Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s Kurdish question
Any future engagement between Turkey and the PKK are marred by changing realities on the ground.
Since the Syrian civil war erupted, the Kurdish forces have consolidated control over large portions of the country’s north. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), now dominate three large enclaves of Kurdish-majority territory along the Turkish border where they proclaimed the self-governing Rojava administration in November 2013.
While the PYD’s accumulation of power seems to have originated from its de facto alliance with Bashar al-Assad regime, its expansion also roots in support from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Given the rise of the PYD – and its strategic alliance with the PKK – this new emerging picture appears to have a tremendous effect on Turkey’s Kurdish issue and seems to push the Syrian Kurds more into the future of peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government.
PKK’s achievements in Syria
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PKK saw an opportunity to establish a strategic base in Syria to have more leverage in its conflict with Turkey. Although it was effectively kicked out from Syria in the late 1990s, after the breakout of the Syrian Civil War the PKK again increased its activities in northwest Syria. Marking the recent achievements by Kurds in the region, its ambitions further evolved in the war-torn country.
However, the capture of Tell Abyad in mid-2015 by the YPG changed all the equilibria in the region, particularly from Turkey’s point of view. As the YPG expanded control in northern Syria and increasingly clashed with jihadi groups, the unspoken alliance between the PKK and the PYD levelled up. Since then, the PKK fighters have been reportedly commanding YPG battalions, leading strategic decision-making, and overseeing recruits’ ideological and military training.
With the PKK's achievements and further aspirations in Syria on the one hand, and Turkey's strict opposition to any Kurdish political formation in northern Syria on the other, any future engagement between Turkey and the PKK is marred by changing realities on the ground.
Not surprisingly, the PYD secured representation for a larger segment of Kurds in Syria with the PKK’s assistance. As the YPG’s influence takes hold of Kurdish-populated areas along the border with Turkey and throughout much of the northeast, the PKK begins to consider this as a historic opportunity to implement its programme of “democratic self-administration” – its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan’s concept to initiate a community-based Kurdish local governance.
Conflict of interest?
However, the re-escalation of violence, effectively ending the Kurdish peace process in Turkey, pushes the PKK to exert more control over the legal Kurdish political entities.
Many pundits think that the PKK’s influence over the HDP is increasing significantly. The co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, recently endorsed some of the PKK’s aspirations both in Turkey and in Syria during the last gathering of the Democratic Society Congress – an umbrella organisation representing Turkey’s Kurdish civic entities.
Consequentially, the HDP’s recent change of narrative in favour of the PKK’s strategic objectives both in Turkey and in Syria convinces a large segment of Turkish society that the HDP is forced to be on the same line as the PKK in general and with the PYD in particular.
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Accordingly, high-ranking members of the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains – where the armed group has its stronghold – have severely criticised HDP’s current leadership for its “easy-going” stance on some of the issues that are vital for the PKK’s strategic concerns in Syria.
If it wasn’t for the pressure by the PKK, many experts claim the party wouldn’t risk its “grand project” of becoming a mainstream political party in Turkey through engaging with the Turkish electorate.
Regional and international dynamics
On the regional stage, Kurdish forces pay the utmost attention not to differ substantially from the positions taken by Iran, the Assad regime and Iraq on the future of Syria. With conflicting objectives about Syria, the counter trio is represented by Kurdistan Regional Government’s leader, Masoud Barzani, Turkey and the Syrian opposition. Considering the effect of Turkey-Russia tension on Syria, Kurdish forces in the region now enjoy being on the same line particularly as Iran and Russia.
The stance taken by the West vis-a-vis Kurds in Syria is much more complex. For the United States, the PYD fighting ISIL on the ground is considered as an ally. This was confirmed once again by the recent visit to Rojava of Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the multinational coalition against ISIL.
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However, the US keeps supporting Syrian opposition and doesn’t consider Bashar al-Assad as an option for the future of Syria. In such a multifaceted political landscape, Kurdish forces try to stick to a “balanced line” where they can sustain relations with the regime in Damascus while making sure they are not squeezed between the two elephants in the room, namely Russia and the US.
What is evident is that the PKK and PYD now control much of northern Syria along the Turkish border, and seem to remain there owing to regional and international realities.
With the PKK’s achievements and further aspirations in Syria on the one hand, and Turkey’s strict opposition to any Kurdish political formation in northern Syria on the other, any future engagement between Turkey and the PKK is marred by changing realities on the ground. This was already tested with the diverging positions taken by both sides on war in Kobane in 2014, when the then-Kurdish peace process took a knock.
Ebubekir Isik is a PhD researcher at the Free University of Brussels. His work focuses on stateless nationalist and regional parties.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.