Syrian Kurds: Contextual Irony and Ramifications on Turkey

Syria’s current crisis could possibly end in an ironic scenario for Syrian Kurds that will have both positive and negative ramifications for Turkey. On the one hand, the Kurdish issue is likely to develop further, so strengthening Syrian Kurdish influence, while on the other hand the crisis may have a deleterious effect on the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), critically weakening its power. For Turkey the irony of the Kurdish situation is that any consolidation of Kurdish power might be disadvantageous, while the weakening of the PKK might not necessarily be advantageous.
Turkey’s determination to influence developments in Syria is strongly marked by the Kurdish issue. The country’s past experience with Iraq and Syria has been an important source from which to draw the lessons followed by Turkish policy makers vis-à-vis the current crisis. Turkish objections to the 2003 invasion of Iraq left it with very limited influence on post-invasion developments, including those pertaining to the Iraqi Kurdish issue and the PKK; both being a great source of concern and destabilization for Turkey.
With regard to its domestic security issues Syria’s concerns about its neighbor are of great importance to Turkey. In the past, Syrian support for the PKK was always a sour point between the two countries since it presented a significant threat to Turkish domestic calm. However, the betterment in bilateral relations under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) improved cooperation over security, significantly curbing the Syrian PKK threat to Turkey, at least temporarily. The possibility, therefore, of the re-establishment of a strategic alliance between Syria and the PKK against Turkey as it mounts pressure on regime, has been Turkey’s greatest fear since the Arab Spring reached Syria. In order to avert a recurrence, or, at least, to decrease the possibility of these scenarios, Turkey has chosen to engage aggressively in Syria’s crisis.
Despite such moves the process of consolidation for the Syrian Kurds appears to becoming increasingly real. All indications are that the Kurds will be granted rights in a post-Assad Syria. However, for a variety of reasons: geographic, demographic and those related to Syrian National Council and its agendas, these rights might not result in power such as that gained by Iraqi Kurds. They will, nevertheless, result in some degree of Kurdish influence on the central and provincial political processes in Syria, consolidating the Kurdish nation’s power. Thus - and in Turkey’s eyes, crucially - providing an impetus for its own restive Kurds to demand greater rights.
The overthrow of the Assad regime could cause a severe weakening of power for the militant Kurdish PKK if it results in the organization losing a hitherto useful ally in Syria. Despite the fact that Syrian/Turkish relations appeared close at times, the fundamental reality of the situation meant that for the PKK the phrase ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ held good.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime could be replaced by one willing to cooperate with Turkey in its campaign against the PKK, in which case, should Syrian Kurds be granted constitutional rights and be well treated, the PKK’s perceived legitimacy, and thus its very existence would be questioned since a good part of that existence is derived from the present states’ bias against the Kurds. Furthermore, Iraqi Kurdistan, an important player in Kurdish affairs is becoming an increasingly outspoken advocate of peaceful rather than armed struggle for Kurdish rights, stating that the latter is not now appropriate.
While Syrian Kurds are mistrustful of Turkey’s intentions and uncomfortable about its influence on Syria’s main opposition council, a trust-building process between the two sides could be mediated by Iraqi Kurdistan which enjoys relations with Turkey and has influence with Syria’s Kurds. Although Turkey has managed to establish good relations with Syria’s Arab nationalists, and Islamists in the opposition, it could cooperate with the Kurds on a range of issues regarding its political and economic security.
At the same time, despite the theoretical potential for improved relations with its neighbor, the very development of opportunities for Syria’s Kurds will further intensify Turkey’s concerns regarding the Kurdish issue. Turkey has always perceived the consolidation of Kurdish power as a threat to its domestic security because, as the successor of an ethnically mosaic empire, Turkey is home to different ethnicities whose political development endangers the state’s power and territorial integrity. The country’s deep-seated feeling in this regard leads it to always perceive any Kurdish consolidation, even beyond its borders, will eventually result in a domino effect on its Kurds.
Situated on Turkey’s border with Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is fast developing on a number of levels. The Iraqi constitution envisions important ethnic, political and cultural rights for the Kurds who currently enjoy de facto independence in a region that sits on large amounts of oil and gas and is witnessing political development and an economic boom. Should Syria’s Kurds to be granted rights, while not replicating situation of Iraqi Kurds, they will certainly enjoy a better life and, as spectators to these scenarios, Turkish Kurds will feel themselves further oppressed by state-inspired obstacles to greater freedoms and encouraged by their co-nationals, will be motivated to obtain greater Kurdish rights.
In addition to the above, Turkey, burdened with its complex Kurdish issue, has for decades not managed to engage the PKK in a political process, an omission which has already resulted in severe damage to the country. On the other hand, the policy of isolating the organization will not prove effective. The disengagement of the Syrian PKK in a post-Assad political process, in addition to the divisions between it and the other wing of Syrian Kurds would become a destabilizing factor for Syria and Turkey despite the PKK’s weakness.
Conversely, this same scenario in Syria could be of benefit to Turkey. The weakening of the hard-line and hawkish Syrian branch of the PKK undoubtedly affects the whole organization in one way or another. Already pursuing a policy to weaken the PKK, Turkey tries to inflict great losses among its PKK. Moreover, the division among Syrian Kurds is beneficial to Turkey in that the Kurdish struggle to gain rights in a post-Assad Syria will be limited.
The Kurd’s tactical approach of playing a waiting game towards Syria’s crisis has been strategic; however, the division between them that would possibly turn into polarization could critically affect their power. For this reason, there have been calls, on several occasions, for striking a united Kurdish camp and position.
Nevertheless, Turkey must realize that Syria’s crisis will unleash new domestic, regional and international realities, and among them will be the development of the Kurdish issue that cannot be ignored in a post-Assad Syria and, simultaneously, it is clear to the Syrian Kurds that Turkey, a neighboring country, has been a principal player on the crisis with its influence on regional issues mounting. Accordingly, it would be beneficial and advisable for the two actors to try to manage establish good relations. It is extremely important for Turkey to strain every nerve to avert a problematic course with Syria’s Kurds, including the PKK, especially as it is working on a new constitution, to try to engage its own Kurds in the political process away from the military struggle, instead of using the divisions between them as a trump card. Idrees Mohammed is an observer of Turkey’s foreign policy; primarily towards Iraqi Kurdistan. He is also interested in Kurdish experience. Published in The Kurdish Globe