June 18, 2014 by Darius
The 5th Annual Conference on Turkey, organized by the Middle East Institute, was held earlier this week. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the whole event, but I found several of the panelists to be very insightful. Today, I’ll bring you the remarks of Gönül Tol, the founder and head of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. Tomorrow, I’ll share the comments of another of the panels.
Tol’s remarks concerned Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds, both inside Turkey and in surrounding countries.
Turkish policy towards Syria initially focused on containing the dominant Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party or PYD. The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan People’s Party, or PKK, which fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish government. Negotiations between the PKK and Turkish government remain underway and the Turkish government sees the PKK as the paramount Kurdish threat. In order to contain the PYD in Syria, the Turkish government pursued two major paths. First, Turkey cultivated ties with Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, whose movement does not get along with the PKK and PYD. Second, Turkey supported other Syrian rebel groups, including jihadi groups, in an attempt to limit the influence of the PYD in Syria.
Unfortunately, this Turkish policy was a complete failure. The PYD turned out to be too strong in Syrian Kurdish areas to be marginalized by other Turkish-backed groups. Furthermore, the Syrian government explicitly chose to allow the PYD a free hand in the areas it controlled to punish Turkey for supporting other rebels. Barzani and Iraqi Kurds tried to create an organization to compete with the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan but have no real on-the-ground presence and little influence in Syria. Finally, the jihadists Turkey supported have become a huge regional problem. Turkey is now dealing with two failed states on its borders due to the jihadists and hostile governments in Syria and Iraq.
In the future, according to Tol, Turkey will need to work in concert with the PYD, as distasteful as that might be, in order to combat the jihadist groups, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Tol also noted that the future will bring new alliances between the Turkish government and regional forces and among Kurdish groups themselves. Relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are likely to remain good, though. The Turkish government does not see an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat: any Kurdish state would be landlocked, largely dependent on Turkey for trade, and would oppose the PKK.
Tomorrow’s post will be about another of the panels at the Fifth Annual Conference on Turkey.