“An island of stability in the midst of the Iraq inferno”—thus wrote Ilnur Çevik, a journalist at Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah, about the Kurdistan Region of Iraq when President Masoud Barzani visited Ankara in December. For the first time, Turkey placed Kurdistan’s flag alongside Turkey’s own, a gesture underscoring the countries’ strategic bond.
While the Turks hosted Barzani, the Saudis finalized the historic Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh. The mid-December gathering of political and militant organizations worked to craft common purpose in the Syrian civil war. Yet despite administering Syria’s northeast and fighting grittily against ISIS’ westward sweep, the Syrian Kurds were not invited. They were left out in part because of significant Turkish pressure on the Saudis to exclude them.
Turkey’s dualist Kurdish policies align with the course Ankara has taken over the past half decade: The country cultivates economic and strategic ties with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) even as Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish administration, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—a designated terrorist organization as far as the Turkish and U.S. governments, and the EU Commission, are concerned.
Why is this? Turkey sees the respective politics of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as dramatically different. And for now, a good case can indeed be made that they are very different. But this is a shortsighted approach. After all, Turkey wasn’t always friendly with the KRI. Turkey’s early hostility to the KRI diminished Ankara’s regional influence, whereas its subsequent engagement helped mold the KRI’s political dynamics. Turkish leaders might learn from that history and seek to cultivate a relationship with the Syrian Kurdish administration.
Ankara’s current view of the KRI as an essential partner is quite recent. From the establishment, after the Gulf War, of Kurdish administration in northern Iraq in late 1991 through the Iraq War’s early years, Turkish leaders held a securitized conception of Iraqi Kurds. They believed the Iraqi Kurds actively facilitated PKK attacks from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains. In the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Turkish negotiators sought operational autonomy in northern Iraq as the price for allowing U.S. forces to stage the invasion inside Turkey. The U.S. government initially conceded, but the provisional deal collapsed after Ankara reneged under popular pressure, temporarily rupturing U.S.-Turkey relations and complicating U.S. operational plans.
As Turkey held fast to its securitized view, the Iraq War rapidly changed U.S. conceptions of the Kurds. U.S. Special Operations Forces worked closely with Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga from the war’s early days, and in the new Iraq’s fractious politics, senior Bush Administration officials looked hopefully to the KRI as a stabilizing actor in the bumpy transition to constitutional democracy.
Despite the collapse of U.S.-Turkish cooperation with regard to Iraq, Turkey’s Parliament approved plans to send two brigades into northern Iraq to protect Turkish interests. The Bush Administration saw through the pretext, understanding that Turkish forces would mount anti-Kurdish operations, and Washington restrained Turkey’s meddling. The “hood incident” of July 4, 2003—in which U.S. forces arrested and detained Turkish military personnel in the course of a raid in Sulaimani—sobered the Turks to sharply declining U.S. tolerance for Turkish adventurism in northern Iraq. As late as 2008, though, Turkey still launched Operation Guneş into the Kurdistan Region after a PKK attack staged in Qandil killed soldiers in southeast Turkey.
Fundamentally however, the Turkish government possessed little influence in the new Iraq. Thus, during the mid-2000s, an alternative view of the Kurds arose in Ankara, with some advocating economic and political engagement with the KRI. Nascent economic ties had already been developing even while outward state-to-proto-state politics remained hostile.
Turkish politics subsequently adapted—and they did so swiftly. Ministerial discussions began in 2009, and Ankara opened its Erbil consulate in 2010. In 2011, the Turkish-British energy firm Genel Energy sealed exploration deals in Kurdistan, establishing a long-running and deep partnership with the KRI. By 2012, more than 1,000 Turkish firms had registered to conduct business in Kurdistan. Turkish construction firms led the development and visual transformation of Erbil and Sulaimani. In 2013, Kurdistan’s KAR Group completed construction of a Kurdish spur to the Iraq-Turkey pipeline.
Late that year, then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan hosted President Barzani in Diyarbakır. This was not only an advance in Turkey’s relations with the KRI; it also represented a milestone at the time in a deepening Turkey-PKK peace process. In 2014, for the first time, the KRI pumped oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan—outside of Baghdad’s purview.
Turkey’s adaptive policy was also smart regional politics. As the KRI’s relations with then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deteriorated, Ankara’s heavy influence over Kurdistan’s economic viability increased Turkish leverage. The Turkish government initially played arbiter in oil-fueled economic disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, holding oil revenues in escrow pending internal Iraqi resolution of budgetary disputes. When Turkey-Iraq relations worsened, the Turks strengthened Erbil by enabling direct payment for Kurdistan’s oil sales through Ceyhan.
This reinforced the KRI’s dependence on Turkey and, some argued, forestalled any independence bid. The KRI lodged no strenuous objections to Turkey’s cross-border strikes at PKK bases prior to the 2013 ceasefire and, not coincidentally, the KRI has met the current violence in Turkey’s southeast with a muted response. Amid Russia’s disinformation barrage following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet, the KRI leapt to Turkey’s defense, claiming—truthfully—that the trucks queued up at Turkey’s border carried Kurdish oil, not that of the Islamic State.
Despite the success of Turkey’s KRI policy, Ankara approaches the Syrian Kurdish administration with the same ineffectual, securitized view it originally deployed against the KRI in the early 2000s. Turkish policy has worked to cleave the PYD from the wider Syrian opposition. Turkish-backed Syrian Islamists have shown the least inclination of all opposition groups to reconcile with the PYD. The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition criticizes the PYD’s administration repeatedly.
Turkey also capitalized on the Incirlik deal with the U.S. administration by claiming it was joining a broad anti-terror campaign—a move that deliberately muddled operational distinctions between the Assad regime, ISIS, and the PYD. Turkish officials apply continuous pressure on the U.S. government and others to diminish strategic cooperation with the PYD. The Riyadh meeting represented a key success of this strategy. Most recently—and troublingly—late December brought preliminary indications of discrete Turkish force movements across the Syrian border into Kurdish-administered territory.
By fixating on the differences between the KRI and the PYD administration, the Turkish government ignores the lessons of their own past diplomatic successes, repeats mistakes of the early 2000s, and misses an opportunity to steer Syrian Kurdish economic and political development. Undoubtedly, the PYD shares ideological kinship with the PKK, and the People’s Protection Units force (the YPG) that fights ISIS so effectively evinces little operational distinction from the PKK command. Yet, the PYD consistently reiterates its Syrian focus. It seeks to develop Kurdish areas economically and build a Syrian political architecture that, at a minimum, safeguards a decentralized administration in a future Syrian state. It refuses to consider publicly Rojava’s—western Kurdistan—independence.
Turkey is every bit as essential to the PYD’s ability to realize its vision for Syria as it has been to the KRI. Turkey presents the only logical route to international markets for Syrian Kurdish goods. The country’s mature construction sector and experience developing infrastructure worldwide will prove invaluable to rebuilding a postwar Syria, and to building the Syrian Kurdish region.
Altering the PYD’s ideological affinities is likely unachievable. But cultivating relations anyway would cement a partnership with, and dependence on, Turkey. The more advanced the Syrian Kurdish development project, the higher the costs of activities that strike at Turkey’s perceived interests or security. The Turks need not agree with the PYD’s ideology to engage with its administration in mutually beneficial ways.
Resistance to working with the PYD also undermines the Turkish government’s overarching objectives in Syria. A fragmented opposition cannot sufficiently threaten the Assad regime to extract the concessions necessary to forge a palatable negotiated peace. Though far from the only impediment to greater cooperation, Turkish intransigence significantly hampers its emergence. Turkey has long advocated the view—correctly—that ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the Syrian civil war’s source: the barbaric behavior of the Assad regime. Does the Turkish government think a resolution in Syria can be achieved that excludes the PYD entirely?
Turkey would benefit from rethinking its tactics in Syria. While it has retarded the PYD politically, Ankara has not swayed the U.S.’ assessment of the YPG’s military effectiveness. The U.S. government has resisted intense Turkish pressure to cease its operational support for the YPG. With the capture of the Tishrin Dam, the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) scored a major tactical victory against ISIS west of the Euphrates—this despite Ankara’s months-long insistence that Kurdish movements across the river would be a “red line.”
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu responded that the YPG itself did not cross the Euphrates, eliding the Syrian Kurds’ central role in sustaining the SDF coalition and the likelihood that YPG forces participated in the Tishrin operation directly. Turkey’s ability to impose its will on the ground in Syria has long been in doubt, even before the government committed fresh troops and resources to a domestic battle against the PKK in urban areas of Turkey’s southeast.
Rapprochement with the PYD could also offer an exit ramp from that southeastern turmoil. The PKK has fueled the hostilities: formally ending the ceasefire, killing Turkish police in their beds, declaring autonomy in select cities, and encouraging proxies to root themselves in urban areas. Yet the conflict’s urbanization is dangerous in the extreme for Turkey. The government’s campaign re-securitizes population centers, creates civilian casualties, and immiserates the population. It instills fear and alienation in a new generation of Kurdish citizens, delegitimizes electoral politics in their eyes, and undoes much hard-won progress from the 2013-15 peace process. It may have even substantially shattered inter-communal good faith.
The existence of Rojava presents an opportunity to de-escalate the conflict and halt spiraling mistrust. By including the PYD among groups focused on transition in Syria and facilitating Syrian Kurdish development, a new Turkish policy would send a strong message to the PYD and the PKK while providing a fresh starting point to negotiate another ceasefire and retrenchment from urbanized conflict.
None of this seems possible today. The Turkish government’s rhetoric evokes the worst periods of domestic tension over the Kurdish issue, and the PKK has demonstrated little inclination to conciliate and de-escalate. Structurally, however, the conflict remains the same. The government will not successfully impose a military solution to the conflict, and it will never accept unilateral efforts by southeastern Kurds to introduce local autonomy. A negotiated settlement remains the only way forward.
With Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party reiterating its opposition to a presidential system, even the presumed domestic benefits of renewed hostilities with the Kurds are questionable. The AK Party secured four years of single-party government in the December’s snap elections, after having lost its majority in the initial June ballot. A return to domestic stability will prove increasingly important. Though ongoing violence in Turkey’s southeast precludes an immediate return to final settlement negotiations of the Kurdish issue, a Syria-focused interim agreement would yield immediate, tangible benefits: an end to escalating urban warfare in Turkey itself and the beginning of productive engagement with Rojava.
The results could ultimately prove historic: a Turkey-PYD relationship built on mutual accommodation, and an opening for a coordinated Syrian opposition to mount a stronger challenge to the ghastly Assad-ISIS menace.