Can Turkey Broker a Solution in Syria?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a hard decision: Go back to war with the Kurdish guerrillas who once ravaged the eastern parts of his country or help them fight Islamic State. He looks set to make the wrong choice.
Erdogan is clearly torn between U.S. pressure to join the military coalition against Islamic State and his own desire to see two adversaries crushed: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish guerrillas running a de facto statelet in northern Syria. Standing by as Islamic State vanquishes fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, serves one of those goals. His proposal to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria would serve both.
What doesn't appear to work for Erdogan is to, in effect, come to the rescue of both the Kurds and Assad by attacking Islamic State, no strings attached.
It is a shame that Erdogan sees the problem in this way. The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdish Worker's Party, or PKK, with which he has been in preliminary peace talks for more than a year. The PKK has become so infuriated by Erdogan's approach, both to the talks and to events in Syria, that its leaders are threatening to rekindle their 30-year guerrilla war in Turkey.
The PKK's field commander Cemil Bayik says the PKK still isn't asking for independence or a Kurdish state that includes eastern Turkey -- just greater regional autonomy and rights. That's hardly a guarantee of anything, but there is clearly room for a deal. It would involve making compromises, taking political risks and devolving power, none of which are Erdogan's strong suits. Bayik's rhetoric was harsh. So, increasingly, is Erdogan's:
Hey world, if you openly speak out against ISIS as a terrorist organization, why don't you openly speak out against PKK as a terrorist organization.
Erdogan can interpret what is happening along Turkey's borders in two ways. One is to assume that whatever strengthens the military power and international legitimacy of the PKK and its Kurdish allies in Syria is bad for Turkey, while also assuming that anyone else who fights Assad's repressive, Alawite-dominated regime is an ally. This has been Erdogan's approach until now and it fuels speculation that, rhetoric aside, Turkey works with Islamic State and against the Kurds.
The alternative approach would be to turn the close and mutually dependent relationship that Turkey has developed with the Kurds of northern Iraq into a basis for wider cooperation between Turks and Kurds across the region. Success would ultimately remove the PKK's reason for being.
I suspect that Erdogan underestimates the blowback Turkey would suffer from an Islamic State occupation of Syria's Kurdish areas while overestimating the Turkish nationalist uproar that would follow any deal he might make with the PKK. Kurds can literally watch the fight from just inside the Turkish border. They can see Islamic State making gains.
Kurdish fighters across the border hold Turkey responsible for their plight, since it refuses to let young Kurds cross from Turkey to join the fight -- proof that the Turkish government is colluding with a murderous terrorist organization against their fellow Kurds. That will infect the atmosphere between Turkey's Kurds and their own government, too.
This is a fateful choice for Erdogan. To his credit, he has twice tried to start a peace process with the PKK and reach a political settlement with his country's large Kurdish minority. So far, though, he has proved unwilling to accept the compromises or political risks required for a resolution.
Meanwhile, the involvement of the PKK and PYD in the fight against Islamic State appears to have hardened his approach. Now Erdogan risks enraging his Kurdish population at a time when much of the neighborhood is in flames, and the damage that results may be difficult to undo.
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