Was Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria inevitable?

Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan have recently argued that Turkey might not have launched its attack against Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria last month if a PKK-affiliate was not the predominant power there. 

Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Nechirvan Barzani said that Turkey’s operation in northeast Syria against the Kurdish-led forces was a result of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attempts to gain legitimacy in that region.

Ankara designates the PKK, an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984, as a terrorist organisation and views it as one of the main security threats facing the country. When it launched its cross-border operation on Oct. 9, the Turkish government said it aimed to clear terrorists from Turkey’s borders.

“Turkey’s problem in the beginning was not Kurds in Syria, it was the PKK,” Barzani said at a Middle East Research Institute forum in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil on Nov. 5.

“They were clear in saying one thing: ‘we cannot bear seeing the flag of the PKK on our borders with Syria.’”

“The biggest problem was that the PKK tried to obtain its legitimacy at the expense of the Syrian Kurds,” he added. “What Kurds eventually suffered came as a result of the wrong policy they followed.”

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) was originally founded as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK in 2003. After Syrian Kurdish regions gained de-facto autonomy in 2012, the PYD rapidly rose to become the predominant party in those regions.

The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been the main force fighting the Islamic State group in Syria alongside the U.S.-led coalition.

Safeen Dizayee, head of the Iraqi Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations, made a similar argument to Barzani’s during an event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on November 20.

The “PYD began to operate by itself and not to allow other Kurdish political parties to operate in the region,” he said.

According to Dizayee, “things started going in a different direction when [the] PKK came to the scene and impose[d] its influence on the Kurds of Syria.” 

This, he said, ultimately led to Turkey’s cross-border operation.

The KRG supported the Kurdistan National Council (KNC) in northeast Syria and trained a Syrian Kurdish fighting force called the Rojava Peshmerga.

But the PYD clamped down on KNC activities in northeast Syria and forbade the Rojava Peshmerga from entering the region, leaving them stuck in Iraqi Kurdistan.  

Barzani and Dizayee suggest that Turkey might not have felt compelled to invade had the KNC and PYD shared power in Syrian Kurdistan. But others say it would not tolerate the presence of any Kurdish autonomous region on its border, at least since the peace process between Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the PKK broke down in the summer of 2015.

“My own view is that since late 2015 Turkey most likely would not tolerate any self-governing Kurdish authority on the Syrian border that had any PYD component – so even if the PYD had stuck to the agreements to share power with the KNC and others, it probably would not have appeased Ankara,” David Pollock, the Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Ahval.

Pollock identified four factors that need to be taken into consideration.

“The PYD did fulfil its 2012 commitments [under the Erbil Agreement] not to attack Turkey, and not to offer organized support for PKK attacks inside Turkey directly – though some individuals did go back and forth across the borders,” he said.

Furthermore, Ankara “did negotiate and cooperate with the PYD/YPG from 2012 to late 2015, so it did distinguish between them and PKK ‘terrorists’.”

Also, the PYD and YPG “were willing to let Turkey establish a narrow buffer strip inside Syria in September/October of this year, but Turkey invaded anyway.”

Pollock pointed out that over the course of the past two years the PYD “were increasingly sharing real power with other locals in Syria, whether other Kurds or Arabs or Assyrian and diverse minorities, both in the SDF and in civil councils.”

Therefore, he concluded, “the main blame for the current situation lies with Turkey, not with the PYD/YPG.”

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC, believes that “the trajectory of Sinjar politics” in northern Iraq gives some indication as to what Turkey’s strategy might have been “under such conditions.”

“Turkey would have exerted pressure to Kurdish parties to take a strong position against PKK-affiliates, pursuing a containment policy,” Gurbuz told Ahval.

After the PKK saved thousands of Yezidis in Sinjar from the genocidal onslaught of the Islamic State in 2014 it established a foothold there alongside its Yezidi proxy force, the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS). Turkey pressured both Baghdad and Erbil to remove the group and even carried out airstrikes in the region.

“Compared to the Iraqi context, the Syrian Kurdish context poses more challenges to Turkey’s security perception,” Gurbuz said.

This is because “the recruitment for the PKK has long been strong among Syrian Kurds who have long suffered under the Syrian regime, which denied them even basic citizenship rights.”

Furthermore, Gurbuz noted that connections between Syrian and Turkish Kurds “are more powerful due to linguistic ties and family kinship” than those between Iraqi and Turkish Kurds.

Turkey consequently “fears the spillover effect of Syrian Kurdish autonomy,” he said.

“We should not forget that Iraqi Kurdistan also raised red flags for the Turkish military initially for similar reasons,” Gurbuz said. “The rise of the AKP with an economic engagement approach has changed the dynamics of that relationship over time.”

“If the peace process between Turkey and the PKK was upheld, current dynamics could have been much different.”

He concluded by reasoning that Turkey might have accepted a Syrian Kurdish entity “with multiple parties including the PYD, with the hope that the PKK’s armed affiliates were checked in control.”

Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish affairs analyst, believes that “it would have certainly been more difficult for Turkey to justify invading Northern Syria if other Kurdish parties such as the KNC were part of the system.”

“I believe if other Kurds were part of the system and PYD wouldn’t have so boldly said they would implement [PKK founder Abdullah] Öcalan’s vision of Democratic Confederalism things would have been different and it would have been more difficult for Turkey to justify the invasion and claim they are just against PKK and not all Kurds,” Hawez told Ahval.

Despite this, he believes that “there is no guarantee Turkey wouldn’t have found justification in another form to attack Northern Syria.”

“I do think it would have become extremely difficult for Turkey to tolerate another Kurdish entity on its southern frontier,” he said.

This is because the Kurds came close to controlling “almost all of Syria’s border with Turkey, effectively cutting Turkey’s land connection with the Arab world.”

Hawez believes that “a power-sharing agreement between the PYD and KNC similar to the one between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main parties might have had more negative aspects to it than positive.”

He also said that while Barzani’s points were partly true, making them now “when there is a global backlash against Turkey harms the Kurdish claim that Turkey is actually attacking Kurds and not just a PKK-backed entity.”

“If the PYD-KNC power-sharing agreement were implemented, it would have made it more difficult for Turkey to justify its invasion,” he said.

“The KRG would have more aggressively used its democratic channels to prevent such an attack.”

Nevertheless, Hawez concluded that “at the end of the day, Turkey would have still attacked a Kurdish-run Northern Syria.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.