Turkey’s bid to get Syrian Kurdish forces branded terrorists unrealistic

Ever since the 2015 breakdown the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has engaged in a relentless campaign to get Western nations to brand the dominant Kurdish forces in Syria as terror organisations.

But after spending millions of dollars from the presidency's discretionary fund on lobbyists, former diplomats, quasi journalists and politicians to promote its case, Turkey is no closer to achieving that objective. Last week’s NATO summit failed to reach an agreement on the issue, with both sides remaining entrenched in their positions.

Turkey sees the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the Syrian offshoots of the PKK, which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Western nations are reluctant to proscribe the SDF and YPG after backing them with air power in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

The Turkish campaign against the SDF and YPG is an ideologically driven effort to silence the remaining domestic opposition and consolidate the ultra-nationalist Islamist ruling coalition’s grip on the country's political system. 

But Turkey’s pursuit of neo-Ottoman, ultra-nationalist foreign policy objectives does not match contemporary realities, further isolates the country and hampers efforts to reach collaborative solutions, for example over hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.

A successful foreign policy requires setting achievable objectives, using a wide array of tools and having cooperative partners. This is truer for fragile middling powers such as Turkey. But policymakers in Turkey appear to have lost sight of what is deliverable for the country’s long-term interests, both in Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean.

Having the SDF designated as a terrorist group is not achievable. Turkey is alone in its fight against the group and its October cross-border offensive saw Turkey’s international standing edge closer to that of a rogue state. It is now not only Turkey's Western allies, but also Moscow that sees its irrational nationalist foreign policy as a challenge that needs to be managed.

While the United States and European Union recognise the PKK as a terrorist organisation, Turkey’s belligerent rhetoric and foreign policy make it impossible for any of its allies to hear what it is trying to say. The more Turkey insists on its posture, the lonelier it is going to get.

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