Sunday’s Zaman – December 30, 2015 – Russia stirs up Turkey’s Kurdish problem

Turkey’s Kurdish issue is drifting in a more hazardous direction.
The new element in this process is the Russian factor. The downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey has changed many paradigms in Turkish-Russian relations, but Russia’s new attitude on the Kurdish issue will probably become a more problematic headache for Turkey than anything else. It may have more lasting impacts on Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. It may accelerate the process of whatever the Kurds are planning to achieve both in Turkey and in the Middle East.
The Kurdish issue had already garnered attention after the emergence of the Islamic Republic in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The need for ground forces to fight ISIL and the reluctance of the stakeholder countries to send ground troops to Syria and Iraq has turned the attention to the Kurds. They were thought to be the most suitable fighters for this task because the Kurds would be defending their own territory when fighting ISIL. However, after expelling ISIL from the regions it controls at present, another problem will arise: Who will stop the Kurds from dominating these regions?
When Kobani, a province in the north of Syria, was liberated from the ISIL occupation on Jan. 28 of this year, the Kurds tried hard to change the ethnic composition of the region in their favor. The reports of various international humanitarian organizations pointed out that the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a paramilitary group composed mainly of northern Syrian Kurds, created difficulties for the Arab and Turkmen populations to return to their villages. It claimed, unconvincingly, that the difficulties were due to clearing mines and booby traps.
Russia has several reasons for being interested in the Kurdish issue: First is the strategic consideration. Kurds will be important players in political developments in four Middle Eastern countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Therefore, the Kurdish card could be used as leverage in any of these countries when the circumstances warrant it.
Second, Russia needs ground troops to achieve its military goals in its fight against ISIL in Syria, and the Kurds are readily available for this task.
Third, after Turkey’s the downing of the jet, Turkish-Russian relations reached a record low level. It was after this crisis that Russia stepped up its support for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG on the one hand, and for the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the other. By doing so, Russia killed two birds with one stone: First, it increased its own fighting capability against ISIL; second, it grabbed a golden opportunity to provoke Turkey’s anger.
Last week, Russia took a further step by inviting to Moscow a delegation from the pro-Kurdish party of Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It took this step at a critical juncture, when Turkish security forces were engaged in a fierce house-to-house battle with the PKK. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, in a carefully worded statement that Russia is ready to cooperate with all land forces that are fighting against all terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Russia invited the HDP to open an office in Moscow.
These generous offers from Russia are a blessing for Turkish and Syrian Kurds and a harbinger of more difficult episodes in Turkish-Russian relations.
The Turkish security forces are trying to deal a deadly blow to the PKK terrorists in the Southeast of the country. Around 10,000 soldiers and several hundred anti-terror police officers are involved in the operations. Turkey may be aiming at sitting at the negotiating table with the PKK after getting the upper hand. This policy has, of course, its rationale, but what is not known is how long this blood-letting will continue and how many losses in human lives it will cost for the security forces and the civilian population.
One can only hope Turkey turns these bad omens into an opportunity by reaching a negotiated solution with its own Kurds. The later this is done, the more difficult it will become, especially after Russia has started to stir up Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

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