In recent weeks the crisis over the beleaguered Syrian city of Kobane has been a major focus of world headlines, leading to increased scrutiny of Turkey’s policies toward Syria and Kobane in particular. To understand Turkey’s reluctance to intervene in Kobane, it is important to retrace the steps of Turkey’s evolving stance on Syria and to examine its regional interests.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria, decision makers in Turkey, just as everywhere else, talked about the future of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and whether or not it would survive. The Erdogan government, for its part, saw developments in Syria as an opportunity for regime change and anticipated the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across its border. As the Assad regime continued to survive in the following months and years, the government in Ankara often encouraged the Syrian government to make reforms to allow for a peaceful regime change (Hurriyet Daily News, May 17, 2011).
Syria was however dragged into a bloody civil war, which rapidly activated the dormant ethnic, religious and sectarian fault lines in the country and led rapidly to rival groups turning violently on each other. Thinking that Assad would fall quickly, the Erdogan government opened its borders to refugees and provided a safe haven for opposition groups. However, the Assad regime defied these predictions and did not fall. Though its influence within Syria is now limited, it has managed to maintain control over Damascus and several other regions of the country. As the civil war ravaged the country’s infrastructure, close to 200,000 persons died and more than 9 million people were made homeless (Rudaw, October 9).
Syria’s Kurds and the Civil War
A brief historic background is required to understand the competition between various Kurdish groups in Syria’s civil war and their choices and strategies. Organized political movements among Syrian Kurds started in the 1960s with Molla Mustafa Barzani’s illegal Syrian Kurdistan Democracy Party. The Syrian government, not wanting this movement to grow in strength, instead created space for an alternative Kurdish movement to take shape. This opportunity was seized by Abdullah Öcalan’s Marxist/Leninist, pro-Soviet armed group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane – PKK). The PKK was established in Turkey in 1973 and subsequently expanded its influence into Syria, particularly following Öcalan’s flight from Turkey to Syria in 1979. Ocalan would live in Syria for the following 20 years. During this time, his group was active among Syria’s Kurds, recruiting, expanding its logistical links and developing powerful networks among Syria’s Kurds, with minimal interference from Damascus. It also sent young Syrians into Turkey to fight against the Turkish Army and gave them positions of responsibility in the PKK.
While Turkey pressured Syria to expel Ocalan in 1998, the PKK’s relations with the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian regime went through several ups and downs until the advent of the recent civil war. In addition, in 2003, Turkey had a falling out with the United States because the Turkish government did not allow coalition troops passage during the invasion of Iraq. The PKK used this opportunity to form various groups that would conduct activities in Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Syrian group, effectively the Syrian arm of the PKK, was called the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat – PYD).
When the Syrian civil war came, it would be no exaggeration to say that of all the Syrian opposition groups, the PKK was the only one to have a clear reading of developments, a defined set of goals and the knowledge and capabilities to achieve them. In part, this was because the group had followed Mao’s famous “protracted people’s war” strategy since its foundation in 1973. This meant that it had a well-developed understanding of an insurgency’s organizational, timing and spatial (geographic) aspects. The movement also had a well-trained, experienced and fully indoctrinated militia cadre behind it, seasoned by the PKK’s 40 years of waging guerilla war against Turkey from inside Syria.
The PKK accordingly seems to have established its Syria strategy on four basic pillars. The first was to continue an implicit relationship with the Assad regime. The second was to sideline any Kurdish groups that rejected the PKK’s authority. The third was to occupy a territory that was as large as possible while still being militarily defensible and to defeat or pacify any Arab tribes that would oppose this. The fourth was to politically organize the villages and cities in this area according to the people’s protracted warfare strategy.
The PKK has to this day not been in direct armed conflict with the Assad regime and the Assad regime still maintains a military presence in some PKK controlled areas. The roots of this arrangement can be traced back to the above relations developed during the Cold War between the PKK, Syria and the then Soviet Union. The other likely reason that the PKK did not direct its resources against the Assad regime in the first days of the uprising was that it remained comparatively weak from a military and political standpoint. Instead of fighting, it instead used the time to strengthen its organization. It was also not important to the PKK whether the Sunni rebels or Assad would win in the civil war. According to the PKK’s political calculation, if Assad won, the PKK would reap the rewards of its implicit cooperation. However, if the Sunni Arabs won, the PKK calculated that by then it would have grown strong enough to defend its interests.
From the first days of the Syrian uprising, however, the PKK fought against any other Kurdish groups that might have opposed it in the area where it intended to establish its authority. These other Kurdish political organizations numbered around 14, including some that had been largely inactive for some time. During this initial period, the PKK’s greatest opponent in this race for the leadership of the Syrian Kurds was Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose bid for the leadership of the Syrian Kurds was supported by Turkey. Gradually, however, Barzani lost out to the PKK in this competition.
The Kurds compose a local majority in three areas in northern Syria, Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin. The PKK viewed these areas from the perspective of military geography and tried to broaden the areas under their control in to make them more military defensible. While the civil war was going on, the PKK declared these three unconnected areas to be its “cantons” and sent many of its men from Iraq to these cantons to provide military and administrative support (Hurriyet Daily News, January 29). Knowing that Sunni Arabs would become militarily engaged against Assad’s largely Shi’a forces, the PKK took the opportunity to drive them out of some of their villages and towns. That some of these Arabs had already fled for Turkey made the PKK’s job all the easier. But in the months ahead, a great part of the Sunni Arabs from these areas came to support the Islamic State organization, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which by then was fighting the PKK.
Despite the above, Syria and Syria’s Kurds do not constitute the main strategic political priority for the PKK as the Syrian front remains of secondary importance to the group. For the PKK, the primary strategic battlefield is Turkey. However, the Syrian civil war offered the PKK unexpected opportunities and has created the following benefits for the group. Firstly, the war enabled the PKK to expand and develop its military capacity. Second, the PKK gained legitimacy in the international arena and won new support. Third, the decline of the Syrian regime gave the PKK geopolitical depth along the Turkish border. Fourth, the PKK gained cross-border military logistical options from inside Syria. Lastly, the PKK is also obtaining experience in political governance through its Syrian cantons.
The Rise of Islamic State
The Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul in June was a turning point for the PKK, which, in the immediate term, caused it to cease fighting inside Turkey in order to consolidate its control over its Syrian cantons. Meanwhile, as a result of the rapid defeat of the Iraqi Army by Islamic State fighters, Barzani’s military force, the peshmerga, quickly left the Mosul area (E-Kurd, August 6). Only a few PKK militants remained in the region to defend the Kurds, including the Yazidis. The PKK’s defense of these civilians led to the PKK being seen more positively by Kurds, as well as by the Western media. The PKK was now viewed as an ally of the West against the Islamic State.
Soon afterwards, Islamic State forces attacked Kobane, a Syrian canton under PKK control. By attacking the isolated canton, the Islamic State aimed to disrupt the positive view of the PKK, to win the support of local Arabs who had been displaced by the Kurds and to take advantage of the fact that the United States was not then using Syrian air space (in contrast to Iraq). Attacking Kobane also allowed the Islamic State organization to legitimize its jihadist ideology by fighting the Marxist/Leninist PKK and to gain the sympathies of the Turkish public, which are broadly anti-PKK. In the days following the jihadists’ attack, about 200,000 Syrian Kurds left their homes to take refuge in Turkey (Rudaw, September 20).
Unexpectedly for the Islamic State, the PKK and its Syrian arm, the PYD, made Kobane into a matter of prestige from the start, despite Kobane having no clear military significance. Meanwhile, the Turkish Army at this stage took security precautions along its border, but did not intervene. When it seemed like Kobane might fall into the hands of Islamic State organization, the PKK asked Turkey to open a corridor to allow for the flow of Kurdish militants and heavy weapons from Syria’s Kurdish enclaves and northern Iraq (Rudaw, September 20). It also reportedly asked its supporters in Turkey to stage violent street protests in its support, with the aim of pressuring the Turkish government (Kurdpress, October 8).
The Turkish government did not look kindly on the request. Still, President Erdogan asked the United States to increase its air strikes on Islamic State targets around Kobane (Hurriyet Daily News, October 18). At the same time, he also provided “secret” supplies of men, heavy weapons and ammunition (Milliyet Daily, October 12). Turkey also quietly evacuated the wounded to care for them in hospitals across the border (Hurriyet Daily News, October 15). On October 19, U.S. authorities announced that they had provided weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the PYD (Hurriyet Daily News, October 20). At the same time, Turkey permitted Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces and heavy weaponry into Kobane to fight alongside the PYD (Rudaw, October 21).
Concurrently, when Kobane appeared to be in danger of falling to the Islamic State organization, PKK sympathizers in Turkey initiated public protests along the Turkey-Syria border. These protests turned violent from October 4-5 in many cities. Approximately 40 people were killed, mainly in clashes with the security forces. The government responded by trying to stem the violence through new laws, while on the other hand accelerating the domestic peace process it was conducting with Ocalan in an attempt to resolve the PKK problem in Turkey (Today’s Zaman, October 19). As result, although Kobane was not of strategic military importance, it became a major psychological and political headache for Turkey.
Turkey’s Kobane Problem
The Islamic State organization’s jihad in Syria has been overshadowed in Turkey by the events in Kobane and the PKK problem. It has also distracted the Turkish government and left it in a dilemma in its negotiations with the Western coalition made up of Turkey’s NATO partners. On one hand, Turkey has been severely criticized for not directly taking action to prevent the events of Kobane. There are, however, various reasons why Turkey did not become directly involved in Kobane. Both sides fighting in Kobane are officially considered by Ankara to be terrorists. Moreover, another factor complicating Turkey’s position is that the country is approaching general elections, which will begin next summer. Despite its ongoing negotiations with Ocalan, the Turkish government did not want to openly supporting the PKK because of this, not least because many Turks are highly sensitive to this very issue. In addition, the Turkish military, which has fought the PKK extensively, was extremely uneasy with the idea of executing an order to assist the PKK because it feared it lacked a legal basis to do so. This situation could also create new problems in the already strained civil-military relations inside Turkey. In addition, the protests on October 4 sorely divided public opinion in Turkey, leading many Turks to lose sympathy for Kobane, while also straining Turkish-Kurdish and Arab-Kurdish tensions. The Kobane protests also increased tensions between the pro-PKK and pro-Islamist Kurds, leading to several killings and exposing the potential for a micro-version of the Syrian civil violence. In addition, the events surrounding Kobane led the Turkish government to believe that an “invisible hand” was trying to force Turkey to enter the coalition against the Islamic State organization.
An additional challenge is the perception among many in Turkey that the United States was openly intervening in Turkey’s PKK/Kurdish problem and was acting as a champion of Syria’s Kurds. It also seemed to many that even if Turkey was unwilling to join the coalition, the United States would continue with its Kurdish policy regardless, potentially tarnishing the image of the United States among Turks and endangering U.S.-Turkish relations. On the other hand, the Turkish government had unexpectedly consented to the peshmerga’s passage to Kobane to fight alongside their ethnic brothers. This move was intended to overshadow the PKK’s military success in Kobane vis-à-vis the Islamic State organization, to address international criticism and to strengthen the position of Barzani’s KDP among the Syrian Kurds. It was also hoped that establishing a corridor to Barzani’s Iraqi peshmerga, instead of the PKK, would lead to less domestic criticism of the Turkish government. At this moment therefore, the ultimate outcome of the “Kobane issue” will likely play a key role in Turkey’s domestic Kurdish peace process and also for the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Dr. Nihat Ali Ozcan is a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and a lecturer at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. He is an expert on the Turkish military and the PKK.