Turkish offensive may consolidate Kurdish identity in Syria

Turkey’s efforts to punish the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) have helped promote Kurdish identity in Syria.

It started with Turkey’s attempt to use the Syrian Kurdish opposition to the Syrian government as a tool to overthrow the regime. In October 2014, then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told journalists that, when he was foreign minister (before August 2014), his deputy under-secretary had been instructed to meet in Ankara Saleh Muslim, the co-chairman of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

In this meeting, the undersecretary proposed Muslim put an end to his relations with the Syrian government and join the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army to help overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Turkey believed at that time that Assad’s fall was imminent. But Muslim must have thought this might not happen as quickly as Turkey expected and that, if the regime were to survive, the Kurdish cause could face problems. He therefore refused to follow Turkey’s advice, as it would unnecessarily antagonise the Syrian government. Five years on, Muslim’s reckoning turned out to be right and Turkey’s wrong.

Turkey did not need alienate the PYD and further push it towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a listed terrorist organisation that Turkey has been fighting for decades. Instead, it could try in Syria what it had earlier done with the Kurds of northern Iraq. There, Turkey chose to cooperate with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and asked it not to let the PKK harm Turkey’s interests. A modus vivendi emerged between Turkey and the KRG. This modus vivendi has worked more or less satisfactorily for years and Turkey is today still reaping the advantages of this rational policy.

Turkey’s choice of the wrong policy options in Syria has not stopped. Last month, it made two agreements, one with the United States, the other with Russia. Thanks to these two agreements, Turkey managed to realise the plan it had cherished for years: the establishment of a “safe zone” along the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border, between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

Together with two other areas under Turkish army control, the number of such zones has now risen to three – the two others being the Operation Euphrates Shield area between Jarablus and Azaz, and the Operation Olive Branch area in Afrin. By setting up such zones, Turkey aims to prevent the creation of an uninterrupted Kurdish corridor along its border with Syria all the way to the Mediterranean.

The chances of the Kurds setting up an autonomous or semi-autonomous enclave have now been minimised. The Kurds could still set up such an enclave, but only if they persuade the Syrian government in exchange for concessions on other issues.

But there is a flip side to the coin. When Turkey asked the United States and Russia for the Kurdish fighters to be expelled from the safe zone, the United States pulled them to the southern part of northeastern Syria to protect the oil wells, and decided to allocate the income to the group as well.

Turkey succeeded in pushing Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border, but they moved to an area under U.S. and Russian protection. In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators took an initiative to further protect the Kurdish fighters. They sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a strongly worded letter saying: “Given the stakes, time is of the essence. We ask that you immediately let us know if Turkey and/or its proxy forces are operating outside of the area that runs east-west between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain and south about 30 kilometers to the M4-M10 road. If so, does the administration plan to impose sanctions on Turkey for violating the October 17 agreement?”

The tone of the letter implies that the movement of the Turkish army “and its proxies” will come under strict scrutiny.

Therefore, Turkey’s efforts are likely to produce the opposite of what it was originally looking for; the Kurds will find a safe haven where they will be able to promote their identity, like the Kurds of northern Iraq.

After the Syrian crisis is over, the Syrian Kurds will probably come back to their original home with a consolidated identity.