Turkey must rethink its relationship with the Kurdish population
In addition to being subjected to an economic embargo imposed by Turkey and its local allies in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds in Syria are also facing ongoing terrorist attacks by jihadist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012, Turkey has strongly opposed Kurdish interests in Syria, which increasingly alienated Kurds from the Syrian opposition and pushed them towards pursuing a more distinct Kurdish front.
Indeed, Turkey’s imposition of the embargo on the Kurdish regions of Syria, also known as Rojava, and its alleged support of Sunni Arab groups including fundamentalists fighting in Syria were at least partly motivated by Turkey’s desire to prevent the Syrian Kurdish population near its border from achieving any self-rule.
This continuing Turkish paranoia that Kurdish gains in Iraq, Syria, or Iran would further incite Turkey’s own Kurdish population has influenced policies towards Kurds throughout the history of the Republic of Turkey. Yet, throughout the last two centuries, each time a Kurdish movement was crushed, whether militarily or through racist politics and politics of coercion, it revived soon after, and often with more momentum. On the other hand, any acknowledgement of Kurdish existence and rights on Turkey’s part has ended positively for Turkey, as has been proven in the last 13 months through the ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Is it not time for Turkey to universally change its strategy towards Kurds?
Granted, the current government in Turkey should be credited with realizing the necessity of political reform with regard to the Kurdish issue and embarking on the historic peace process. Still, it is not reasonable for Turkey to hope for peace with the people on one side of the arbitrary colonial border with Syria and punish those on the other side. After all, the PKK clearly has direct influence on Rojava. In fact, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose forces control most of Rojava, is openly affiliated with the PKK.
Moreover, it is strategically in Turkey’s best interest to accept the PYD’s existence, a force that shares more than half of Turkey’s 910 km border with Syria. If nothing else, if jihadist groups gain more ground in northeast Syria, not only Kurds, Turkey too will be at a great risk of terrorism. Indeed, the ISIS has already started to jeopardize Turkish security, both along the border with Syria and further inland.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s border with the PYD has so far been the most stable (aside from attacks launched on the Rojava cantons by jihadists). Surely a stable Kurdish administration would be much more reliable for Turkey’s security than the rule of terror imposed by jihadists such as the ISIS.
Economically, as well, Turkey is in a position to gain from collaborating with Kurds in Rojava just as it has benefited from accepting the de facto Kurdish autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan. The latter decision has proved to be extremely advantageous for Turkey, resulting in an energy partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan and a major market for Turkish products and labor.
By lifting the embargo on Rojava and discontinuing its support of jihadists – if it has not already – Turkey would also win the trust of Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, as a show of sincerity in light of the peace process. By virtue of being the most stable state in a region that is becoming engulfed in sectarian wars, and being home to the majority of Kurds, Turkey has a unique opportunity to play a deciding role in the future of the Kurdish issue. None of the other states that claim parts of Kurdistan within their borders (Iraq, Iran, and Syria) is even remotely in such a position to be able to win the alliance of Kurds at large.
In short, Rojava represents a crossroad in Turkish politics between continuing hostility towards Kurds, leaving one of the major nations in the Middle East with no choice but to seek other means of survival, and allowing the Kurdish enterprise in Rojava to flourish, thus increasing Turkey’s economic and political stability. On Turkey’s part, lifting the embargo and supporting peace in Rojava would take no more than a courageous decision to put racist ideology aside.