September 18, 2013

American-Turkish Policy Towards Syria: A Tough Balancing Act

Below is an excerpt from, "In Kurdish Syria, a Different War," by Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero, published in Foreign Policy In Focus on September 5, 2013.
As the majority of Syria’s oil and gas reserves exist in northeastern Syria, the stakes are high for both sides. The geopolitical ramifications of an established autonomous Kurdish region—or independent Kurdish state—in northeastern Syria are complicated. From Turkey’s vantage point, a PKK-run Syrian Kurdistan would constitute a major setback given the likelihood that the PKK would utilize the territory to launch attacks against the Turkish state (especially if the ongoing Turkey-PKK peace talks fail and the ruling leaders in Damascus and Ankara remain in power for the near to medium term). Turkish officials are naturally concerned about the prospects of Turkey’s own Kurdish minority demanding greater autonomy from Ankara after being inspired by their Kurdish counterparts in Syria. That said, after the Gulf War, Turkey feared a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, yet the KRG eventually became one of Turkey’s closest Middle Eastern allies.

For Turkey to form a similar alliance with any semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Syria, the ongoing peace talks with the PKK would need to succeed (an unlikely prospect in the near term), or a pro-Turkish rival of the PKK would need to assume power in northeastern Syria (also an unlikely outcome given that the PYD is more heavily armed than its Kurdish rivals). For the time being, Ankara has supported jihadist militias in northern Syria not only to weaken the Assad regime, but also to weaken the PKK/PYD. However, Turkey is playing a dangerous game, as the establishment of a PKK/PYD-run Kurdish state along its border may prove to be less hostile than an al-Qaeda-run Islamic emirate on the other side of the border. For now, Turkey has hedged its bets.

The ongoing battle between Kurdish forces and al-Qaeda’s Syria-based branches poses a difficult challenge for the United States. Wary of alienating its NATO ally Turkey, Washington has vested interests in the Syrian state’s survival in a post-Assad era, and thus opposes a semi-autonomous or independent Kurdish state in northeastern Syria. However, the United States also has no interest in al-Qaeda affiliate groups maintaining control of a strip of land on NATO’s Middle Eastern doorstep.

Washington could certainly benefit from gaining additional allies in the region. Given the pro-American orientation of Barzani’s KRG, the Obama administration would be wise to establish ties with Syria’s Kurds, given that the tide may continue to turn in the Kurds’ direction over the long-term. If Western states decide to provide the Islamist rebels with more advanced weaponry that ends up being used against the PYD, this could sour Washington’s relationship with an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan in the future. There is little evidence that this has been considered by the Western countries arming the rebels.

Like their Iraqi counterparts, Syria’s Kurds have sought to break free amid their country’s chaos and violence. From their perspective, an independent Kurdish state was promised, but not delivered, by the powers that won World War I. Almost a century later, they smell a genuine opportunity for greater autonomy, and possibly independence. For generations, the Kurds’ alliances have fluctuated given the region’s fluid geopolitical developments and their need to play off their host governments’ evolving tensions.