February 6th, 2013
10:55 AM ET

Can Turkey seize the ‘Kurdish card’ for itself?

By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. His publications include the forthcoming book 'Turkey Rising: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power.' The views expressed are his own.

Turkey’s Syria policy now seems to have one goal: take down the al-Assad regime. With this in mind, Ankara has become actively involved in the Syrian uprising, supporting the opposition and allegedly allowing weapons to flow into Syria to help oust Bashar al-Assad. But not everyone vying for power in post-al-Assad Syria has welcomed Turkey’s helping hand.

Enter the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Ankara’s archenemy for decades. The PKK and its Syrian franchise, the Party for Democratic Unity (PYD), which holds sway over the Syrian Kurds, have recently secured parts of northern Syria adjacent to Turkey.  This suggests that when the al-Assad regime falls, Turkey will be confronted with PKK and PYD-run enclaves across from its border with Syria.

As hostile as the PKK has been towards Ankara, though, the PKK cannot afford to carry this menacing anti-Turkish attitude into Syria.  After al-Assad is gone, the Syrian Kurds represented in the PYD will discover that they are fated to become woefully dependent on Ankara for survival, much like the Iraqi Kurds were after the end of the Saddam regime in Iraq.

Simple geography dictates this. The PYD holds sway among the Syrian Kurds in the northwestern part of that country. These Kurdish-dominated areas are non-contiguous enclaves, surrounded by Arab majority areas with Turkey to the north.  One emerging battle in Syria is conflict between Arabs and Kurds.  When that struggle fully unfolds, the Kurds in northwestern Syria will have no friend but Turkey to rely on as leverage against that country’s majority Arabs. This will present the PKK in Syria with a stark choice: fight both Turkey and the Arabs on all four sides and perish, or rely on Turkey to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis the country’s Arab majority. Survival will require the second path, and as surreal as it sounds now, the PKK’s Syrian branch will acquiesce to Turkish power.

More from GPS: Why U.S. should rethink Syria Kurds policy

This corresponds to a seismic shift in Turkey’s Kurdish policy. Until recently, Ankara had seen the “Kurdish card” in the region as a threat to its core interests. Now, this appears to be changing. Ankara has reportedly built intimate commercial and political ties with the Iraqi Kurds. Now, Ankara wants something similar with the Syrian Kurds. If the PKK in Syria is deft enough to curry favor with Ankara, Ankara will return the favor.

The Turkish Kurds are the last piece of the puzzle. If recently announced peace talks between the Ankara government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan succeed, Turkey may be able to turn the “Kurdish card” to its favor.

If the peace talks go as planned, PKK members will lay down their weapons. In return, Turkey would issue a blanket amnesty to the group’s core membership currently located at the Kandil enclave in northern Iraq, and possibly grant some cultural rights to its Kurdish population. And Ocalan, who has been in solitary confinement in an island jail, will see an end to his isolation.

Still, the Syrian Kurds in the PKK’s Kandil enclave in mountainous northern Iraq could spoil this process. Many among the PKK’s membership, especially those from Turkey, will listen to Ocalan. But some hardline leaders could refuse to buy into what they might perceive as a personal deal to set himself free.

All this means that while the PKK in Syria will moderate its behavior towards Turkey because it has to, the Syrian Kurds in the PKK will likely maintain a hardline stance against Ankara.

Turkey may be able to preempt such a scenario by showing the Kurds in Syria a degree of friendship that exceeds even the outreach it has shown to the Iraqi Kurds. Such a strategy might help placate the animosity of the Syrian Kurds in Kandil towards Ankara, though it will not fix the problem.

For now, it appears that while the PKK in Syria will not bite Turkey, Syrian Kurds in the Kandil enclave will remain the biggest hurdle to Turkey being able to claim the Kurdish card for itself.

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Topics: Turkey

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Turkey is getting impatient with the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has taken a toll on its economic growth and development, apart from absorbing the influx of refugees and handling the spillover effect. No doubt the unknown outcomes of Assad's removal from power would have an impact on the Kurdish populations both in Syria and Turkey. If Ankara sees this as a window of opportunity to settle the old disputes with its Kurdish population, so much the better.

    February 6, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    The problem is and always will be the PKK. I may sound pessimistic, but it is very unlikely that the PKK will all lay down their arms. They're too involved with drug trafficking and often fight among themselves. Even if Ocalan orders them to lay down their arms, not all of them will. The PKK evolved from an independence seeking communist terrorist group to a profit seeking communist drug cartel that recruits mercenaries and cutthroats who care very little about Kurdish rights. Erdogan has granted unprecedented freedoms to Kurds. They now have a Kurdish-language television station and the chance to learn Kurdish in schools. Since then, PKK violence has only increased. It's pointless to negotiate with terrorists.

    February 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  3. C. Dawoud

    I would not underestimate the Kurds the same way the British and the French did post WWI, on all four sides the Kurds survived genocide after genocide so for the author to say "This will present the PKK in Syria with a stark choice: fight both Turkey and the Arabs on all four sides and perish, or rely on Turkey to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis the country’s Arab majority" is simply foolish. Kurds didn’t parish under Ata Turk and all his Turkification policy, they didn’t parish under both the Pahlavi and the Islamic Republic, they didn’t parish under Assad I and Assad II, and they certainly didn’t parish under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide.
    Kurds post-Gulf War were alone but Kurds post Assad are not alone because they have Kurdistan Regional Government. There was no mention of what would happen to the Kurds in Iran, let’s just say in the next couple of years a turmoil occurs in Iran and the Kurds have the same opportunity there as the Kurds had in Iraq and the Kurds have in Syria, now there will be three Kurdish regions making an L shape around Turkey.
    I don't think Kurds are as much depended on Turkey as Turkey will be on the Kurds in the next couple years. Kurds will essentially control the oil routes from the Middle East into Turkey.

    February 6, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  4. David Demir Tosun

    How we say that Erdogan Administration is planning to make peace with Kurdish Rebels when Paris Kurdish Killings seems to be "Made in Ankara"? Or when a mass murder like Uludere/Roboski is a subject non-grata?

    February 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    It may be wrong for me to disclose What I thought to be behind the Turkish- Syria issue.
    Soner you miss one important issue. Syrian affairs is not the only political agenda for a country o more than 80 ml people, feeding those people, and Strategically keeping a balance for "HER BORDERS" within this rather hot and popular region.
    Well meanwhile sucseding to have an upward curve.

    But Syria is just another one of the Turkish neighboring countries. We had in the past been host to other fleeing people, both from the East and the Balkans.

    Turkey does not have just 1 game to play. Try to think 3D

    February 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  6. bola

    3 Easy Steps to a Better Job

    February 7, 2013 at 10:16 pm | Reply

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