By F. Stephen Larrabee, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the Rand Corporation, and served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The dynamics of the Syrian crisis have been shifting. Reports that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have pushed back a rebel offensive near the mountainous area of his Alawite hometown are but the latest indicator of how the president has regained the initiative in the country’s bloody civil war.
But while international attention has tended to focus on central and southern Syria, developments in the northeast, along the border with Turkey, are also worth watching as ethnic Kurds appear bent on carving out an autonomous administrative region that could eventually develop its own ties with Ankara. And it’s a move that could be good news not just for Turkey, but for the United States, too.
The Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the Syrian population, initially did not join the uprising against al-Assad, fearing they might face even greater discrimination and repression under a Sunni Arab dominated regime. However, the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from five Kurdish-dominated towns in the northeast along the Syrian-Turkish border in July 2012 changed the political dynamic.
This withdrawal allowed Kurdish groups led by the Democratic Union (PYD) – the largest and best organized Kurdish opposition party, which has strong ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – to take over the administration of these towns. The PYD has since prevented any armed Kurdish presence other than its own Popular Protection Units from emerging in the Kurdish areas.
In recent months, tensions have escalated between the PYD and the Sunni dominated Free Syrian Army (FSA), which opposes Kurdish autonomy. The Syrian Kurds have fought a virtual war within a war against extremist groups affiliated with al Qaeda, such as Jabbat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which are part of the Sunni anti-Assad coalition. These groups want to establish Islamic rule in the Kurdish areas, a goal the PYD and other Kurdish groups firmly oppose.
Turkey has viewed the growing strength of the PYD with concern because of its close ties to the PKK, and Turkish officials fear that the PYD-controlled areas along the Turkish-Syrian border could act as a base for PKK attacks against Turkish territory and security forces. Indeed, Ankara has threatened to intervene militarily to prevent PKK infiltration into Kurdish areas and worked closely with Sunni opposition groups in Syria to stem the PYD’s influence.
In mid-July, the PYD announced that it planned to introduce autonomous institutions in all cities and villages under Kurdish control, effective July 19. This set off alarm bells in Ankara, where Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan criticized the move as “wrong and dangerous.”
Yet the existence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria need not be a source of conflict with Turkey. Turkey has cordial relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which is de facto an independent Kurdish state that legally remains a part of Iraq. Trade and energy ties in particular have expanded significantly in the last several years.
In principle, the same type of relations could be developed with an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria. Instead of seeking to isolate the PDY, Ankara should use its strong economic potential to woo the PYD and draw it into a Turkish zone of influence and prosperity together with the KRG.
And there are signs that Turkish policy may be moving in this direction. The recent visit of Salih Muslim, co-chairman of the PYD, to Istanbul represented a turnabout in Turkey’s approach to the PYD. Prior to Muslim’s visit, Turkey had shunned any official dialogue with the PYD and had put pressure on the Sunni opposition in Syria to boycott the PYD. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu invited Muslim, and while in Turkey he was given broad access to the Turkish media, which was a highly unusual step.
Muslim’s visit suggests that Turkey is beginning to rethink key aspects of its approach to the Kurdish issue, especially the role of the Syrian Kurds and the PYD. This should be encouraged by Washington. The fact is that an autonomous Kurdish region that remains an integral part of Syria, even one dominated by the PYD, would be far less dangerous than one dominated by forces affiliated with al Qaeda. And that should be welcome news to more than just Turkey.