Turkey’s Kurdish Question will not be solved by military ops east of the Euphrates
International diplomatic efforts to bring an end to Syria’s civil war continue to stumble. Following last month’s trilateral summit in Tehran between the presidents of Iran, Russia, and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held additional talks in Sochi. They agreed to create a new 15 to 20 km-wide demilitarised zone in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria. The buffer zone would serve as a barrier between the armed opposition groups backed by Turkey, and Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran. Russian and Turkish forces would patrol the zone, which is due to come into effect by Oct. 15.
But it seems this latest truce will not last long, due to major obstacles at local, regional, and international levels. At the local level, Turkish backed opposition groups – the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the National Liberation Front (NLF) – have welcomed the deal, and thousands of civilians celebrated in the streets of Idlib’s towns. However, extremist factions affiliated with al Qaeda – the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamist Guardians of Religion Organisation – have rejected the agreement outright.
At the regional level, no one knows who actually controls Idlib on the ground, and hence who is in a position to decide its future. The Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), which include Kurdish and Arab forces, are the main U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Turkey opposes the SDF, which is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG controls the Syrian region east of the Euphrates. Ankara also considers the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is involved in an insurgency in southeast Turkey that has lasted more than 30 years. Achieving this current deal over Idlib with Putin was a victory for Turkish diplomacy. But Erdoğan was quick to turn his attempt at preventing further humanitarian disasters to Ankara’s advantage. Turkey’s attention has now shifted from Idlib towards the Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.
At the international level, Turkey’s strategic partners are eyeing up different possible actions in Syria, including Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish nationality and security concerns surrounding the Kurdish issue shape Ankara’s diplomatic positioning on the future of Syria. But the biggest dilemma facing Erdoğan is that Turkey’s national interests do not align with the concerns of the United States on this matter.
In a Sept. 23 speech to a Turkish-American group in New York, Erdoğan announced that Turkey would ‘increase the number of secure zones inside Syria’, encompassing the east of the Euphrates in order to prevent the realisation of what he called a terror corridor in northern Syria. He argued that it was this security concern that prompted Turkey to take control of the districts of Jarablus, al-Bab, and Afrin in the past. Furthermore, Erdoğan explicitly criticised U.S. financial and military support for the Kurds in the region.
Clearly, Washington and Ankara disagree on the role of Kurds and YPG forces against ISIS. Erdogan’s decision to expand military operations east of the Euphrates and establish regional governance in the larger Kurdish controlled territory will neither solve the Syrian conflict, nor resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question.
However, on Sept. 27, U.S. special representative for Syrian engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey revealed a new approach by the Trump administration towards the Syrian conflict, including Syrian Kurdistan. Speaking to reporters in New York, Jeffrey highlighted three key objectives of U.S. policy: the enduring defeat of ISIS, a reinvigoration of the political process, and the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of having local allies on the ground, referring to the Kurdish forces that were in northern Iraq when the 2003 U.S.-led intervention overthrew Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. Drawing parallels between the political divisions in Iraq and Syria, Jeffrey's remarks reaffirm Washington’s intentions to continue supporting Kurdish efforts in the region. Jeffrey also signalled future U.S. diplomatic efforts, namely that Syria’s Kurds should participate in the UN-led political process to determine the country’s future. This will undoubtedly place further strain on U.S.-Turkey relations.
Now, there are signs that Turkey has started building up military forces along its Syrian border. Ankara’s decisions concerning this new military engagement will depend largely on the next moves by Moscow and Washington. Although Russia supported the Turkish proposal concerning Idlib, Putin may regard Erdogan’s latest operations east of the Euphrates in a different light.
Erdoğan will inevitably continue to insist on extending Turkish influence and will seize any opportunity to fill the political vacuum in the region. Towards this end, Turkish military reinforcements at the Syrian border might serve a dual purpose: firstly, to put psychological pressure the YPG, and secondly, to persuade Kurdish-friendly Arabs and Turkmens to alter their stance and support Turkish efforts. Nevertheless, additional diplomatic manoeuvres by Turkey are unlikely without some leeway or allowances by the United States. Given Washington’s new approach towards the future of Syria, time is running out for Ankara to engage with the Kurdish reality at home, and to realise that cross-border military operations east of the Euphrates are part of the problem, not the solution.