Turkey's Best Shot in Syria: Focus on the Kurds

Article Summary
The Turkish Prime Minister visited a Syrian refugee camp Sunday, where he tried to give a stirring speech. But how near is the end of the crisis? The Annan plan alone will not bring a solution, and Turkey wants to avoid conflict with Syria. Cengiz Candar says that Turkey can speed things up by wooing Syria's Kurds. 

If Turkey can disengage the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate (the Democratic Union Party, or PYD) from the Iranian-Syrian alliance, it will expedite the Syrian regime’s inevitable collapse.

On May 6, Prime Minister Erdogan made a long-anticipated trip to the Syrian refugee camp near Kilis, which is one kilometer from the Syrian border and home to 9,000 Syrians. The speech he made to over 1,500 wildly cheering Syrian refugees likely did not actually coincide with their interests. Undoubtedly, Erdogan’s speech was carefully monitored by Damascus, and other governments concerned by the events in Syria.

Erdogan said that Bashar al-Assad was losing blood every day, shouting “Your victory is near!” and that Kofi Annan’s peace plan alone will not a bring a solution.

However, Erdogan did not offer any exciting or concrete news about Turkey’s plans. The Syrian refugees wanted Erdogan to give them a buffer zone. "We want guns for the Free Syrian Army,” they shouted. Is Turkey willing to meet these demands? If so, is it ready to do so? At this point, one must consider the dilemmas of Turkey’s Syria policy. Is there any sign that these dilemmas can be easily overcome?

The most reasonable and acceptable strategy for Turkey would be to avoid turning the crisis into an issue between Turkey and Syria. Following this prescription would mean that Turkey has absolutely no intention of intervening unilaterally. If an intervention was ever carried out, it would have to be done in accordance with collective Arab participation and international support. This would  mean harmonizing our actions with the Arab League, the United Nations and “Friends of Syria.”

Kofi Annan’s plan only serves as a fig leaf to conceal the Syrian crisis’ inertia. All of those who say that the plan will not work — including the skeptical Erdogan and a less-than-optimistic Washington — are nevertheless delighted that the plan exists. Those who want something to be done and who have not done anything themselves have a legitimate reason to hide behind the Annan plan.

By opening its borders to 25,000 Syrians, Turkey appears to have done its part. Unless the refugee population reaches unsustainable numbers, Turkey will have no chance of intervening unilaterally even if it wanted to do so. The Syrian regime is crafty enough to calibrate its massacres so as not to allow hundreds of thousands of people to escape into Turkey.

A rarely-mentioned second barrier to unilateral intervention is the status of the Syrian Kurds. External intervention would cause Assad’s regime to collapse easily, but it would also drastically change the Syrian Kurds’ status. Turkey would never allow them to acquire a status similar to that of the Iraqi Kurds.

Another unmentioned issue is the fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also known as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, is the strongest Syrian Kurdish organization. The PYD, like the PKK, benefits from Iranian and Syrian support. But contrary to some naive analyses in Turkey, there is no unbreakable marriage between the Ba’ath dictatorship and the PYD. Just watch how quickly the PYD will switch loyalties once Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls.

In this case, will Turkey allow the Syrian Kurds to be left outside of Turkey’s control?

Now, Turkey is considering cooperation with other Syrian parties and groups influenced by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani. These groups recently met under the banner of the Kurdish National Council. It can be argued that the total strength of the Council together does not rival that of the PYD. Nonetheless, it still maintains relations with them. More importantly, the PYD is not integrated into the Syrian National Council, which Turkey supports.

Russia has been busy as well. It invited the Kurdish National Council and the PYD to Moscow to assemble a sort of “Her Majesty’s opposition” that will provide an alternative to the SNC and negotiate with the Assad regime. We should not forget that 85 percent of Turkey’s energy needs are met by Syria’s staunch supporters, Russia and Iran.

Also, Turkey’s policies do not necessarily coincide with those of Washington. The US is trying not to get involved with Syria, although it still tries to manipulate events there remotely through subcontractors like Turkey. Although relations between the two allies are more harmonious than ever — thanks to renewed dialog between Obama and Erdogan — the Turkish government cannot ideologically afford to be seen as a US proxy.

All of these factors prolong the Syrian regime’s lifespan, and this stands contrary to Turkish interests. If Turkey manages to isolate the PKK-PYD element from all of this mess and remove it from the Iran-Syria axis, it will have more room to maneuver, and the inevitable end of the Syrian regime will be expedited.

However, this is not Ankara’s strategy at the moment, and the longer it remains that way, the longer the Syrian regime will last and the longer Turkey’s dilemmas will persist. Yet, as our Prime Minister told the Syrians in Kilis: “Your victory is near.” We hope that he is right.   

Found in: syrian kurds, syrian, pyd, pkk, krg, erdogan, barzani, annan plan, annan

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