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Turkey’s overtures to Assad all about crushing Syrian Kurds’ autonomy

Turkey’s security establishment remains immutably opposed to the consolidation of any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria that would mirror Kurdish gains in neighboring Iraq.
Protesters raise yellow flags showing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) -- currently prison in Turkey, and the red-star flag of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK - Eniya Rizgariya Netewa Kurdistan), during a demonstration calling for his release and condemning recent Turkish strikes on Kurdish areas, in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria on Dec. 6, 2022.

Turkey’s overtures to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with last week’s meeting in Moscow between the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers, continue to resonate. Unsurprisingly, one of the most realistic assessments came from the one group that understands Turkish thinking best: the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The armed organization has been fighting the Turkish state on numerous fronts for more than 38 years, 15 of which were centered in and around Syria. In an interview that aired Monday on the pro-PKK news channel Medya News, top PKK commander Bese Hozat noted that the shift in Turkey’s Syria policy was “not tactical.” To the contrary, it is being driven by Turkey’s desire to “extinguish the Rojava revolution, to extinguish the Autonomous Administration in North East Syria, to make it disappear,” Hozat declared. Rojava is the Kurdish name for Kurdish-majority northeast Syria where a US-supported and Kurdish-led administration with close links to the PKK has been governing for the past decade after Assad redeployed his forces there to fight Turkish-backed Sunni rebels.

Hozat is right. Turkey’s security establishment remains immutably opposed to the consolidation of any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria that would mirror Kurdish gains in neighboring Iraq — especially, as Ankara sees things, one led by the PKK and its local affiliate. No matter that under the stewardship of Mazlum Kobane, the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a former PKK militant, Rojava had begun to establish its own distinct identity, forging an alliance with the region’s Arabs and insisting on peaceful relations with Turkey. PKK cadres had begun to recede into the background, at least until intra-Syrian Kurdish squabbles, Turkish scheming and clumsy US diplomacy put the kibosh on that process. Turkey has rejected all of Kobane’s overtures, adding him to its list of most wanted terrorists and placing a bounty on his head.

The notion that Turkey’s current efforts to woo Assad are rooted in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes to persuade Turkish voters that an estimated four million Syrian refugees will be sent packing once the two leaders shake hands ignores Turkish security establishment's determination, as Hozat described, to put an end to the Syrian Kurds’ experiment with self-rule.

Erdogan announced after the last cabinet meeting of 2022 that Turkey would “close the gaps” in the security belt 30 kilometers (18 miles) deep it's seeking to establish along its common border with Syria to fend off PKK attacks. To this end, Erdogan said Turkey would “enter a new phase of the struggle that will destroy the entire infrastructure of the terrorist group it draws its strength from.” In November, Turkey set those plans in motion by bombing oil production sites, electricity grids and other critical infrastructure aimed at crippling Rojava’s economy.

On Monday, Omer Celik, the spokesperson of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said Ankara was satisfied with the outcome of the Moscow meeting. He did not elaborate. Furthermore, “an agenda for meetings at the highest level” between Assad and Erdogan would be determined, ostensibly when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meets his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad later this month. No date for that meeting has been set. Cavusoglu is due to fly to Washington on Jan. 17, when he is expected to push for the sale of F-16 fighter jets, a deal opposed by several key members of Congress.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey and Russia could resume joint patrols in Idlib that stopped after Russian forces came under Syrian opposition attacks.

The moves have prompted a flurry of questions. The most pressing one for the Sunni opposition and the PKK alike is whether a deal is in the works whereby Turkey will dump its Syrian rebel allies in return for Damascus’ help in skewering the Kurds.

Any such agreement would be “suicidal” for the regime, Hozat opined, reminding Damascus in not so many words that had the Syrian Kurds bowed to Turkish pressure to join the fight against Assad, he may not have survived.

Rebel fears were further fanned by a report in the pro-Assad Al-Watan that quoted a Syrian official who claimed that Turkey had agreed to withdraw from the chunks of northern Syria it is currently occupying. Turkey responded that it would do so when its concerns over “terror” were fully addressed. On Tuesday, Cavusoglu met with leaders of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group for Syrian opposition groups with close ties to Turkey and Qatar. One of its leaders, Abdurrahman Mustafa, said Cavusoglu had given assurances that Turkey would continue to support Syrian opposition institutions and Syrians in the opposition-held areas.

He gave no further details.

Baby steps

Little has actually leaked from the Moscow meeting other than several bullet points first reported by Asharq al Awsat’s Ibrahim Hamidi, laying out an ambitious agenda including the supposed full Turkish withdrawal and the establishment of various committees to discuss common concerns. The upshot is that the sides will continue to meet. And that is what matters, above the substance of what is discussed behind closed doors. The talks also provide cover for other Arab countries to normalize with Damascus. Ankara’s selling point is the claim that it can counter Iran’s influence in Syria. A key indicator will be whether Assad is invited to the Arab League summit to be held in Riyadh this spring.

In truth, the structural differences between Turkey and the Assad regime are gargantuan and cannot be overcome anytime soon, which helps explain why the Biden administration appears unfazed by Ankara’s overtures. But certain steps could be taken. For example, Turkey could fulfill its pledge to open the M4 highway linking Latakia to Aleppo. A modus vivendi of sorts could yet emerge. Turkey’s main opposition party has made clear its desire to restore full diplomatic relations with Assad if it were to prevail in the upcoming elections. This is why Assad is said to be resisting a meeting with Erdogan, who he views as the principle architect of Syria’s descent into chaos and conflict. Why prop him up?

Washington’s response to these developments has remained muted so far, either because it doesn’t believe the talks will lead anywhere or because it doesn’t want to further alienate Ankara, whose strategic currency has shot up since the start of the Ukraine conflict.

The consensus in Ankara, Moscow and Damascus is apparently that this semblance of process between Assad and Erdogan will spook the Syrian Kurds into severing their ties with the United States. In other words, to tell the 800 or so US special forces deployed in northeast Syria to leave and to cut a deal with the regime that would allow the latter to regain control over the country’s oil, hydroelectric and agricultural wealth that is concentrated in the Kurdish-controlled zone. That is what Russia has long been urging the Syrian Kurds to do, brandishing the threat of another Turkish invasion to get them to yield. Greenlighting Turkish action at this time would mean relinquishing this stick. The second, and possibly less fanciful goal, is to get a growing number of the SDF’s Arab tribal allies to defect.

Until recently, Ankara would have been horrified by any agreement that would result in a US departure and leave it exposed to the kind of regime-enabled PKK attacks it faced from Syrian soil up until 1999. That is when Turkey threatened to invade Syria if it didn’t stop giving sanctuary to the PKK, an ultimatum that resonated all the more because Turkey and Israel were close military allies at the time. Damascus caved the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was expelled then captured and the Adana Agreement for joint security cooperation against the PKK was born.

Yankee go home

However, Ankara seems to have finally accepted that the United States is not going to drop the Syrian Kurds and team up with Turkish-backed rebels to carry on its operations against the Islamic State in Syria, as Turkey has long been nagging it to do. This became clear last year, when Erdogan declared for the first time that he was opposed to the US presence in Syria because of its support for the SDF, which Turkey insists is no different from the PKK.

Celik might have been speaking on behalf of the Syrian regime Monday when he groused that “With the support of Western states, areas deep inside Syria have become a special zone for terrorist organizations.” These states, he continued, were allowing such groups to produce and sell Syrian oil and to “exploit Syria’s resources to finance their own terror activities” and to establish a “quasi-state.”

Celik left little doubt as to which Western government he was alluding. “We witnessed the toll this took on Afghanistan. We don’t want another Afghanistan on our borders,” Celik said. Setting aside the irony of pointing fingers at the United States when Turkey was the main conduit for tens of thousands of assorted jihadis crossing into Syria, or that Turkey enabled and benefited from the sale of Syrian Kurdish-produced oil, Celik’s comments reflect the extent to which Turkish calculations in Syria have shifted in pursuit of the same goal: unravelling Syrian Kurdish rule.

A growing and mutual dependency stemming from Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia and Turkey’s deepening economic woes ahead of critical elections due to be held by June 18 means that Ankara is less worried about the security vacuum that the withdrawal of American forces would entail or any agreement struck between the Syrian Kurds and Assad. The Kremlin would rein in any attempts by Assad and the PKK to resurrect their old alliance against Turkey, or so it believes. Besides, Turkey holds a pretty big ace: Its shadowy relationship handled by Turkey’s national spy agency, MIT (and resented by the Turkish military) with the strongest Sunni rebel outfit in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The al-Qaeda offshoot that is designated as a terrorist entity by the United States, the UN and Turkey holds sway over much of Idlib and has begun to flex its muscles beyond the province with Ankara’s quiet assent to rein in other opposition groups steeped in criminality.

Given this picture, why would the Syrian Kurds renounce their partnership with the United States? So far, beyond helping them bring down the IS “caliphate,” the United States, be it political engagement or deterring Turkish attacks, has not delivered a fraction of what the Syrian Kurds were hoping for. In an audacious escalation in November, Turkish drones struck a joint US-Kurdish base in al Hasakah, prompting a stern US rebuke. As Sam Heller recently outlined in an essay for War on the Rocks, it was Russia that fended off another full-scale invasion, not Washington.

Still, the American presence remains the SDF’s best insurance against any full-scale attacks on Kurdish-held areas where US forces control the skies and allows them to maintain control over the oil. This in turn gives them leverage in their dealings with Damascus, which needs that oil.

US weapons and millions in dollars in funding for stabilization projects would be foolish to relinquish. At the same time, partnership with Washington poisons the latter’s ties with Ankara, another plus as many PKK leaders see things. Kobane, it ought to be noted, has a different point of view: that Washington could yet help his administration mend fences with Ankara. Again, it’s US pressure that impels the Kurdistan Regional Government in neighboring Iraq to allow aid to flow through its borders to Rojava.

Meanwhile, Assad refuses to yield to any of the Kurds’ demands, least of all for them to maintain even the slightest vestige of political and military autonomy. “Normalization” with Turkey will have only deepened his obduracy. Over time, the damage caused by its alliance with the SDF to its relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, may well prompt Washington to reassess its engagement with the SDF, not least because Syria has slipped down its list of priorities.

The fact that Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and Africa, has yet to set foot in Rojava since taking office speaks volumes. As the former presidential envoy for the global anti-IS coalition, McGurk was a frequent visitor to northeast Syria where he was hailed as the Kurds’ biggest friend.

Islamic State: blessing or curse?

For now, the presence of thousands of IS detainees and their families in internment camps and the continued if cynically exaggerated threat of a jihadi resurgence means that US forces remain committed to their partnership with the SDF. The Rojava administration understands the full value of that card. When Turkey launched its latest wave of attacks, the SDF announced a halt to its joint operations with US forces, saying it needed to focus on defending itself. US condemnations of Turkey’s actions grew louder.

It’s highly questionable whether regime forces, even with Russian and Iranian backing, could contain IS without Kurdish support, as the PKK commander Hozat alluded in her Medya TV interview. As such, the Syrian Kurds’ biggest selling point remains their efficiency in combat and having exercised it on the morally defensible side of Syria’s multiple “wars within wars.”

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