Abandoning the Kurdish peace process may prove a high price to pay for Turkish support against Islamic State.
Over the past several days Turkey has taken unprecedented steps in support of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition. After years of being hesitant to confront IS, Turkey has now bombed the group in Syria for the first time, arrested suspected IS members in Turkey, and conceded to a longstanding US request – the use of the Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against IS.
But Ankara’s sudden offensive spirit has another target, too: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On Friday, Turkish jets hit PKK militants based in Iraq for the first time in years, leading many to declare the shaky two-year ceasefire between the two sides effectively over. Concurrent with the IS arrests, Turkish authorities arrested scores - likely hundreds - of Kurds who they allege to be suspected PKK members inside Turkey. Turkish authorities, enabled by broad anti-terrorism legislation that criminalises membership in an armed organisation, have in the past used such waves of arrest to target non-militant Kurdish politicians, activists and journalists.
Ankara fears that the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, are busy establishing a PKK-run statelet along its border with Syria that would pose an even greater national security threat than IS.
This has brought the fragile but until now relatively promising peace process between Turkey and the PKK to the brink. Less than 24 hours after Turkish planes hit PKK bases in Iraq, two Turkish soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb near Lice, a town in south-east Turkey.
US officials deny that there is any link between Turkey’s sudden cooperative spirit with the anti-IS coalition and its renewed aggression against the PKK, but for most observers, the simultaneous timing rules out the possibility of a total coincidence. Several reports suggest that the US has agreed to “turn a blind eye” to Turkish military action against the PKK in Iraq and against its sister party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkish forces have reportedly also now shelled a village controlled by the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, in northern Syria.
Ankara fears that the PYD/YPG are busy establishing a PKK-run statelet along its border with Syria that could pose an equal or even greater national security threat than IS. For their part the Kurds now fear that Turkey will use its fight against IS in Syria as a cover to further target the PYD/YPG to block its quest to gain control of additional territory in northern Syrian to link Afrin, its westernmost area of control, to Kobani further east. Turkey’s reported call for a “partial no-fly zone” stretching from Marea to Jarablus appears to corroborate this theory.
Although the use of Incirlik can significantly improve the logistics of launching coalition airstrikes, experience has shown that such strikes work best when coordinated with a capable and willing ground partner.
It is unlikely that Turkey would militarily target the PYD/YPG without a nod from Washington, given that the US has for months been relying on the Kurdish group as a key ground partner to the anti-IS coalition. The coalition’s work with the PYD/YPG has resulted in some of the most important gains against IS in Syria, namely in Kobani and Tel Abyad.
Turkish military action against PKK fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, many of whom end up in Syria fighting as part of the YPG, will clearly complicate US coordination with the PYD/YPG. Turkish military action against the PYD/YPG in Syria would constitute an even bigger blow to this collaboration. Although the use of Incirlik can significantly improve the logistics of launching coalition airstrikes, experience has shown that such strikes work best when coordinated with a capable and willing ground partner.
Additionally, Turkish action against the PKK in Iraq risks deepening divisions among the Kurds themselves. Tensions have already spiked over Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s assertion on Saturday that he received KDP leader Massoud Barzani’s explicit support to carry out the strikes on the PKK in Iraq. The suggestion that a Kurdish leader would sanction an attack on another Kurdish group outraged many Kurds across the political spectrum, until KDP officials issued a statement contradicting Davutoglu’s claims. The PKK and the KDP are long-time rivals, but they are now fighting IS in some of the same areas in north-western Iraq and, as of last year, in Kobani. More animosity between the two will only result in a less coordinated Kurdish fight against IS in these areas.
Abandoning the relatively promising peace process in Turkey…may prove a very high price to pay for greater Turkish cooperation against IS.
Abandoning the PKK-Turkey peace process may now also entail consequences beyond Turkey’s borders. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the PKK has emerged as a powerful transnational player. It has transformed the PYD and the YPG into the dominant political and military Kurdish powers inside Syria, and has garnered unprecedented popular support in Iraqi Kurdistan due to its active role in fighting IS in parts of Iraq. A breakdown in the PKK-Turkey peace process would not only risk destabilising south-eastern Turkey, but could also therefore invite a new dimension of conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey is a key Western ally, whereas the PYD/YPG is but one piece of the Syrian puzzle. There is no equivalence between the two in terms of their overall strategic value to Europe and the US, even if the PYD has focused more on narrowly on fighting IS. But abandoning the relatively hopeful peace process in Turkey and thereby risking the reintroduction of another conflict into a region already being wrecked by war, and compromising the anti-IS coalition’s fruitful working relationship with the PYD/YPG, may prove a very high price to pay for greater Turkish cooperation against IS.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.