Yesterday, I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera English about Turkey’s Syria policy. The piece is a look back at the consistency of Turkish policy-making in Syria after the decision was made to sever ties with the Assad regime in August 2011. Turkey first floated the idea of a buffer zone in November 2011. The policy had the backing of France, who was eagerly pushing for greater western involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey’s reasons for doing so at the time were twofold. First, Ankara was eager to end the war quickly. Turkey had recently begun to its efforts to organize a cohesive political opposition of Syrian exiles/defectors in Istanbul and was eager to quickly oust its erstwhile ally, Bashar al Assad. Second, Turkey wanted to ground the Syrian air force. Turkey had a number of reasons to support this policy.
First, the AKP has historic links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and sought to position the group at the center of the nascent Syrian political opposition it was organizing in Istanbul. Ankara initially envisioned a scenario whereby Assad would quickly fall and then be replaced by the opposition it was working to organize. In turn, this new government would take over a relatively intact bureaucratic structure, and thereby would be able to ensure the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity. Second, and relatedly, Turkey believed that it was critical for the maintenance of a strong and centralized Syrian state.
This approach was ultimately based on Ankara’s concerns about Kurdish autonomy in Syria’s northern territories. Thus, from the outset, one strand of Ankara’s Syria policy was linked to concerns about the empowerment of the PYD in the areas now known as Rojava. As the conflict dragged on, Turkey faced two inter-related problems. The gains made by the Turkish backed rebels eventually forced Assad to withdraw his forces from the Kurdish areas in mid-July 2012. Thus, on the one hand, Turkey’s policy of backing the rebels succeeded in putting pressure on the regime. Yet, on the other, that pressure led to the decision to abandon and cede territory to the Kurds Turkey was concerned about.
Enter the no-fly-zone/buffer zone proposal. The introduction of a buffer zone and a no-fly-zone would accomplish two things. First, it would create a series of safe havens in the Syrian side of the border to absorb refugees. This would help to ease the burden on Turkey and also provide an area for Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to (The policy appears to be based on the Ozal era endorsement of a safe have in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991). Second, the protection of the zone would require a no-fly-zone. That no-fly-zone would ground Assad’s air force. This would then even the playing field in other parts of the country, where Turkish backed rebels are still fighting against the regime.
Turkey has conditioned its support for the anti-ISIS coalition on the installation of a NFZ/Buffer Zone. It has done so for a number of reasons. Ankara blames Assad for ISIS. Thus, if you don’t take out Assad, ISIS will continue to have support in Syria. Second, the introduction of a NFZ would entail the targeting of the regime. This would help to bolster the rebels, while also contributing to Ankara’s end goal: regime change. Turkey therefore sees this as a critical part of what is calls its “comprehensive approach to ISIS.”
In reality, Turkey does not have an ISIS policy, nor a coherent strategy. Turkey has a set of demands. And those demands are all tied to Ankara’s idea that regime change is the answer to all that ails Syria. Take the Kurds, Ankara has a number of very good reasons to be concerned about the PYD. The group is linked to the PKK and the creation of autonomous zones in Syria does deprive Turkey of the strategic depth it obtained after Hafez al Assad decided in 1998 to boot Ocalan out of his Syrian sponsored safe haven in Kobane.
However, Rojava is now a reality. The Kurds in Syria have resisted the Turkish backed efforts to ally more closely with Massoud Barzani in Erbil, and have instead been working towards creating the facts on the ground for an autonomous region in Syria. These efforts will continue, regardless of the status of Kobane. The other two cantons, Cizre and Afrin are far stronger than Kobane and don’t appear as if they are in danger of falling any time soon.
The introduction of a NFZ would indirectly aid these two cantons. In other words, if a NFZ were established and coalition aircraft continued to hit Islamic State positions, one outcome would be the indirect strengthening of Rojava – and in theory, could provide a route for Kurds to reclaim lost territory in Kobane, and perhaps even unite the three cantons. This is why Turkey’s non-support for Kobane is short-sighted. To be clear, I am not saying Turkey should support the canton militarily. This is not a realistic policy alternative for Turkey.
However, Ankara should be more wary of its rhetoric. Erdogan’s equating of IS with the PKK is short-sighted and contributes to the narrative within Turkey’s Kurdish regions, as well as those in Syria, that Turkey supports IS against the Kurds. Instead, Ankara should opt for a middle ground. Rhetorical support for Kobane, paired with the opening of a humanitarian corridor to provide the enclave with food and medicine. That’s it. No weapons or guns. Just food, water, and medicine.
Turkey’s Syrian policy has seriously undermined its relationship with its own Kurdish population. The recent protests about Kobane are a result of this anger. Ankara has managed to keep that anger in check via the peace process and Ocalan’s calming words. Ocalan, in other words, has become a Turkish ally. Ankara has an incredible incentive to keep him on their side. The Rojava policy is risking that.
Turkey’s policy has thus far failed to account for the scores of Kurds from Turkey fighting with the YPG in Syria. These Kurds are often times brought back to Turkey for burial. The funerals are well attended, often times with Kurdish politicians in attendance. The fighters are labelled as ‘martyrs for Kurdistan’ and hailed has heroes of the resistance against IS. The AKP’s policies have resulted in these same Kurds accusing the government of supporting IS against the YPG. This is a very dangerous situation. The government’s rhetoric makes it worse.
At the very least, this has complicated the peace process. And, again, shows how Turkey’s policy is short sighted. The end state of the peace process is the granting of greater autonomy to Kurds in Turkey’s south east. The links between Turkish and Syrian Kurds were already strong. They are growing stronger via the shared sense of nationalism brought about the fighting in Rojava. Add to that the perception that the AKP supports IS, and you have the recipe for tension – and perhaps sustained clashes. The government needs to recognize this and take steps to address this potential threat.
The only way to do this is to sustain the peace process. This will require that Turkey gets comfortable with the idea of Rojava. And this means that they need to speak more forcefully about the plight of Kurds in Syria. It can’t be all about Assad anymore. He is part of the problem – perhaps the root cause of the problem as Turkey claims. But Turkey has a lot of problems in Syria. It is time to start dealing with them comprehensively, rather than linking them all to Assad and the coalition’s military campaign.
This will require a more nuanced strategy in Syria that segments the conflicts into numerous different parts. Ankara’s focus on Assad is fine. It should be thought of as the key stone holding the strategy together. However, Turkey should de-link its approach to the Kurds from this strategy and treat Rojava as extension of its on-going peace process with Ocalan. Otherwise, Turkey risks losing a lot of hard fought gains vis-a-vis its own Kurds in the near future.