Turkey casts a long shadow over future Kurdish talks

The Middle East’s Kurdish factions have been conducting meetings in recent weeks to find ways to resolve long-standing differences among themselves. However, they are working from beneath the long shadow cast by Turkey over their discussions as well as their political future.

Several Kurdish factions in Syria met in the city of Qamishli with support from the U.S. State Department. One Kurdish politician who attended described the conference as taking place in a “positive atmosphere”, while Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), called for all factions to overcome their differences and reach an agreement.

Not everyone was satisfied with this conference. Taking place just before the Qamishli conference were talks between the region’s main faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC).  PYD officials told Syria-based North Press Agency that both parties agreed to reach a solution, but KNC officials conspicuously avoided attending the subsequent conference, signalling that differences remain.

Abdulla Hawez, a researcher and expert on Kurdish politics in London, said that these disagreements cast a dim light on the chances of a political breakthrough but it may require an extra push to do so.

“The prospect to restart are not very bright, but may start if the U.S puts enough pressure on both parties,” Hawez explained in a recent podcast interview with Ahval.

Asked why the KNC may have avoided the conference, Hawez said certain conditions it set for participating were not met by the PYD. Chief among them was an apology for a comment by Aldar Khelil accusing the KNC’s armed wing, known as the Roj Peshmerga, of acting as Turkish mercenaries.

Hawez said this accusation was “a bit much”, and that it had to do with the KNC’s links to Turkey as well as the Kurdistan region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The Roj Peshmerga were trained by Erbil’s military forces, and the KDP worked for years to improve its ties to Turkey.

Not long after the Qamishli conference, Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), visited Erbil. He was received by Iraqi Kurdish officials including former president Massoud Barzani, and took the visit as an opportunity to slam the SDF as a terrorist organisation akin to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s long-time foe since 1984.

Kurdish politicians in Syria, including some in the KNC itself, were critical of Erbil for the Barzani family receiving the leader of Turkey’s political proxies. There were some on the KNC side who were less opposed to al-Hariri’s trip to Erbil, especially after he entertained the idea of KNC joining an administration in Turkish occupied Afrin and other territories.

Hawez said that in some senses the KNC may be sympathetic to the Turkish-backed opposition because of continued suppression of its political activities in the region. He notes that it was unlikely that the KNC didn’t recognise al-Hariri as a Turkish proxy, but said any final say on how closely it took him up on any offer may lie with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s President Masrour Barzani.

“Barzani is basically the person who has support in Syria, not these parties,” he said.

Intra-Kurdish talks are taking place amid an ever-complicating geopolitical environment.

The United State, a historic supporter of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, has signalled its disinterest in deepening its involvement in the region. President Joe Biden, widely expected by many to be a strong supporter of the Kurds, has not made clear any long-term strategy in the Middle East and would prefer devoting increased effort on competition with China.

Iran is the other player that Kurdish factions, particularly in Iraq, are cautious about. Last month, rockets fell on Erbil and a pro-Iran proxy took credit for the attack. This took place only days after a failed hostage rescue operation by Turkey in the Gara mountain range between February 10 and 14, and Iranian criticism that followed it.

Hawez, who admitted that he was not particularly optimistic about Biden being a “saviour of the Kurds”, stressed that the United States’ retreat from the Middle East has been in progress across administrations. Because of this withdrawal, he believes Kurds in the region are reassessing relations with their neighbours, chief among them Turkey and Iran.

“The relationship with Turkey is very strategic and important for the KDP as it ensures their protection in the future in a way,” he explained.

Despite the recent acrimony, Hawez does not believe Tehran and Ankara will come to a clash, even over the Sinjar region where the PKK has established itself and pro-Iran militias have poured into after the Gara operation. That though does not mean the two will not continue looking for room to build their influence or compete wherever it may be.

One way or another though, the region’s Kurds are adjusting in their own ways to what may emerge as a post-American reality. To that end, difficult conversations will have to happen and they could all do with fewer enemies among them.

“If you are fighting everyone at the same time, it will be bad for the future and maybe lead to your own destruction,” warned Hawez.