How Turkey misread the Kurds

Turkey appears to have overlooked the anger bubbling among its own Kurds towards its Syria policy.

Children in Cizre at a protest over the death of a Kurdish boy killed in clashes with Turkish police [Cale Salih]

Residents of the Kurdish-majority city Cizre, in southeast Turkey near the borders with Iraq and Syria, walk with one eye on the ground, navigating the ditches and blockades created by youth who wanted to block the entrance of Turkish police into the city.

Walls in Cizre are covered in graffiti, tributes to Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and to Kobane, a Kurdish-run town in Syria that has been precariously holding out against an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advance for over four months.

Riots broke out in Cizre and other Kurdish cities when the Turkish government blocked some Kurdish fighters from crossing the border into Syria to support their brethren. At least 35 people were killed during those clashes in October alone – more than three times the number of people who died during clashes between protesters and police in the Gezi Park protests of 2013. That week, Ocalan warned that he would end the ongoing Turkey-PKK peace process if a massacre were to occur in Kobane.

Turkey’s Syria policy

The war in Syria has emerged as a new cause for tension between Turkey’s Kurds and the Turkish government, at times straining the AKP’s ongoing peace talks with the PKK – and the AKP’s Syria border policy and its support for certain extremist opposition groups in Syria is a big reason why.

Ankara is reported to have links to numerous Syrian rebel groups. These links have drawn the ire of many Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, who view much of the Syrian opposition with suspicion due to their conservative outlook and their support for a strong central Syrian government.

Syrian war leaves a lost generation in Turkey

Although Syrian Kurds do clash from time to time with the Syrian regime, most recently in Hasakeh, their main enemy remains the extremist opposition.

Whereas the PKK-linked forces in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the armed People’s Protection Units (YPG), have long benefited from a usually enforced tacit agreement with the Syrian regime over the division of territory and control, the Kurdish forces have been engaged in bloody conflict with Islamist rebels over territory since at least 2012.

Ankara’s tolerance for some foreign and Turkish fighters moving to and from Syria to join opposition militias further eroded Kurdish trust in the intentions of the Turkish state.

In October 2014, for example, Turkey’s main Kurdish party called for mass demonstrations against the AKP’s Kobane policy. The protests resulted in clashes between Kurdish youth generally supportive of the PKK (and its affiliates in Syria) and religious conservatives affiliated with a small Turkish Kurdish Islamist political party.

Many Kurds in Turkey believe that the AKP supports the Islamist Kurds against the PKK-aligned nationalist ones. This belief, in turn, contributes to this overarching resentment towards the AKP’s approach to the Kurds in Syria.

Syrian Kurds envision a decentralised post-Assad government and have, since establishing three self-declared autonomous cantons in mid-July 2012, been busily creating institutions and structures to force the issue. Ankara has thus far resisted these efforts, owing to the fact that the three cantons are administered by the PYD.

Ankara has thus sought to isolate the cantons and even at times supported rebel groups when they attacked PYD-controlled territory.

Kobane – universal Kurdish cause

In November 2012, for example, Syrian Kurds accused Turkey of supporting an al-Nusra-led assault on the town of Ras al-Ayn. During the assault, some 200 fighters from al-Nusra and the PYD’s militia, YPG, clashed on the outskirts of Jazira, the largest Kurdish canton in Syria.

During the clashes, reports emerged that a number of Syrian opposition fighters had crossed the Turkey-Syria border to fight against the YPG in Ras al-Ayn and near the neighbouring territory of Kobane. Turkey denied the reports, but Erdogan nevertheless praised the advances made against the YPG.  

Turkey has thus far refused to join the air campaign against ISIL, choosing instead to push the coalition to expand the scope of air strikes to include regime targets.  Ankara’s hesitancy to aid the PYD stemmed from the group’s links to the PKK.

Shortly thereafter, Syrian Kurds began to vociferously accuse Ankara of supporting al-Nusra and later, after the creation of ISIL, claimed that Ankara also supported the group as a means with which to prevent PYD-led Kurdish autonomy in Syria.  

This resentment about Ankara’s Syria policy has grown more acute since the ISIL-led siege on Kobane. Turkey has, thus far, refused to join the air campaign against ISIL, choosing instead to push the coalition to expand the scope of air strikes to include regime targets.

Ankara’s hesitancy to aid the PYD stemmed from the group’s links to the PKK, as well as its discomfort with the US-led coalition’s decision to attack only ISIL targets, rather than expanding the scope of the ongoing air strikes to include Syrian regime targets.

For many Kurds in Turkey, the feeling of ill-will did not stem from Turkey’s refusal to intervene militarily on behalf of the YPG in Syria, but rather its efforts to prevent Kurds from Turkey from moving across the border to join the fight against ISIL in Kobane.

For much of the summer, Kurds could easily move back and forth between Syria and Turkey. Thus, when Ankara surged its forces to the border, the perception among many was that this was another tactic to tacitly aid ISIL against the YPG.

Sara Kaya, the co-mayor of Nusaybin, a Kurdish Turkish town on the border with Syria, said: “During the October clashes, there were a lot of revolts here, and the head of police asked me ‘Why are you struggling for Kobane? Kobane is not your matter.’ And I told him, ‘It is my problem because the people living on the other side of the border are my brothers, my family.'”

Reasons for revolt

Yet, in the period just before the war in Syria, the Syrian regime’s many injustices against Syrian Kurds were rarely a reason for revolt among Turkey’s Kurds – even when Ankara and Damascus had close diplomatic relations. At that time, Kurdish relations across the Turkish-Syrian border were mostly limited to more abstract feelings of kinship and familial ties, which have lingered since the Ottoman era.

Most Kurds interviewed in Nusaybin, Cizre, and other parts of far-southeast Turkey admitted that before 2011 they had never heard of Kobane, a small border town further west, isolated from other Kurdish-majority parts of Syria.

Since the ISIL-led siege, however, Kobane has become a daily topic of conversation among Kurds in Turkey, who have increasingly started to see the fight there as a struggle of their own. Many Turkish Kurds have died fighting with the YPG.

Ties between other Syrian and Turkish Kurdish cities are growing, especially since the rise of the PYD on the Syrian side (both the main Turkish Kurdish party, the BDP, and the PYD are linked to the PKK-aligned Kurdish national movement). Kaya explains Nusaybin and its twin Syrian city, Qamishli, maintain links despite the closure of the border. She says that when a sheep in Qamishli needs a vaccine, someone from the PYD-led Jazira Canton, which encompasses Qamishli, will give her a call.

Someone from the Qamishli side will then bring the sheep in question to the small free zone between the countries, and someone from the Nusaybin side will bring the vaccine. Inside this free zone, between two border posts controlled by non-Kurdish militaries, Kurds from both sides of what was once one city, catch up with their families, talk politics, and maintain the health of their livestock.

The AKP’s Syria policy has only contributed to the outcome that it had sought to prevent: widespread support among Kurds in Turkey for the Syrian Kurdish efforts to achieve autonomy in Syria. Turkey appears to have overlooked the anger bubbling among its own Kurds towards its Syria policy.

Yet, it does so at its own peril – AKP’s policy is undermining Turkey’s efforts to isolate the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds and, most importantly, to make peace with its own Kurds.

Cale Salih is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a doctoral fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.