Only peace between Turkey and the PKK can bring stability to northern Syria

Only peace between Turkey and the PKK can bring stability to northern Syria
Comment: If the Kurds in northern Syria and Turkey want real stability on both sides of the border, they must explore opportunities for a permanent peace agreement, argues Bashdar Ismaeel
6 min read
Syrian Kurds demonstrate against Turkish military operations in Erbil, Iraq in February 2018 [AFP]
Last week, Turkey and the United States inched closer to a lasting agreement over safe zones in North Eastern Syria. But the current geopolitical climate in Turkey and Syria makes it possible to go beyond stopgap measures and offers a unique passage for a new Kurdish peace initiative on both sides of the border that would help reach a more lasting solution.

The historic Kurdish peace opening in Turkey ended abruptly in 2015 but the years before came with unprecedented optimism of a peaceful settlement to the decades-old Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) struggle.

The failure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to secure a parliamentary majority in the national elections of 2015 were in contrast to the historic showing of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) who secured 80 seats. At the same time, the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forces, who Turkey allege to be an extension of the PKK, were making strong inroads against the Islamic State (IS) at the time.  With the support of US-led coalition air power, Kurdish territory and regional standing rapidly grew.

With the need to entice the Turkish right for political support, and with the alarm generated from YPG ascendancy in Syria, the peace talks collapsed.

Now, after 4 years of resurgent violence, thousands of deaths and deepening polarisation, the current political climate strengthens the prospect of a new reach out.

Also read: Elusive US-Turkey deal over Syrian safe zone complicated by S-400 crisis

As the recent provincial elections in Turkey showed, particularly, the triumph of the Republican People's Party (CHP) in Istanbul, the Kurdish card remains an important leverage for both the AKP and CHP.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Turkey continues to showcase its military might and readiness to invade the territories controlled by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), if the US fails to succumb to their demands over the safe zones or continues to support the Kurds.

After months of protracted negotiations, there was a hope of a breakthrough between Turkish and US military delegations in recent days over the safe zones with a joint statement declaring the establishment of joint command center “in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together”.

The details of the agreement remain vague such as the depth of the safe zone, how long the safe zone will last, the make-up of the joint patrols and Turkish air access over the area.

However, whilst the safe zones has been touted as a product of Turkish assertiveness and will be hailed as a victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it also benefits the Syrian Kurds.

The SDF position is currently one of reliance on US. Yet, Washington’s appetite for protecting the Kurds is far from certain, and worsened by a lack of a consistent Syrian policy. Moreover, it must be noted that US support for the Syrian Kurds derived from concerns over IS and whilst IS remains a danger, the picture on the ground has shifted.

Whilst the safe zones has been touted as a product of Turkish assertiveness and will be hailed as a victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it also benefits the Syrian Kurds

With key presidential elections around the corner, US President Donald Trump is unlikely to commit the same troops on a long-term basis that he has already vowed to withdraw in Syria.

Add since any safe zone deal is a means to an ends and not a long-term solution in itself, then the SDF must maneuver carefully.

With hostile relations with Turkey, far from amicable relations with the Syrian regime, relations limited to mutual convenience with Russia and Iran and lack of strong ties with the Kurdistan Region, the Syrian Kurds have to accept fresh approaches and compromises to protect their hard fought gains.

After all, how can a landlocked region survive politically and economically without regional allies? As the Turkish operation in Afrin in 2018 showed, the Kurds were quickly isolated as US remained silent and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was only willing to assist on conditions that suited his agenda.

Recent SDF negotiations with Assad have been slow, with Damascus of the view that Kurds stand in a weak and vulnerable position due to prospect of Turkish attacks and Trump's unpredictable Syrian policy and thus are biding their time to capitalise.

The Kurds have to tread carefully to maintain stability in their newly expanded lands, especially, with external actors willing to stoke tensions in the large number of mixed Arab-Kurdish areas now controlled by the SDF.

This goes back to the potential of a more amicable understanding between SDF and Turkey. The negotiations over the safe zones have seen the US mediate in indirect talks between the SDF and Ankara.

There are signs that the US encouragement for a reapproachment with the SDF contributed to the statement in May this year by imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was allowed access to a lawyer for the first time in 8 years, calling for the SDF to recognize Turkish sensitivities in Syria.

Ultimately, the prospect of any breakthrough of Turkish-SDF ties will always be linked to the PKK issue in Turkey. In fact, Ankara hosted a number of meetings with the prominent Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), around the time of PKK peace talks which ended just as soon as the PKK peace deal collapsed in 2015.

Ocalan has indicated a willingness to facilitate a new round of peace talks, declaring in a recent statement "Let’s resolve the Kurdish issue. I say I will remove the possibility of war within a week".

It’s questionable if Ocalan commands the same influence over the PKK or Kurds in general as before, but he remains a symbolic figure and a key leverage that AKP can use.

In spite of the results of recent provincial elections, the AKP remains in a dominant political position, but against a backdrop of social division, economic troubles and threat of CHP power, it cannot take the next national and presidential elections for granted and for that Erdogan must count on Kurdish votes.

AKP is not ready for any publicised reach out to the same PKK that has formed top of its domestic and foreign agenda in recent years, and progress may be slow and veiled as per last peace talks, but new political climate has at least allowed for this channel to be re-explored.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.