Will Biden presidency mend the ties between Ankara and the Kurds?

For weeks now, there has been speculation that Turkey would launch another offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. 

Inside the so-called “safe zone” along the Syrian border, Turkey has been digging new fortifications and resupplying its proxies near Ayn Issa. Adding to the sense of an impending Turkish assault, it was announced that Russian and Syrian regime forces were also preparing new positions to deter this from happening.

Fighting has remained sporadic between Turkish proxies and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since Ankara captured a strip of territory from Ras al’Ayn to Ayn Issa in October 2019. Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that it has fought against for decades. 

Wladimir van Wilgenberg, a journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan who covered the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, told Ahval in a podcast interview that the SDF is always on alert for a new offensive. However, that window to act has narrowed now that a new administration under Joe Biden is entering office in the U.S.

“For Turkey, it would not be good to start on a bad note with the Americans,” said Wilgenberg. 

Last year, Biden accused President Donald Trump of selling out the Kurds after the latter pulled American troops away from the Syrian border. In a presidential primary debate, Biden said he would make Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “pay a price” and promised to confront him if elected. Since defeating Trump last month, there has been signs Turkey is attempting a reset with the incoming administration 

Comparatively, Biden has billed himself as a friend of the Kurds of the Middle East. In 2002, he crossed the Turkish border to give a speech at the Iraqi Kurdish parliament where he told attendees “the mountains are not your only friend.” Biden’s support has at times earned the ire of the Turkish government, who saw him as pro-Kurdish to the point of being anti-Turkish. 

Wilgenberg said that a Biden administration would be welcomed by the Syrian Kurds for the consistency it would have over the mercurial Trump. Nominees for the president-elect’s cabinet include some familiar personalities including Antony Blinken and retired General Lloyd Austin, who both were present when the U.S increased support to the Kurds.

A more stable policy from Washington would be particularly important as they struggle to have their political demands recognised by the regime in Damascus.

“The problem for the SDF is that Damascus is just waiting for the U.S to leave, they know it at some point will leave,” said Wilgenberg, adding that this has encouraged the regime to resist making concessions. 

There has been over the years on and off efforts to negotiate with the government or with their primary backer Russia. In an interview with the International Crisis Group last month, SDF General Mazloum Abdi suggested that after it became apparent the U.S would remain in Syria the regime, only then did it become interested in at least preventing further Turkish operations.

According to Wilgenberg, talks with the regime have stalled beyond coordination on this point as they remain mired in distrust because of Russia’s ironclad support for Assad and its willingness to cut deals with Turkey in Syria. 

“They’re [SDF] always afraid Russia could make a deal with Turkey again under the table,” suggested Wilgernberg, using the concessions Moscow made to Ankara during Operation Euphrates Shield into northern Aleppo. 

Going on at the same time as talks between the regime and the SDF are parallel discussions with other Kurdish political groups. Last week, the State Department announced that U.S Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn stopped in Deir Ezzor where he met with SDF and opposition Kurdish National Congress (ENKS) to see how to jumpstart unity talks. 

The ENKS is an umbrella group of Kurdish parties that in many ways remains an ideological opponent to the SDF and its political arm the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Wilgenberg explained that even as the two sides have reached deals in the past, there remains an issue on how to share power in any final settlement, owing to ideological differences and the larger part the SDF played in recapturing territory in Syria from the so-called Islamic State. 

Part of why these intra-Kurdish talks are important is that they may be what ultimately discourage Turkey attacking again. Several of the parties with the ENKS are close to Turkey’s allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, which Wilgenberg says in some ways creates a “backchannel” for Ankara on the Kurdish discussions. 

Wilgenberg also believes that for the new U.S administration to be successful, it should think about the interconnectedness of Kurdish issues across the region. The first place to start would be in Turkey.

“If you want to have a solution to intra-Kurdish talks, you need to have a peace process in Turkey,” said Wilgenberg. He notes that President Erdoğan is a pragmatic politician who had previously been responsible for attempts to resolve the conflict with his nation’s Kurdish population, but today is reliant on nationalists in his ruling coalition and within the military to maintain support at home.

Until the Kurdish question in Turkey itself is solved, military action will continue to hang over the heads of Syria’s Kurds and remain a concern for the U.S.

“If there is no peace process in Turkey, you’ll always have another threat of a Turkish invasion.”