What Has Changed in Turkey’s Northern Syria Policy?

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Article Summary
Recent developments in northern Syria indicate the possibility of a major shift in Turkey’s Syria policy.

At first glance, two developments concerning northern Syria create the impression of a major shift in Turkey’s policy.

First, Salih Muslim, head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has organic links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was invited to Istanbul and held talks with Turkish officials for two days. Second, the Turkish government displayed a critical attitude for the first time toward the radical Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra.

Is this really a new shift in Turkey’s fundamental policies or just a tactical adjustment? It’s still premature to answer the question with certainty, but the issue is already worthy of discussion.

Let’s start with the latest development concerning the PYD.

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Ankara has long seen the PYD as an extension of the PKK and is concerned about the group’s efforts to take control of northern Syria amid the power vacuum in the region. Those concerns have recently grown over the PYD’s announcement of plans to establish an autonomous administration in the region. Turkish officials have repeatedly reminded the PYD of Ankara’s “red lines” and declared that they would never allow this to happen.

At a time when various options are on the table, including a military intervention, the invitation the government extended to the PYD leader for talks in Istanbul indicates a major change in Ankara’s position.

At this stage, however, this development does not yet signify a shift in Ankara’s fundamental policy. Turkish officials have simply opted to use dialogue to deal with the problem, acting on a conviction that the dispute with the PYD cannot be resolved by force.

This is a pragmatic approach. Yet Ankara’s goals and efforts remain focused on discouraging the PYD from declaring autonomy and cajoling it into joining the other Syrian opposition groups. This was exactly what the Turkish side emphasized in the talks with Muslim.

Undoubtedly, the initiation of a dialogue between Ankara and the PYD has eased the bilateral climate, averting the prospect of mutual challenges and arm-twisting. In sum, Turkey’s initiative is not a fundamental revision of its earlier position, but a rational fine-tuning.

When it comes to the second development, the government had so far accorded quite a warm treatment — and even provided support — to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. When the US included the Islamist group on its list of terrorist organizations earlier this year, Ankara criticized the Western stance, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu going as far as to suggest that the chaos and deadlock in Syria were the very result of that policy.

While the PYD leader held talks in Istanbul, Davutoglu took an openly critical stance against Jabhat al-Nusra for the first time, saying that the group’s bloody attacks in Syria amounted to “a betrayal of the Syrian revolution.”

The suicide attack on the Turkish Embassy in Somalia at the weekend [July 27], carried out by al-Shabaab — a group said to have links with Jabhat al-Nusra — has clearly shown Ankara where it should stand vis-à-vis the jihadists in Syria.

On this issue, Ankara’s stance appears to signal a fundamental policy change rather than just a tactical adjustment.

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Found in: turkey’s syria policy, turkey, pyd, pkk
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