WASHINGTON DC – Turkey’s historic peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is expected to have a positive impact on its tense relations with the Kurds in neighboring Syria, who accuse Ankara of helping their Arab rivals.
The Kurds have a hand in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now beginning its third year, but they have not been part of the larger opposition fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), widely seen as the Syrian arm of the PKK, has had tense relations with the larger Kurdish Supreme Council (KSC) in Syria. The PYD’s armed Popular Protection Units (YPG), which are in de facto control of Syria’s northern Kurdish regions, have been fighting accusations that they are in cahoots with the Damascus regime. They also have been denounced for extortion and harassment against refugees trying to cross into the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Extremist Islamic groups, linked with the FSA and trying to gain greater control over Syria’s Kurdish north, admit to military and other support from Ankara in rounds of intense fighting with the YPG, especially in the city of Ras al-Ain.
PYD leader Salih Muslim said last week that Syrian Kurds support Ankara’s peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Last month Ocalan, who has been kept in virtual isolation on Turkey’s Imrali island since capture in 1999, called on his fighters to disarm.
Hereafter, Muslim said, Syria’s Arab opposition will be able to act without Turkey’s bidding, and coordinate their anti-regime war with the Kurds.
Muslim told Rudaw, in a telephone interview, that the PYD is willing to go so far as to open negotiations with Ankara, to discuss the plight of Syrian Kurds.
The leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, Abdulhakim Bashar, said that his group was behind the peace process. “We support the efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey, without violence, through political dialogue,” he told Rudaw.
According to Gonul Tol, director of the Turkish Research Center at the Middle East Institute in the United States, Ankara should talk to the PYD about its possible participation in toppling the Assad regime.
“Turkey has not agreed to talk with PYD, claiming that PYD has ties with PKK. In the current situation, if Turkey can talk with Ocalan, why wouldn't (Turkish) Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talk with PYD leader Salih Muslim? That way, current checks and balances may change against the regime,” she suggested.
One question that is frequently asked in Washington – which has backed Ankara’s talks with Ocalan – relates to the possible impact recent developments in Turkey will have on the uprising against the Assad regime. The concern relates to the kind of impact Ocalan will have on Syrian Kurds, and the role they will play in the uprising, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
Washington-based Syrian-Kurdish journalist, Jehad Salih, believes that the indirect talks between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ocalan have a direct link to developments in Syria.
“The emergence of the PYD as a sole political and military force in Syrian Kurdistan, and Turkey’s concerns over its security across the border, forced Erdogan to initiate a dialogue with Mr. Ocalan,” Salih says.
He claims that since the failure of an effort by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani to control Syrian Kurds, Turkey realized that it must take things into its own hands, and wants to reach the PYD through Ocalan.
Salih strongly believes that the future of Syrian Kurds is closely related to the peace process in Turkey. “The peace process is very positive, but Turkey has to constitutionally recognize the Kurdish rights,” he says.
Sirwan Kajjo, another Washington-based Syrian-Kurdish journalist, reaffirms that the peace talks in Turkey will have direct consequences on Syrian Kurds.
If the process succeeds, Erodgan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), “will gain significantly,” Kajjo says. “Having Syrian Kurds unopposed to Turkish plans in Syria would provide Ankara additional push for its ultimate objectives in Syria and the broader region,” according to Kajjo.
But he adds that, if the process fails, Turkey might be poised to be able to handle extreme reactions from Syrian Kurds. “Kurds on the other side of the border show their support for this peace plan, and they wish this process to prevail. However, they would certainly be unhappy if their brethren get betrayed yet another time. Nothing could be predicted then,” he warns.
Thomas McGee, a researcher on the Kurds of Syria at the University of Exeter, agrees that recent developments in Turkey's relationship with its own Kurds are largely motivated by Ankara's concerns regarding PYD's increasing influence and consolidation of power in the Kurdish regions of Syria.
“When faced with Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) dominating control across the border, it appears that negotiating with the PKK now appears as the least bad option for Turkey,” McGee says.
Speaking of recent conversation with Kurds in Syria about the peace process, McGee confirms that many Kurds in Syria are supportive of the process. But he cannot help add that not many are very optimistic that this process will end positively.
“Kurds in Syria suspect that the Imrali Process could have been engineered by Turkey in order to introduce question marks and confusion to the momentum of PYD's development,” the British researcher adds.
Moreover, there is strong expectation that Ankara will cut its support of Al Qaida-influenced radical groups, and instead will develop good relations with Syrian Kurdish groups, especially with the PYD.
Ankara is also expected to embrace all of its own opposition groups. One needs to wait and see how the Turkey-Israel-USA-EU front, which was defined during the recent trips to the region by US President Barack Obama and the Secretary of State John Kerry, will play against the Russia-Iran-Assad Regime front.
It is a very important development that Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, are in the Western front, as a whole, for the first time.
It is very likely that the Kurds will have an active role in their own region in the near future. To use that position to their advantage depends on their ability to strengthen their unity, and in building alliances.
Many Kurdish politicians openly state that a Turkey that can gain the support of its own Kurds, as well as those in Iraq and Syria, will be an important power, not only in the region, but the world.