowers. For the US it is connected to Washington’s policy of Israel’s security on the one hand and to its superpower policy for the oil-rich Middle East on the other.
For Russia, there are two conflicting interests. On the one hand, there is the policy to support the Syrian regime; on the other, the long term strategy to have Kurds on its side.
The two superpowers may also adopt a common Syrian Kurdish policy. If this happens, it will be on a collision course with Turkey’s Syrian Kurds policy. Turkey considers the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), nothing less than the extension in Syrian territory of the PKK, which is also recognized as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU. In fact, at the celebrations of Raqqa’s liberation from Daesh, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the YPG, posed in front of the cameras with a poster of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence in Turkey.
As for Turkey’s Kurds, it is not clear whether the PKK will change tactics after having observed what happened in Iraq. The success achieved by the YPG in Syria with heavy US support may have revived the motivation in the mind of many Kurdish youth.
Ankara may see the Iraqi Kurdish debacle as a failure of the Kurds’ unrealistic demands, in which case it will not backtrack on its present position. If the Kurds of Turkey draw the right lesson from Iraqi developments, they may soften their attitude, which may lead to the resumption of what was called in the past the “Kurdish Opening” process.
Ankara will have to manage this transition with the utmost care, and try to capitalize on it.