Impact of Turkey's military campaigns against the Kurds

Two noteworthy events occurred this January that could potentially impact Turkey's cross-border operations against both the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Jan. 23 visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Turkey should reactivate the 1998 Adana agreement with Syria. Under the agreement Turkish troops can, under certain circumstances, pursue PKK fighters 5 km into Syria. Erdoğan said he liked the idea.

Putin was likely advocating Adana as an alternative to the proposed 32-km buffer/safe zone previously discussed by Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump. 

But the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Syria would welcome a reactivated Adana agreement “when the Turkish regime abides by the agreement and stops supporting, financing, arming and training terrorists and when it withdraws its military forces from the Syrian territories they are occupying”.

Turkey seized the northwest Syrian district of Afrin from the Syrian Kurdish YPG in March last year. A year before Turkish troops completed another operation to push Islamic State forces from the border area and extended their presence into Idlib province where they back the last major rebel-held area still holding out against the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Analysts doubt the Adana agreement could serve as a framework for a Turkish offensive against YPG-held northeast Syria, an area the Kurds call Rojava. Turkey regards the YPG as the Syrian arm of the PKK that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984.

“Turkey invaded Afrin and is propping up the rebel-controlled Idlib region with its own troops and all this was done without reference to the Adana accord so really Turkey doesn't need to invoke any agreement if it wants to enter Rojava,” said Aliza Marcus, an analyst and author on Kurdish issues.

“The Adana accord does not appear to give Turkey the right to actually take and hold territory, so it's not even applicable here,” Marcus said. “Finally, the accord needs to be ratified and renewed regularly by both sides. There's no indication that Syria currently sees the accord, which was last ratified in 2011, as still valid.”

Turkey’s former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış said the Adana agreement was not the issue. 

“If there were political will on both the Turkish and Syrian sides to cooperate, they would not need to revitalise Adana,” Yakış told Ahval. “They could do it without a framework.”

“The problem for Turkey is that it still uses anti-Assad rhetoric as an excuse not to cooperate with Damascus,” he said. “And Assad is not less opposed to cooperation with Turkey. So, there seems to be a double lock. This is the psychological background of the problem.”

But with Assad looking likely to win the civil war, Turkey may have to adapt its policy.

“Putin's reference to the Adana Agreement was aimed at suggesting an exit to Turkey from the imbroglio it finds itself entangled in,” Yakış said.

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the Adana accord did not apply to current circumstances.

“First, the Adana agreement was based on joint military operations, not unilateral cross-border action and Damascus will not approve the establishment of safe zones by the Turkish military,” Gurbuz said. “Second, the Assad regime's precondition to revive the Adana agreement; that Turkey should retreat from Syrian territories, is exactly the opposite of what Turkey wants.”

Yakış said Turkey had repeatedly affirmed its commitment to Syria's territorial integrity and stressed it does not covet any part of the country.

“Ankara would become more persuasive if it were to complement this commitment by announcing an exit strategy from Syria,” he said. “In other words, to inform the international community when Turkey believes its mission in Syria will be considered accomplished … If Turkish troops remain on Syrian soil for a prolonged period, they may be exposed to a war of attrition.”

Turkey's activities against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan were also spotlighted on Jan. 26 when, in a truly unprecedented move, angry Kurdish protesters attacked one of the Turkish Army's two-dozen bases in Duhok province.

They were protesting the killing of six civilians the previous week by Turkish air strikes. Two of the unarmed protesters were killed during the incident and parts of the base set on fire.

For many years now the Turkish Air Force has carried out air strikes against suspected PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan's mountains and also launched a number of ground incursions.

Turkey had agreements dating from Saddam Hussein's rule over Iraq that allowed it to pursue PKK fighters beyond the border.

“In 1978 Turkey and Iraq made a secret deal which allowed them to go up to nine miles into each other's territory to pursue Kurdish groups,” said Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog. “In 1984 the two countries made another agreement which allowed each nation to go 18 miles into the territory of the other to fight Kurdish groups.”

Wing said Turkey now had up to 20 bases inside Iraq and bombed PKK targets within northern Iraq every week. While Turkey regularly launches incursions into Iraq against the PKK, reaction from the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government was muted.

Marcus said that while Turkey used to have the right of hot pursuit into Iraq, it did not include the right to keep troops in the country.

The protests in Dohuk and pressure from Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the Baghdad government could cause Turkey to limit its actions in the near future, Marcus said, but there was no reason to think Turkey would end its air campaign against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Gurbuz said the Duhok incident was an example of how Kurdish anger at Turkey’s actions might be exploited by the PKK.

“The biggest danger is that the Turkish military's bid to eliminate PKK in Syria and Iraq may inadvertently legitimise the PKK as the defender of Kurds, which may have a boomerang effect in Turkey's Kurdish southeast region.”

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