Peace Talks in Turkey and Possible İmpacts on Syrian Kurds

Syrian Kurds are closely watching the present peace talks between the Turkish government and the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan. The general expectation of these negotiations is that Ankara will soften its “warm and welcoming attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood and chilled feelings toward Kurds” as a result of the peace talks, or the İmralı Process. The Turkish government is also expected to embrace a more positive approach. Additionally, there are expectations that Turkey will begin to show a more constructive attitude towards the Kurdish issue in Syria as a natural result of its efforts to solve its own Kurdish issue. Ankara is also expected to lessen its anti-Kurdish pressure on the Syrian opposition.

I recently conversed with Salih Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, (PYD). He is convinced that Turkey’s efforts to solve the Kurdish issue will gain support from the Syrian Kurds. Muslim emphasized that, in such a situation, Syrian opposition groups influenced by Ankara will be able to make decisions more independently, in cooperation with the Kurds. Muslim stated that it is very important that the Turkish government communicate with Öcalan about finding a solution to the Kurdish issue. Muslim also related that Ankara’s attitude towards its own Kurds will be their criteria and that they, as the Syrian Kurds, are willing to nurture good relations with Turkey.

The leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (PDKS), Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, also favors the Imralı Process. Bashar said during a recent interview: “We support the efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey without violence, through political dialogue. We see the peace initiative started by the Turkish government with Öcalan as a positive step.

Other Kurdish politicians have similar thoughts on the talks between the Turkish government and Öcalan. Syrian Kurds have always expressed their willingness to seek and develop good relations with Turkey. The current expectations among Kurds are for Turkey to soon open a new dialogue with Kurdish political parties, especially with the PYD. Muslim adamantly states that they are ready to start the talks with Ankara.

There is a common feeling among all Kurds that their brethren in Syria have an important role to play in this country, especially since the recent activities pioneered by the US leading to an apology from Israel to Turkey. Many experts share the idea that without the help of the Kurds, the Assad regime will not be toppled. Washington agrees with this notion. Kurds are trying to make themselves heard in many capitals around the world. Therefore, in addition to Ankara, there is a strong possibility that Washington may also begin talking with PYD for its active involvement in taking down the Assad regime.

The director of the Turkish Research Center at the Middle East Institute, Dr. Gönül Tol, is one of the many experts who believe Ankara has to begin a dialogue with the PYD. In a recent panel discussion in Washington, Tol said: “Turkey has not agreed to talk with the PYD, claiming that the PYD has ties with the PKK. In the current situation, if Turkey can talk with Öcalan, why wouldn’t Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu talk with PYD leader Salih Muslim? That way, current checks and balances may change against the regime.”

Returning to the situation of the Kurds in Syria, the disjointed status quo is continuing. In addition to the previously existing Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the People’s Assembly of Western Kurdistan headed by the PYD, there is also separation within the Kurdish National Council. There is no doubt that recent developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) problems with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its warm relations with the PKK (in order to gain ground in Syria) play an important role. In other words, the close cooperation with the PYD is a result of the PKK and the PUK becoming closer.

Regarding Washington, the US government’s quick response in support of Öcalan’s message on Nevruz was interesting. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that her government welcomed Öcalan’s message urging the PKK, as a positive step toward ending more than three decades of tragic violence in Turkey, to halt the present violence. “We applaud the courageous efforts of the Government of Turkey and all parties concerned, to achieve a peaceful resolution that will advance democracy in Turkey and improve the lives of all of Turkey’s citizens,” she said.

The spokesperson added that the United States will continue to support the people of Turkey in their effort to finally resolve this issue and move toward a brighter future.

One question that is frequently asked in Washington concerning Syria relates to the possible impact of the recent developments in Turkey on the uprising against the Assad regime that has been continuing for the past two years. The concern relates to what kind of impact Öcalan will have on Kurds in Syria and what active role the Kurds in Syria will have against the Assad regime.

Washington-based Syrian Kurdish journalist Jehad Salih believes that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s talks with PKK leader Öcalan have a direct link with the developments in Syria. “The emergence of the PYD as the sole political and military force in Syrian Kurdistan and the Turkish state’s concerns over its security on the other side of the border forced Erdoğan to initiate a dialogue with Mr. Öcalan.” He claims that since the efforts of Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani to control Syrian Kurds failed, Turkey now considers the PYD to be the political wing of the PKK in Syria. Erdoğan wants to take advantage of Öcalan’s influence through engaging in talks with him. Jehad strongly agrees that the future of Syrian Kurds is closely related to the peace process in Turkey. “The peace process is very positive, but Turkey has to constitutionally recognize Kurdish rights,” he said.

Another Washington-based Syrian Kurdish journalist, Sirwan Kajjo, reaffirms that the peace talks in Turkey will have direct consequences for Syrian Kurds. “If the Imralı Process succeeds, the Justice and Development Party [AKP] would make significant gains. Having Syrian Kurds unopposed to Turkey’s project in Syria would provide Ankara with the additional push for their ultimate objectives in Syria and the broader region.” Kajjo adds, however, that if the process fails, Turkey might be poised to be able to handle extreme reactions from Syrian Kurds. “Kurds on the other side of the border show their support for this peace plan, and they wish this process to prevail. However, they would certainly be unhappy if their brethren are betrayed yet another time. Nothing could be predicted then,” he warns.

Ph.D. researcher on the Kurds of Syria at the University of Exeter Thomas McGee agrees that recent developments in Turkey’s relationship with its own Kurds are largely motivated by Ankara’s concerns regarding the PYD’s increasing influence and consolidation of power in the Kurdish regions of Syria. “When faced with Kurdish Protection Units’ dominating control across the border, it appears that negotiating with the PKK now appears to be the least bad option for Turkey.” Speaking of his recent conversation with Kurds in Syria about the peace process, McGee confirms that many Kurds in Syria are supportive of the process, but not very optimistic that this process will end positively. “Kurds in Syria consider that the İmralı Process could have been engineered by Turkey in order to introduce question marks and confusion into the momentum of the PYD’s development,” the British researcher adds.

Additionally, there is strong expectation that Ankara will cut its support of al-Qaeda-influenced radical groups and instead, will develop good relationships with Syrian Kurdish groups, especially with the PYD. Ankara is also expected to embrace all of its own opposition groups. We will wait to see how the Turkey-Israel-US-EU front, which was defined during the recent trips to the region by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, will play against the Russia-Iran-Assad regime front. It is a very important development that Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, as a whole, are at the forefront for the West for the first time.

It is apparent that the Kurds will have an active role in their own region in the near future. To use that position to their advantage will depend on their ability to strengthen their unity and in the alliances they will build. The steps that Ankara will take for the solution of the Kurdish issues are anxiously awaited, with curiosity, by the entire Kurdish geography. Many Kurdish politicians openly state that a Turkey that can gain the support of the Kurds in that country, Iraq and Syria will not only be an important power in the region, but also in the world.