Turkey’s Competing Interests: Kobani, Syria, and Peace with the PKK

October 22, 2014

Host: The Middle East Institute


Ms. Aliza Marcus, Former International Correspondent, Boston Globe

Dr. Kadir Ustun, Director of Research, SETA Foundation

Mr. Mehmet Yuksel, Representative to the U.S., Peoples’ Democracy Party

In little more than a month’s time, the city of Kobani has gone from an obscure Syrian border town to one of the perennial symbols of the Syrian civil war and the U.S. led fight against the Islamic State (IS). Although IS had been advancing on the city since mid September, it has only garnered international attention in recent weeks as the siege has increasingly illustrated the competing U.S., Turkish, and Kurdish interests at play in the region.

In Turkey, Kobani has highlighted a complex balancing act as the country tries to appease the U.S. and its NATO allies while also pursuing its own domestic interests: ending its decades long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Having successfully brokered a ceasefire with the PKK a year and a half ago, widely considered one of the key successes of President Erdogan’s political career, the Turkish Government’s hope for peace and stability is now being threatened by its inaction over Kobani. Despite promises to not let Kobani fall to IS, and even in light of Turkey’s recent policy reversal that has allowed Peshmerga fighters from Iraq to cross through Turkey into Syria, Turkey’s demonstrated reluctance to aid Kurdish fighters in Kobani has re-exacerbated tensions with the PKK and its Syrian counterpart – the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In the past few weeks, 48 Kurds have died while protesting Turkey’s closed border policy.

Such stiff resistance from Turkey has, in Mr. Yuksel’s opinion, only succeeded in highlighting the fear and distrust that Turkey still harbors against the PKK and a united Kurdish front. Although Turkey has been willing to carry on relations with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, partaking in diplomatic exchanges and also buying the KRG’s oil, it clearly feels threatened by degree of unity currently being demonstrated between Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi Kurds – groups that have usually resented one another.

As Dr. Ustun explained, although the U.S. has been willing to assist the YPG and Peshmerga, due to the fighting capabilities demonstrated in Kobani, in Sinjar and throughout Iraq, Turkey has a very different set of priorities in Syria. Chief among these is removing Bashar al-Assad from power. Although the U.S. may, at the moment, be willing to “work with anyone and everyone” who is actively opposing IS, Dr. Ustun and Turkey worry that the U.S. may in be inadvertently helping the Assad regime by wiping out one of its staunchest opponents, IS. He further noted that, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the YPG has not engaged with the Assad regime and has also failed to join or support the Free Syrian Army and other organized opposition groups. For these reasons, Dr. Ustun sees no reason why Turkey should support the YPG and other Kurdish forces. The country’s reluctance to assist Kobani is not about the PKK; it is more about competing strategic interests and objectives in Syria.

These strategic differences are another reason why Turkey has been so reluctant to play a more overt role in the U.S. led coalition. While Secretary of State Kerry and other international leaders have called for a buffer zone and a no fly zone to be implemented in Northern Syria, Turkey, despite possessing the second largest army in NATO, has so far refused to spearhead the initiative. This, according to Dr. Ustun, is because Turkey has no strategic partners in its pursuit of ousting Assad. Despite increasing pressure, he believes it is “out of the question” for Turkey to act as the sole ground power in Syria; there is no reason for it to commit even more resources in Syria when its own interests are not the highest priority.

With the YPG and Peshmerga receiving increasing amounts of support from the U.S., Ms. Marcus believes Turkey will ultimately need to choose one of, what from their perspective are, “very bad options.” Either Turkey accepts a stronger and likely more autonomous Kurdish region in Southeast Turkey and Northern Syria or it allows IS to establish itself along the Syrian-Turkish border. Based on its recent actions to allow the Peshmerga to bring heavy weaponry through Turkey in order to support Kobani, it is choosing the former.

Although the PKK may not be happy with the pace at which Turkey has chosen to allow assistance to flow into Kobani, Mr. Yuksei claims that it is now “critical” for the PKK, KRG, and YPD to reinstate order and resume peace talks in Turkey. With momentum and international support finally on their side, Ms. Marcus believes “there will be Kurdish autonomy in Southeast Turkey…the question is whether it will happen with Turkey’s help.”

As the world steadily monitors events in Kobani and Turkey, new questions loom over how far Turkey and the U.S. will go in aiding Kurdish fighting forces, particularly after Kobani is successfully or unsuccessfully defended. All the speakers noted that, as of now, the U.S. lacks a grand strategy in Syria and is focused only on the short-term goal of dislodging IS. With that in mind, it hard to say whether the Kurds will continue to enjoy this strong support. With a legal framework now established through which Turkey and the PKK may negotiate, there is strong hope that a lasting peace can be attained. Having already endured decades of localized conflict, and with violence raging across the border in Syria, achieving peace in Turkey would be a positive step for the region at large. This opportunity cannot go to waste.

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23. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Middle East | Comments Off on Turkey’s Competing Interests: Kobani, Syria, and Peace with the PKK