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Syria Deeply Asks: What Impact Will the PKK Ceasefire Call Have on Turkish Relations with Syria’s Kurds?

As a regular feature, inspired by your questions about the Syria conflict, we’ve rounded up answers from some of the top minds in our network. If you’d like to submit a question for us to tackle send it to *[email protected]**.*.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Question: What impact will the PKK ceasefire call have on Turkish relations with Syria’s Kurds?

Dr. Denise Natali, Kurdistan region expert at the Washington-based Institute for National Strategic Studies:

What the ceasefire is doing for the PKK [formally, the terrorist-labeled Kurdish Workers’ Party] and the PYD [the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an ally of the PKK] is requiring them to retrench or re-strategize. The PKK ceasefire and Turkey’s attempts to address its Kurdish issue is occurring while the international community is increasing aid to the Syria opposition. These two trends are not good for the PKK and PYD [in Syria].  There is some tacit understanding by [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad to allow the PKK and PYD to function in northern Syria. They weren’t able to take these territories without the retrenchment of the Assad regime.

If there were to be regime change and the Muslim Brotherhood and its SNC support base were to emerge, that would undermine the PYD position, as would the PKK stepping back. The PYD can deal with a ceasefire while Assad is strong and the Syrian opposition is weak. What they can’t have is a stronger Syrian opposition and a weak PKK. You can have one or the other but not same time. The PYD is in a difficult situation. It has not lost power, but has to start recalculating its nearer term future. If you have strong Syria opposition and a PKK willing to ceasefire, where is its backing? The PYD is trying to re-strategize what alternatives there will be if Assad goes and if the SNC emerges. Who are going to be their allies in the case that the PKK wouldn’t be there?

But even if there is ceasefire, there is another thing reinforcing the PYD – the radicalization of rebel groups. The Ras al-Ayn events [Islamist fighters came across the Turkish border and invaded a majority Kurdish town with force] empowered the PYD. Some would rather have the PYD than radical Islamic groups. And the only ones willing to take on the radicals are the PYD. Kurds in Syria are largely secular. Even if Turkey resolves its PKK issue, as long as Turkey is supporting these Islamic groups, the Kurds in Syria will still be mobilized against radical Islamists.

Hugh Pope, Turkey expert at the International Crisis Group:

The ceasefire already has [made an impact]. We have seen statements by the Turkish foreign minister saying that there are more or less workable conditions for relations with the PYD. The conditions are that they are against the Damascus regime… and there should be no support for terrorism in Turkey. And you can see that the Muslim PYD leader in his statements has been open to some kind of contact. Turkey will only speak to factions in Syria that fulfill this criteria.

Turkey cannot have a healthy relationship with Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds until it has sorted out its own domestic Kurdish issue. The main reason that Turkey has entered into a new process with the PKK is the belief that [PKK leader] Abullah Ocalan can deliver peace.

If Turkey and the PKK come to some settlement, it is not going to be overnight, but it is going to reduce tensions on the border with the PYD. We have already seen the PYD starting to fight the Syrian regime forces. A new phenomenon is that there is closer coordination with the Syrian opposition and the PYD since Turkey started this process with the PKK.

The leading issue is the domestic Turkish one, and the Syrian Kurdish problem is a subset of that. Syrian Kurds are so close to Turkish Kurds the relationship could improve dramatically and quickly. The PYD is the best organized group in northern Syria and could become a key ally for Turkey. The advantage would be to have a group capable of controlling that territory.

Joshua Landis, author of the ‘Syria Comment’ blog and director of Oklahoma University’s Middle East Studies Center:

I think it will have a big impact. Turkey and Syria are in competition for the loyalty of the Kurds. Assad started the rebellion by playing the minority card, and he handed over the northeast largely to the PKK when he withdrew. He is counting on the traditional enmity of the PKK towards Turkey to weaken the rebellion. The more minorities he can exclude from the rebellion, the better for him. This seemed to be working in the beginning, because the PKK was not only neutral but acting to undermine other Kurdish groups that might line up with their Sunni Arab brothers.

[Turkish president] Erdogan understood that Kurdish anger was undermining his position. Erdogan had to sit down with Ocalan recently, which was a big compromise. Here is a jailed leader of terrorist group and he’s negotiating with him. It is related to Erdogan wanting to be president of Turkey, first and foremost. His promotion of the Syrian revolution backfired on him. He thought it would be a quick win and Turkey would be the backer of a new Muslim Brotherhood government in Syria. None of that happened and Syria settled into this quagmire civil war, which upset not only Turkey’s Kurds and Shiites, and also the people on the border that have to put up with hundreds of thousands of refugees. It has destroyed commerce along the border, so it has hurt a lot of people inside Turkey.

Making an alliance with the Kurds and settling differences with the PKK seemed the only way to ensure his election. But the PKK still has a role inside Syria. It is armed, militant and requires a lot of discipline from its followers. There is going to be a struggle. Kurds were horrified when they saw Turkey was running ratline of jihadists into Kurdistan. Turkey became tacit allies with Al-Qaeda… and this scared the United States, the Kurds and Turkey itself. Once the United States drew the line on Jabhat al-Nusra, this raised the heat on Turkey to change their attitude. Turkey can’t deepen its alliance with Jabhat al-nusra while the United States regards it as a terrorist organization.

This laid the ground work for Erdogan’s rapprochement with the PKK, because both sides scared each other and rather than let things spire out of control. They sat down and hammed out an agreement: greater autonomy for the Kurds, and perhaps to get on the side of autonomy for Syrian Kurds and try to follow same model Turkey used in Iraq. Today most Turks see the Iraqi Kurdistan alliance as a fundamental building block of Turkey’s policy in the Levant. And we can’t underestimate the importance of oil. Turkey wants to set itself up as alternative supplier of gas and oil to Eastern Europe. With Syria on fire, the only way for Syrian Kurds to sell their oil will be through Turkey.

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