Feud between Turks and Kurds only adds to Syrian quagmire

Feud between Turks and Kurds only adds to Syrian quagmire
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Once again, Turks and Kurds are squaring off to fight. Turks and Kurds have clashed with one another for nearly 1,000 years. The Kurds were in the Middle East first, with roots stretching back millennia. The Turks arrived in historical times and absorbed most Kurds into the Ottoman Empire. 

Emerging Kurdish nationalism in the late 19th century precipitated three Kurdish revolts within Turkey in the 20th century. The last upheaval began in 1983 and has resulted in thousands of casualties. It is still going on, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a radical Marxist terrorist organization.  

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To Ankara, controlling the political future of the Kurds is an absolute priority. Turkey is convinced that any Kurdish political cooperation across borders in the Middle East, e.g., between Syria Kurds and Turkish Kurds, is a direct threat to Turkish existence and a wedge to achieve an independent Kurdish state that would include land from Turkey. 

In the war in Syria, therefore, Ankara has concentrated on blocking any Kurdish military or political gains. Fighting ISIS was not Ankara’s priority. Most emblematic of this strategy was Turkey’s decision not to intervene in Kobani, a town in Syria visible from Turkish territory, which was besieged by ISIS for six months in 2014-15. 

The Kurdish defeat of ISIS in Kobani, aided by American and other Allied air power, was the turning point in the four-year campaign to bring ISIS to its last bit of territory in Syria. 

With a sharply divided electorate and an economy bordering on structural inflation and a possible depression, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has relied more and more on ardent nationalism to keep his grip on Turkish politics. The Kurds in Turkey and in Syria are the chosen target. 

Reacting to the PKK murder of two Turkish police officers in July 2015, Erdoğan launched a major military offensive against Kurds in Turkey. There has been enormous destruction over the past four years. Erdoğan also set out in 2015 to destroy the political force of Kurds within Turkey. 

He has held the pro-Kurdish party leader, Selahattin Demirtas, in jail since 2016. Erdoğan’s ruling party (AKP) has allied since 2018 with the country’s most nationalist party to solidify its credentials as a populist-nationalist champion. 

Erdoğan has long attacked the U.S. for helping the Kurds in Syria, claiming there are close ties between Syrian Kurds, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), and the PKK. Ankara conceded no right to the Kurds to protect themselves from ISIS onslaughts, instead asserting that Turkey would protect them. 

Such an idea is anathema to Syrian Kurds. Even before the Americans depart, the Kurds are talking to Damascus and Moscow. Neither of these capitals has labeled the YPG a terrorist organization, and both have maintained ties and had discussions with the YPG. 

Nevertheless, President Erdoğan is trying to make a deal with the Americans quickly enough to be able to occupy a buffer zone on its southeastern border before forces from Damascus can do so. He plans to use his military occupation of that zone as an established fact to push back against resistance from Moscow and Damascus. 

Remarkably, he seems to hope for American help in doing so. He will certainly ask for American logistical assistance; financial assistance; the return of heavy weapons now in Kurdish hands; perhaps American air protection for the zone; and for permission to occupy the American bases as the U.S. forces depart.

Congress will have views on all these demands, and there already is considerable antipathy to Turkey in Washington. How Erdoğan will manage claiming victory at home for an American departure with simultaneous demands to Washington for substantial American help will be quite a challenge. 

Still, Erdoğan hopes to make Turkey, not Syria, Russia or Iran, the principal player in the territory along the Turkish-Syrian border.  

To increase pressure to achieve his aims, Erdoğan has started to repeat his threats to invade, stating on Jan. 21 that Turkey will take “necessary military measures” if required. In his remarks, he mentioned both Russia and the U.S. 

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Clearly he is pushing back against the call by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov on Jan. 16 for the Syrian regime to take control of the country’s north. He also knows that Syrian forces already have pushed south and east of Manbij, essentially blocking the Turks from moving south or east of that city.  

The Russians also have restated their unhappiness over the Turkish failure to disarm or remove the al-Qaida group, Al-Nusra Front, a promise Turkey made months ago. 

Erdoğan has been a successful high-stakes player at home in Turkey. Now he is trying to stand up against Moscow and Damascus — without the United States — and with a record over eight years of overplaying his hand in Syria. 

Will his next moves be a repetition of overreaching or a new victory? As much as he dislikes it, the Syrian Kurds still have a hand to play, and they know where to make their case. 

W. Robert Pearson is the former ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.