2018-12-14

Ankara prepares for a peace deal with Kurds in Turkey and Syria


The success of every state’s foreign policy lies in the ability of its ruling elites to properly read the foreign policy situation and quickly adapt to difficult conditions. For Turkey, this rule is especially important. The country's geopolitical position obliges it to take the initiative since the price of a passive foreign policy is the growth of threats along its own national borders with the subsequent spread of instability over to own soil. Recent events show that Ankara may be seriously thinking about a radical revision of its position in the Kurdish issue.

Of course, the resolution of the civil war in the neighboring country for many years will remain a priority for Turkish diplomacy. Since the early 2000s, Syria has been viewed by the ruling elites of Turkey as the main springboard for expanding its influence in the Middle East. But the tragic events of the "Arab Spring" turned the Syrian trend into a source of constant threats to national security. The policy of humanitarian activity of Ankara was replaced by attempts to neutralize the negative consequences of the growth of Kurdish nationalism and separatism.

The main problems for Turkey in this direction are not even the Syrian Kurds themselves. If in the case of Russia, Turkey has managed to find a common denominator to this day when discussing the relationship between Damascus and the Syrian opposition, then on the issue of Syrian Kurds, Turkey is in a state of strategic clinch with its main military-political ally, the United States.

The United States continues to carry out plans to create a vaguely political entity in northern Syria under the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Washington sees the Syrian Kurds as a tool to deter Iran’s influence and at the same time exert pressure  on Damascus.

The situation is used by the Syrian Kurds themselves as well. Under the slogan of the idea of ​​democratic federalism, the Democratic Party, under the protection of the American military and its own well equipped and trained militia, is trying to build national autonomy in Syria with the likely spread of such experience in Turkey, where the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been operating since the 1980s. The latter is recognized not only by Ankara, but also by the United States and the EU as a terrorist organization.

The effect of the threats of the Turkish leadership to launch a military operation against the American-armed Kurdish quasi-state  is undermined by decisive US actions to protect Kurdish armed groups, as well as by deliberately delaying negotiations with the Turks to resolve the situation peacefully. However, Ankara understands that the current status quo in northern Syria is a direct road to destabilization of the Turkish border regions. The territory under consideration may turn into another theater of war between regional players - the countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran, where Turkey will have to be content with the status of a passive observer.

The operations “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” showed Ankara’s readiness to use military force under favorable foreign and domestic conditions. However, in the absence of an opportunity to implement such a scenario in northern Syria, due to the high probability of a direct clash with the US military, Turkey seems ready to radically change the approach: a military mood is replaced by political maneuvering.

Turkish government correctly assesses the essence of what is happening. First, the United States does not plan to leave outright Syria in the near future. Attempts by Turkey to take the initiative away from the United States in Syria could turn into a disaster. Secondly, Ankara is aware that it cannot force the United States to abandon experiments on the construction of an autonomous political entity at its own borders. The Turkish authorities understand that it will be more effective not to hinder the process, but to actively  participate in it. After all, the success of the long-term US strategy in northern Syria lies in the non-conflict participation and support of Turkey itself.

First of all, Ankara seems to be planning to tackle the very solution of its own Kurdish issue. More than half of the Kurds of the Middle East live in Turkey. Positive processes within the country can strengthen the “rear” of Turkish diplomacy: Turkey was guided by such considerations in 2008–2012, when serious attempts were made to satisfy the aspirations of Turkish Kurds in the matter of cultural rights. Then it was even talked about trying to conclude a truce with the Kurdistan Workers' Party and finally translate the military conflict into the mainstream of a peaceful political process.

The beginning of the war in Syria and growing influence of the Syrian Kurds under the military and political leadership of the PKK led to changes: the crisis of Syrian statehood made Kurdish nationalists abandon negotiations with Ankara and finally start implementing their ideological program of political autonomy within Syria with its unstable central by the government. By 2014, the peace process was replaced by a full-fledged confrontation between PKK fighters and the Turkish authorities, which was accompanied by numerous civilian casualties.

Today, the Turkish security forces succeed in uprooting the terrorist threat in the country. Meanwhile, the leadership and pro-government forces are trying to resume discussion of the Kurdish issue. Thus, on November 30, in Oslo, there was a low-profile meeting in Turkey  between representatives of the Turkish ruling elite, close to the authorities, representatives of the Turkish intelligentsia and leaders of the Kurdish movement. The agenda was reportedly the Kurdish issue.

The organization of such event is extremely surprising, given the plans of the ruling party of Turkey to go to the forthcoming elections in March 2019 in an alliance with Turkish nationalists, who are known to oppose any negotiations with the PKK.

Everything points to the existence of a concrete intention of Ankara to return to the discussion of Kurdish issue, despite the obvious political risks. Turkish media reported on the visit of the official delegation of Turkey to Germany on November 22, during which Turkish representatives studied the German experience of the Bundesrat, a federal body of the country representing all 16 German lands. Worth noting that the limited rights of autonomy has been one of the requirements of Turkish Kurdish nationalists.

There is no doubt that it is not in the interests of Turkey to continue to conflict with the United States over Syria. Ankara is not ready to risk a military conflict with its principle strategic partner. However, current circumstances allow Ankara to look at the problem of the Syrian Kurds in terms of potential benefits. Participation with the United States in political processes in northern Syria and joint initiatives to protect autonomy, independent of Damascus, can strengthen Turkey’s position in the Syrian political process as a whole and break the ice in relations with America.

Finally, the return of the American-Turkish alliance to the scene of the Syrian civil war may influence Russia's plans for ending the conflict in favor of Damascus. The success of Russian politics in Syria depends on the ability to closely monitor the internal political processes in Turkey itself, to analyze any changes in the intentions of the Turkish leadership, known for its unpredictability, and to be proactive.

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