Turkish Crossroads: The Kurdish Question
PYD militiaman manning a checkpoint in Afrin, Syria.
Straddling the crossroads of the West and the East, Turkey possesses a position of both profound strategic strength and vulnerability. With Syria’s continued political and security meltdown, ISIS has brought the specter of Islamic jihad to Turkey’s doorsteps. To make matters worse, the region’s Kurds, one of the West’s most reliable allies in the fight against ISIS, are surrounded by extremist forces in both Syria and Iraq. Tragically, yet unsurprisingly, Turkey has continued a myopic foreign policy of cultivating extremist fighters against Assad to little effect. Furthermore, Turkey has also dragged its feet in assisting the besieged Kurds or rolling back the tide against an advancing ISIS, much to the frustration of the United States. As this policy of avoiding direct action against ISIS (particularly when the Kurds are involved in the fight) continues, Turkey needs to understand that how it answers the Kurdish question will determine the country’s security and influence, both domestically and regionally, for decades to come.
For nearly thirty years, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged a costly insurgency in Turkey on the basis of self-determination for Turkish Kurds. Both sides have their long litany of abuses and strategic missteps; insurgencies rarely produce saints, but a series of sinners on opposing sides. Nevertheless, a historical peace agreement was on the cusp of breaking the country’s cycle of violence. Unfortunately, the collapse of Assad’s regime in Syria and the explosive growth of ISIS in Syria and Iraq diverted Turkey’s attention away from the Kurdish question. At the moment, Turkey is taking a page out of Pakistan’s geopolitical playbook as it encourages ISIS’s confrontation with Assad’s weakening regime in an attempt to depose the dictator.
Meanwhile, many Turkish Kurds are outraged at the inaction of Turkey concerning the beleaguered Kurdish city of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border all the while the country decided to bomb Kurdish targets in southeastern Turkey in October. This inaction regarding the city partially stems from the fact that PKK-affiliated Kurds are among the defendants of Kobani.
In what appeared to be a change of heart, Turkey later allowed Iraqi Kurds to cross its border into Syria to defend Kobani, although this by no means indicates that Turkey is softening its stance towards the Kurds in general. Certain Iraqi Kurdish groups are actually aligned with Turkey and the country’s decision to allow them to cross into Syria is both a practical and strategic one: it allows Turkish President Erdogan to maintain Turkey’s stance against the PKK all the while addressing some of the international criticism of Turkey’s policy of non-interference. Furthermore, the presence of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga in Kobani would counterbalance PKK-affiliated groups in the city. However, the support of certain Kurdish groups to counteract others is an untenable position if the country wants to resolve its nearly thirty-year conflict with Kurdish fighters.
At this critical junction, Turkey possesses a golden moment, the moment not only to redefine the regional geopolitical status quo, but cement a landmark peace deal with the PKK. Images of desperate Kurdish fighters fending off the relentless ISIS advance are tragically juxtapositioned by the surreal image of Turkish soldiers and spectators watching the fighting unfold just across the border. Turkish inaction has cost hundreds of lives, but may also go down in history as Turkey’s lost moment.
Turkey must not hesitate, but move decisively to exploit the closing window of opportunity with the Kurds. Kobani, the small almost insignificant city in the north of Syria, can be the capstone to a new vision in Turkish politics, both domestically and internationally. With minimum effort and losses, the Turkish military could quickly dispatch the ISIS threat within the city. The Turkish rescue of the city would not only be a public relations bonanza to a much-criticized Turkish government, but a game-changing political move. With a secured Kobani, Turkey would no longer be a second-rate regional power beholden to US foreign policy, but an influential powerbroker in its own right. The addition of Turkish military might, however limited, would drastically change the strategic and political landscape in the region. Meanwhile, domestically, the Turkish government can confidently turn to even the most skeptical elements of the PKK and say, “Turkey wants peace with the Kurds – and we are willing to prove it.” The rescue of Kobani could be the unforeseen lynchpin that secures the Turkish-Kurdish peace agreement.
On the international stage, Turkey’s intervention into Kobani would invoke a spectrum of responses, but ultimately, Turkey would come out of the fray virtually pristine. Assad’s allies, Russia and China, may raise a political maelstrom condemning Turkish aggression and intervention into Syria’s sovereignty. However, the accusation will be both baseless, and, in the case of Russia, hypocritical due to its annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
At the same time, Turkey can utilize Kobani to mobilize support for a more permanent solution to the Kurdish question. Undoubtedly, the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq (and Syria) have proven themselves to be both capable and resolute. However, neither the United States nor the incompetent Iraqi government have proven to be reliable or staunch allies to the Kurds. A Turkish-secured Kobani could serve as the first step in greater coordination and cooperation between Turkey and an established and recognized Kurdish territory, Kurdistan, within Kurdish areas of Turkey, as well as parts of Syria and Iraq that are currently hotly contested between the Kurds and ISIS. Some of these territories within Syria have already been proclaimed as autonomous cantons by the Kurds.
As stated before, other states, particularly Iraq and Syria, may protest a breach of sovereignty on Turkey’s part. However, any notion of Syria’s sovereignty became nothing but a technicality when ISIS steamrolled Assad’s forces, and an US-led coalition began its continuing aerial campaign. Similarly, the Iraqi state barely exists beyond the confines of Baghdad with ISIS routing Iraqi forces and gaining territory almost weekly. Furthermore, other states within the anti-ISIS coalition have refused to commit boots on the ground, something that is definitely needed; you cannot dislodge a military threat like ISIS by simply bombing them out of existence. Turkey could provide those boots on the ground to help repel ISIS forces and establish itself as the preeminent regional power it has always wanted to be.
As a sign of support for the recognition of a Kurdish territory, Turkish-Kurdish parties, even the PKK, could help Turkey transition into a more dominant role in the region’s politics. The alliance could serve as the flag for Kurds, from both Syria and Iraq, to rally to. A Turkish intervention, even a limited one, could prove to be a crippling indictment of Assad and his regime in Damascus. Furthermore, a successfully established Kurdistan would deal the Assad regime a serious black eye as well as establish a potent ally against future Iranian power plays. Meanwhile, ISIS offers an opportune chance for the disenfranchised Turkish Kurds and Turkish government to work together. Turkish Kurds would not only bring much needed fighters to the Kurdish cause, but also critical skills and professions for a Kurdistan after the conflict ends – a state with doctors, engineers, and teachers. And Turkey could position itself as the great benefactor to regional peace and the protector to the Kurdish cause. Imagine what that kind of political capital can buy.
As for the Kurds, they would receive the much-needed military and logistical aid in its fight against ISIS. The might of roughly 400,000 Turkish soldiers, even the threat of one, could give the Kurds a precious lifeline. Furthermore, Kurdistan would trade a flippant superpower for a regional powerhouse that has long-term stakes in both the Kurds and the region. US interest may come and go, but Turkey is literally here to stay.
An autonomous Kurdish territory within a federated arrangement with Turkey would empower Kurdistan in all state concerns except foreign policy and particular economic issues, like currency. Hence, Turkey will be able to give the PKK the long sought after self-determination of Kurds without sacrificing its own sovereignty. At the same time, a federated Kurdistan with Turkey will be a crushing blow to Turkey’s regional rivals, Syria and Iraq. Economically, meaningful Turkish-Kurdish cooperation could provide Kurds the sea access to the Mediterranean, corporate capital, and advanced technology required to exploit its rich oil fields. In turn, the flow of oil from Kurdistan to Turkey would create an avalanche of developmental contracts, petrodollars, and jobs for a stagnant Turkish economy. A pipeline from Kurdistan to Turkey may drastically change the energy security calculations in the region and Europe, especially in the wake of the cancellation of the South Stream Pipeline by Russia. The pipeline may be the key to Turkey’s entrance to the EU when the European continent is seeking to wean itself off Russian energy dependency.
In the end, the unlikely alliance between Turkey and the Kurds could be the decisive moment in the region’s perpetual meltdown. To those who point to ethnic hatred or nationalistic sentiments as an insurmountable barrier, how quickly you forget history. Less than seventy years ago, Germany and France stood on opposite sides in a war that ravaged a continent and killed millions. Now, despite the occasional political wrangling, France and German are critical nodes in the most daring regional integration project in history – the European Union. If we were doomed by the sins of our past, we may as well give up feminism, racial equality, and liberty. Ultimately, the question is not whether it is possible, but whether we have the strength and resolve to achieve change. In the end, Turkey can be another hapless, reactive spectator to the conflict or act like the regional powerhouse it claims to be and make bold decisions befitting a leader.
#TurkeySavesKobani may be a pipe dream today, but the only difference between dreams and ambitions are actions.
Image by Voice of America (public domain)