The Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey have made no secret of their longing for a self-governing state. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the Kurds have tightened their grip in the north of the country and look set to crystallise their dominance over the north of the country within an international framework for a federal system.
It is evident that the Syrian Kurds are reading from the same page as Washington and Moscow because there seems to be an overwhelming international tendency that a settlement of the Syrian crisis should genuinely consider federalism. However, Ankara continues to read from a completely different script concerning the plan.
In five years of the full-scale Syrian war, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), backed by Washington’s material support and air strikes, have gained control of almost the entire northern stretch of the country, an area that Kurds call Rehava. Nonetheless, the Syrian Kurds have been excluded from the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. This has upset them, for they are keen to complement their success against Daesh on the battlefield with a political achievement.
It was no surprise when the PYD unilaterally declared a federal zone in the three main Kurdish-held cities of Jazira, Kobani and Afrin in the north of Syria. That pronouncement was not a unilateral flash in the pan; the PYD wouldn’t dare to make such a move without Washington’s approval. The Obama administration believes that the PYD has proved to be not just the only but also the most effective party in fighting Daesh and thus deserves to be Washington’s preferred proxy ally in its battle against the extremist group inside Syria.
This has irritated Turkey and will almost certainly send a crack through strategic Turkish-US ties if Washington continues to dismiss Ankara’s concerns. Turkey views the PYD as the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed, terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); thus its unequivocal reluctance for any federal system in the north of Syria is understandable.
Those who are still perplexed by Turkey’s determination to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria are invited to watch a video released by a PYD-affiliated group; militant Syrian Kurds are shown listening to their commander uttering threats against the Turks. “We don’t recognise any borders or boundaries,” he tells his forces. “Amude [the town where he is speaking] is the same as Nusaybin, Cizre and Diyarbakır, Turkish cities where Turkey’s military cracks down on Kurds in anti-PKK operations.” He vowed unity with PKK terrorists living in Turkey before adding, “We will abolish those rotten borders and embrace our brothers.”
Ankara’s clear opposition to any federal system that may lead to a Syrian Kurdish statelet for such terrorist groups can be understood further when we know that Amude is the home town of Saleh Najjar, the suicide bomber who killed 37 innocent people in Ankara on 17 February. The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) formally claimed responsibility for the massacre; it is a group led by commanders who have split from the PKK because of a disagreement about tactics.
It is in this context that Turkey’s attitude should be understood. If a federal or similar decentralised system is endorsed as a viable solution to the Syrian conflict, Turkey fears that the Ankara suicide bomber who received his training from the PYD inside Syria will not be the last. That is the message that Turkey is sending to those in Washington and Moscow who are promoting federalism.
Turkey has been trying hard to persuade the US and the West that there is no difference between the terrorists of the PKK and those in the PYD, despite the latter’s recent desperate, implausible efforts to condemn the latest bomb attack in Ankara, in order to detach itself from the PKK. As a group the PYD may issue formal denials about responsibility for the terrorist attacks inside Turkey but its militants are less circumspect; they are seen on other video footage claiming that the PKK’s battle is their own. That is a real blow to the efforts of the US and Syrian Kurdish officials who reiterate consistently the disconnection between the PYD and PKK, and accuse Turkey persistently of promoting such allegations as a pretext to deny their right to independence.
The government in Ankara, on the other hand, also opposes the federal project because it believes that the PYD is backed not only by the US but also by the Russians, and has thus been able to alter the demography of northern Syria. The Kurdish group has worked hard to displace other ethnic communities through sporadic attacks by its military arm, the YPG, on areas held by Syrian rebels, forcing civilians to flee. The whole plan is intended to impose a geographical connection between various Syrian Kurdish cantons in north-eastern and north-western Syria. In response, the Turkish army has shelled the areas in an attempt to stop them.
Does Turkey have the political and diplomatic muscle to block federalism in Syria? It is not true to say that it has limited tools to accomplish its objectives, although it does face serious challenges. The Turkish air force can’t enter Syrian airspace, for example, because the Russians are eager to settle a score with them for the downing of the Russian fighter some months ago. Not only that, but the Syrian Kurds are being driven into the hands of the Russians. It is possible that they could make a separate deal with the Bashar Al-Assad regime which will definitely exclude the opposition groups backed by Turkey.
Another point to keep in mind is that the Russians have endorsed federalism. It has been argued that the unexpected Russian “withdrawal” from Syria is intended to put pressure on Assad to make more concessions on the federal question.
Russian intransigence will definitely be a stumbling block for any solution which might favour Turkey. Moscow is well aware that removing Turkey from the equation in Syria will hurt the opposition to Assad’s regime, leaving him more powerful politically and militarily.
Although Russia started air strikes in Syria last year ostensibly to target Daesh, it hasn’t inflicted any damage at all on the extremists. On the contrary, Daesh appears to have thrived and expanded despite the Russian strikes. Furthermore, in the name of fighting “terrorism”, Russia has targeted innocent civilians as well as Turkish-backed rebels, turning the balance of power back in favour of the regime, which is essential for Assad’s long-term survival. As far as Moscow is concerned, the Syrian Kurds can be used effectively to destabilise Turkey, hence its warm welcome for a diplomatic mission from the Kurds to give Russian backing to Kurdish autonomy.
The Assad regime, meanwhile, would welcome any special status for the Kurds for two reasons: the Syrian president has little choice in the matter as his Russian ally is pressuring him to offer more political concessions; furthermore, his acceptance would seal his hatred for Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Political gains for the Syrian Kurds would irritate the Turkish leader and thus serve Assad’s anti-Erdogan stance.
However, for many stakeholders, the proposed federalism conjures up images of beleaguered minorities, unfeasible statelets and factions competing for power. There is no doubt that the Syrian people are longing for the end of this brutal war that has destroyed their country and killed so many of their children, but not at any price, and certainly not at the cost of the territorial integrity of their country.
For Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries, federalism will increase the appetite of minorities in their own backyards for their rights if “Syrian Kurdistan” comes to fruition. They also suspect that it will lead inevitably to partition of the nation.
That is why Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani have stressed persistently that their countries share the desire to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. It will be interesting to see if this tactical rapprochement between old rivals will actually hold.
Despite his regime’s intensive role in building-up terrorists, Bashar Al-Assad has succeeded in portraying the conflict in Syria as a simple choice between him as the legitimate leader or the bloodthirsty terrorists. The international community has chosen him, learning from the fatal mistakes made in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as set out by Jeffrey Goldberg his article “The Obama Doctrine” published recently by The Atlantic magazine, in which he hints at Obama’s foreign policy of retrenchment and liberal interventionism.
Turkey is taking a principled stand over the legitimate rights of the Syrian people; it will not give up its values and will never disappoint those whom it has embraced since the beginning of the revolution. Ankara will take the lead when the moment is right, for Erdogan has never been the “authoritarian failure” that Obama apparently believes him to be.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.