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Kurdish Expansion is Changing Ankara’s Priorities

As Kurdish militias in northern Syria steadily take on greater importance, largely due to U.S. and Russian support, Turkey has quickly changed its priorities within the crisis. Syria Deeply spoke with Gokhan Bacik about the YPG’s expansion amid the chaos in Aleppo and the growing tensions in Turkey.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 13 minutes

Turkey’s strategy in the Syrian crisis has shifted dramatically over the past six months, from a four-year-long focus on regime change to a fixation on preventing any sort of Kurdish autonomy along its border, said an expert on Turkish-Syria relations.

U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria are taking advantage of the ongoing government offensive in Aleppo to expand their territorial holdings along the Syrian-Turkish border, overtly coordinating their movements against rebel and extremist groups with the Russian air force.

“There is one fact we should understand. In terms of international relations, there is a border. It’s on the map. But in terms of war, in terms of sociology, in terms of other social facts, that border is no longer functioning. It’s a dead border,” said Gokhan Bacik, a Turkish academic.

“There is Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, and on the other side of the border, there is a fight for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish area … they are connected demographically, sociologically and politically.”

Bacik said the the growing importance of the Kurds in Syria, combined with their deep connections to Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, has changed Ankara’s priorities in the Syrian crisis.

“If you go back to 2011 or early 2012, Turkey was saying that the priority was a regime change, toppling Assad. That has changed,” said Bacik. “Right now, Turkey’s biggest goal is to prevent Kurds from becoming a recognized autonomous region in Syria. That’s its primary goal.”

Syria Deeply spoke with Bacik about the Kurd’s endgame in Syria, the YPG’s territorial conquest amid the chaos in Aleppo, the importance of the Azaz corridor, and the direct links between Kurdish autonomy in Syria and the renewed Kurdish unrest in Turkey.

Syria Deeply: In your view, what is the Kurdish endgame in Syria? Is it a federalist system in Syria or is it an independent Kurdish state?

Gokhan Bacik: Well, it’s difficult, but philosophically I say it’s an independent state, but Kurds are quite realistic people compared to other political units in the region.

Since the Iraqi war, they are more open to understanding global realities, so my feeling is that the best endgame for the Kurds is a kind of autonomous region. I don’t know if it could be a federal system. They want to use the Syrian crisis in a way that is going to make their political position even more autonomous, which is correlated with Kurdish identity. So I don’t know if it’s going to be federal or if it’s going to be autonomous, but their major aim is to benefit from this crisis in a way that will help them move forward in creating this kind of locally, regionally and globally organized Kurdish political entity.

But it’s too early to speculate about its nature. It could be autonomous; it could be kind of quasi-autonomous, but the realistic and political purpose is to have a kind of political Kurdish entity with a very strong autonomousleadership.

Syria Deeply: So they will wait to see where this chaos leads and they’ll try to exploit it as much as possible?

Gokhan Bacik: That’s right. Since the Iraqi crisis, it is very clear that Kurdish politics approaches problems in a two-level way. The first is the problem in the country, for example the Iraqi crisis or the Syrian crisis, but along with that they always follow their own agenda, the Kurdish agenda.

So, on one hand, they try to focus on their internal domestic problems,but on the other hand, they also always focus on the broader Kurdish agenda. The Kurdish people, no matter where they are, have not forgotten this second point, the endgame being legitimate, legal autonomy.

In any case, they need Damascus. There must a kind of deal between the global system and Damascus to give Kurdish autonomy, as happened in the Iraqi case. The Kurds, unlike Turkey, unlike other groups, know that either it will be Assad or someone else, but in the end, they must remain in good contact with whoever rulesSyria. I don’t think in the short term they will come up with a very sharp idea of independence, so for the short term, they’re focusing more on autonomy within Syria. They know that their situation with regard to Damascus is different when compared to other groups. Other groups don’t have a federalist agenda. I don’t think ISIS has a federalist agenda. With ISIS, their ultimate goal is regime change in all of Syria. The Kurds are not interested in that.

Syria Deeply: Is this why the Kurds have maintained a relationship with the Assad government? What do you say to accusations from the majority of the opposition that the Kurds are working hand in hand with Assad?

Gokhan Bacik: I don’t think it’s hand in hand, but it’s within the limits of informal diplomacy. But it’s not only the Kurds.I am sure some Western actors are somehow dealing with the Assad regime because there is one problem: what is the major difference between ISIS and any other radical group? It’s territorial control. So the basic question is: who will reclaim territory from ISIS? It’s not enough to fight ISIS in terms of arms smuggling, in terms of equipment: there’s a physical aspect, a territorial claim. So here you have two opportunities: one is the Assad regime; the other is the Kurds. I don’t think there is a Free Syrian Army with the capacity to push ISIS back. So I can imagine that there is a kind of ongoing behind-the-scenes contact with all groups, including the Kurds, and Assad. So I would not be surprised, but I don’t think it is hand in hand. That would be quite an exaggeration.

I don’t think in the long term that the Kurds and Assad are perfect allies. They are probably somehow realizing the necessities. What makes them friends? For example, right now, it is Russia. Is it ideology? I don’t think so. Is it some kind of ideas? I don’t think so. It’s necessities. Lots of power on the ground … So, in that case, it will not be surprising to see Kurds with a direct or indirect dialogue with the Assad regime. Even for Assad it might be a departure strategy to keep the Kurds within the Syrian game in exchange for a kind of autonomy at some point later on. I don’t have proof that they are actually planning to do that, but it would not surprise me. All these facts make the Assad regime and the Kurds natural allies, just like we’re observing in the case of Russia.

Syria Deeply: As the situation in Aleppo escalates, what are the chances of a direct Russian-Turkish conflict in Syria and what part does the PYD/YPG play in exacerbating those chances?

Gokhan Bacik: Look, a typical professor of international politics would never say that Russia and Turkey will fight each other, but the problem is that all wars are surprising at the start. So realistically, I wouldn’t say Turkey would try to challenge Russia directly but on the other had, comparatively speaking, if we analyze all events since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it is somehow likely right now because Turkey seems to be obsessed with the Syrian problem in terms of not permitting any kind of Kurdish autonomy.

So Turkey, if you ask me, is willing to do whatever is necessary to stop that. So I would never imagine saying that it could create war … but honestly and realisticallyspeaking, it is likely. Likely doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but given all the ongoing factors on the ground, it is the time when one can say it is the most likely situation.

Syria Deeply: What would bring that about? What are the chances that Turkey unilaterally enters Syria and creates the 10km buffer zone that they’ve been talking about?

Gokhan Bacik: Based on what I’ve seen in Ankara, there are some signs that Turkey is thinking about [sending troops into Syria], but it is failing to find satisfactory global support from its allies, from the U.S., from other European countries, NATO countries … But the question is very simple: does Turkey believes that the Kurdish situation is getting to a point where it would become no longer possible to push them back? It’s a kind of level of recognition, a kind of de facto reality. If Turkey calculates that it’s time to stop [the Kurds] or it will never be possible [to stop them] again, then I don’t know what Turkey’s reaction would be at the time.

But unilateral action by Turkey into Syria is very difficult because it may destabilize Turkey’s Kurdish regions. We don’t know how people would react to that. Turkey is trying its best to persuade its allies, but it has failed. I don’t think the Europeans are going to go for it because the European approach toward the Syrian crisis is only focused on the refugee problem. As long as Turkey stands as an agent to stop that problem, they’ll never agree to send troops into Syria.

The idea of creating a safe zone is very idealistic. It’s very difficult. It’s a 900-kilometer border. Are you talking about a safe zone that stretches from east to west covering all of this area? It’s very difficult. You would need tons of airplanes; you need soldiers on the ground. So it’s very costly. Strategically, militarily, it’s very difficult.

The second point is the war on the ground is not a traditional conventional war. There are cities, villages; there are small groups, civilians. So I don’t know how to make that work.

The problem is that the Russian intervention changed the nature of the Syrian crisis. So the rules of the game are now defined by Russia. It is Russia who will decide if it turns into a conventional war. Russia seems to poised to make a move against Turkey. I think it is Russia who will determine how things are going to continue.

Syria Deeply: What is the importance both for Turkey and for the Syrian Kurdish militias of the Azaz region and that last corridor towards Turkey?

Gokhan Bacik: Let me speak from the Syrian perspective. The Syrian regime has a very well-studied strategic map. For example, when they feel they’ve properly secured themselves in Damascus, they begin to focus on Homs, then comes Aleppo, and so on. So sometimes, for strategic reasons, the Syrian regime has not paid attention to Aleppo, for example because, in terms of survival, Aleppo is not a leading city for the Syrian regime. If you focus on Syrian geopolitics, the west part of the country – not Deir Ezzor, not Aleppo – is key to the regime’s survival in terms of urban and Alawite demography, in terms of energy systems, in terms of transportation and in terms of the Russian strategic presence on the shores of the west part of Jabal Sahliya, the Sahliya mountains.

When it comes to Azaz, it’s critical, because Azaz is roughly 13 to 14 kilometers from the Turkish border. So if you take Azaz and the adjacent areas around Azaz, then you become an authority that controls virtually all the area between Aleppo and Turkey.

This is critical for Turkey because it would read that as a fatal blow to its strategy. Turkey believes that if that area is controlled by the Kurds, it will be paralyzed. There are many Turkish-backed groups in the area. Imagine their psychology, they were bombed by Russia and Turkey was doing nothing. If they lose physical contact with Turkey, then they may change their minds about Turkey.

We should focus on the Syrian crisis based on group psychology. If groups on the ground don’t find their backers satisfactory, they’ll look for someone else to support them; maybe not changing their allegiance, but they would lose motivation. So if Kurds start controlling the Azaz area and some other cities, the physical connection between Turkey and the groups it supports will be lost.

Turkey, in order to continue its conventional Syrian strategy, needs to keep that part of Syria out of control of the Kurdish groups. But the problem is Turkey desperately needs an air operation to stop them. Shelling is not enough. Turkey uses an out-of-date, Turkish-made shelling system, which is not very effective. They are trying to target small groups of fighters. The YPG do not fight en masse. They employ 25 to 30 fighters in specific areas that they know very well. They move very quickly. Shelling is not efficient. But they can’t use air strikes because the Russian air force is operating in the same area. It’s a tough situation. Turkey is faced with two major problems: it needs to persuade its allies and it needs to find a way to open a dialogue with Russia.

When it comes to Aleppo I think it is a psychological litmus test because, after the Russian intervention, the Syrian army has been reclaiming territory. In my personal calculation, if Russia keeps supporting the Assad regime in this way and there is no major change from Western powers until the end of 2016, the regime could reclaim 80% of all Syrian territory. This is psychological. If Assad reclaims Aleppo and then 80% of the land, the global perception will change, international perception will be different, as well as local psychology. It would be a huge psychological victory for the Assad regime. So Aleppo is, of course, critical territory, but more than that, I think it’s the psychological edge of the whole story.

Syria Deeply: Why are Syrian Kurds so set on pushing through Azaz despite being hit quite heavily?

Gokhan Bacik: If you look at it geographically, that piece of land is critical for Kurdish groups to make a, let’s say, continued organizational structure with its other areas. It is a hub area. It is the piece of land that any group needs to consolidate its presence around the region. Any group that wants to remain in that area and challenge ISIS needs Azaz. That is why it has changed hands so often – from al-Qaeda linked groups, for example, to ISIS and then to the rebels. So the Kurds desperately want that area, and Turkey desperately wants the Kurds cleaned out because it’s a very good place to organize military activities in adjacent areas. All groups want Azaz because of its strategic placement. But from the Turkish perspective, there is a second reason. If Turkey lost the area, it has no way of directly influencing events on the ground. Imagine, you cannot send troops, you cannot use air operations, you can’t send in aid or weapons …

The loss of Azaz for Turkey means Turkey’s isolation from influencing the Syrian crisis. It’s a big point. The second point is, even though Americans do not make it public, that some people believe that, for radical groups like ISIS, Azaz has played a key role. So if the radicals lose Azaz, many think that it’s going to be a big blow in terms of logistics. If Kurds take over Azaz, it would be a blow to ISIS-like groups, so that is why Americans might be happy to see Kurds rather than ISIS ruling the area.

Azaz is the heartbeat, symbolically speaking, of the Syria-Turkish border. If the rebels lose control, many groups will be left without any supply routes.

Syria Deeply: If the Kurds take Azaz, and there is no rapprochement between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds, what is the likelihood of a civil war in Turkey?

Gokhan Bacik: The Syrian problem is becoming very difficult for Turkey for many reasons. As I said previously, Turkey fears the Kurds are on the rise. But your question is really about the PKK. In Turkey, especially over the past six months, there have been some urban fights between Turkish military forces and some Kurdish units. This is unprecedented. I have never seen such images. Turkey has been battling with the PKK for the last 20 years, but these images are reminding of us of the Lebanon-style, Iraqi-style ground fights … But the PKK still isn’t on the ground. The units that are fighting against the Turkish army are the young, recently recruited urban units. So the key question is will the PKK stay silent, or, if they jump into the game, how will it change Kurdish public opinion or the general opinion in Turkey?

Some of the key guys from the PKK have given interviews to international and Turkish media referring to some kind of plan that they may even enter the fray in early spring. I don’t know. My impression is that as long as the fight between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria continues, it will continue to destabilize Turkey’s Kurdish region.

There is one fact we should understand. In terms of international relations, there is a border. It’s on the map. But in terms of war, in terms of sociology, in terms of other social facts, that border is no longer functioning. It’s a dead border.

There is Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, and on the other side of the border, there is a fight for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish area … they are connected demographically, sociologically and politically. The connections, the families, the people who know each other, the daily interaction between Turkey’s Kurds and Rojava are beyond our understanding. It’s very lively. It’s very dynamic. It could easily destabilize Turkey. All we need to do is to look at how Turkey’s goals in Syria have changed. If you go back to 2011 or early 2012, Turkey was saying that the priority was a regime change, toppling Assad. That has changed. Right now, Turkey’s biggest goal is to prevent Kurds from becoming a recognized autonomous region in Syria. That’s its primary goal. The problem is we have ISIS, so it is very difficult to orchestrate an international community in line with Turkey on this problem. I don’t think there is any other state to share this priority.

Syria Deeply: Is Washington choosing the Kurds over Turkey right now?

Gokhan Bacik: It’s not like that, but the problem is the one mistake Ankara is making is trying to impose its [will] … For example, they want America to choose a side: are they with the Turks or the YPG? This is not a way of diplomacy. You cannot do that, plus you should not do it to America. I mean, it’s a superpower. I don’t think Americans are happy to see their allies trying to impose an “either or.” Any student of political science would not suggest doing so. America is very realistic. I don’t think they will stop thinking about Turkey, but on the other hand, when you go in detail, when you read the text of any American speech, you will realize that Kurds have become one step closer to autonomy. It’s very clear.

Now can you imagine Turkey is trying to persuade its allies in NATO that the PYD is a terrorist group, but almost a year before, Nesrin Abdullah, the commander of the YPG’s women’s section, the YPJ, was received by the French president at the Elysee Palace wearing her military attire. This says a lot. Major western players made their decision about the PYD more than a year ago. I don’t think America is choosing the PYD over Turkey, but on the other hand, I don’t think America is going to stop supporting it.

Top image: A Syrian Kurdish militia member of YPG patrols near a Turkish army tank in the village of Esme village in Aleppo province on Feb. 22, 2015. (Associated Press)

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