Turkey's Syria Problem in 5 Maps
In three days of Kurdish protests over Turkey's refusal to help ethnic Kurds in Syria, 31 people have died -- six times as many as in the tumultuous first two weeks of the so-called Gezi Park demonstrations across Turkey last year. Like the crushing of the Gezi Park movement, this Kurdish unrest will be a turning point.
Erdogan's approach to the defense of Kobani, an ethnically Kurdish town that is under siege by Islamic State militants just over the border in Syria, may decide whether Turkey resolves or revives the Kurdish unrest that hobbled the country's economic and political development for decades.
I have a lot of sympathy for Erdogan's predicament. The advance of Islamic State forces him to choose between two unpalatable options. The first is to join the U.S. campaign, which would carry huge downside risks. Part of his political base is sympathetic to Islamic State, which it considers a Sunni response to Shiite oppression. Worse, the organization now has enough adherents in Turkey to make the country highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, should the Turkish military get involved.
Turkish nationalists would simultaneously attack him for collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Indeed, he would be making a big bet on the PKK, which fought a war in which at least 30,000 Turkish citizens were killed before a cease-fire last year. The Kurdish group is getting a new lease of life from the turmoil in Syria, and Turks still fear the PKK wants to carve out a Kurdish state, though it claims to want only autonomy.
The other option is to seal the border and let Islamic State take Kobani, crushing its PKK-affiliated defenders. This appears to be the choice Erdogan has made, and the results are already becoming clear: His most important security alliance, with the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is under extreme strain. Turkish Kurds have rioted in 35 of the country's 81 provinces, and the PKK has threatened to restart the old war -- which also could mean terrorist attacks within Turkey -- if Kobani is allowed to fall.
To understand the conflict, and have a sense of where it might go next, it helps to know the following:
-- Rojava, which means western in Kurdish (the PKK divides Kurdistan into North, South, West and East), is a de facto autonomous region carved out during Syria's civil war where a majority of Syria's roughly 2 million Kurds live:
-- Rojava itself is broken into three isolated pieces, optimistically described as Swiss-style cantons and all on the Turkish border. Kobani was a small area in the center, cut off from the other two areas and surrounded by Islamic State. It is now a pinprick of Kurdish yellow, surrounded by a sea of black. So without a lot of help, Kobani is almost impossible to defend:
-- The headlines to the effect of "Turkey won't send troops to aid Kobani" answer a question that isn't being asked. The Kurds don't want the Turkish military to intervene on the ground, and nor does the U.S. Only Turkey wants to send in troops -- to create a "buffer zone" that it, and not Kurdish militants, would control. The Kurds just want Turkey to allow Kurdish fighters to be allowed to move from one part of Rojava to the other with arms and reinforcements.
-- Kurds are convinced Turkey is arming and aiding Islamic State to destroy or occupy Rojava. The first accusation probably isn't true, but the second is accurate in the sense that sealing the border is all the help the Islamic State needs to achieve its goal.
-- The fall of Kobani won't end the crisis. There are two much larger parts of Rojava remaining. The first, Cizre, contains some of Syria's most productive oil fields. These are much smaller than those in Iraq, but would be important to Islamic State. The vast majority of Iraq's oil is on territory populated by Kurds and Shiites, and the Sunni areas held by Islamic State are mostly devoid of energy resources. A Caliphate without oil revenue probably wouldn't be glorious for long:
-- This helps to explain why one of the maps Islamic State has produced of its immediate territorial aims includes Cizre and swathes of Kurdish-populated territory in Iraq:
-- Finally, Kurdish fighters in Syria will remain dependent on Turkey for resupply and reinforcement, or at imminent risk of becoming so. As a result, Erdogan may feel he has a strong hand with the PKK and can ignore the group's threats to restart a guerrilla war.
Erdogan appears to believe he can squeeze the PKK and its affiliate in Syria, while negotiating a settlement with Turkey's Kurdish community. If so, he would be underestimating how quickly a massacre in Kobani could push events beyond his control. Erdogan is a formidable politician and never to be underestimated, yet I suspect he is making a big mistake for Turkey.
That's because only one of the two very risky paths for Erdogan has a chance of a positive outcome. The Turkish leader has a real prospect of building a long-term alliance with the Kurds and creating a stable buffer against the chaos of the Middle East, partly because he has already done a lot to repair relations with Kurds in Iraq and Turkey in recent years. Islamic State, however, can offer nothing but instability and fear.
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