Valiant Kurdish Pershmerga troops bore the brunt of the West’s struggle against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The defeat of IS on the ground is largely due to them, and the US-led coalition owes them a debt of gratitude. The north-eastern region of Syria has always been a Kurdish-occupied area, and now the Kurds have established a semi-autonomous self-governing region there known as Rojava.
Kurds represent some 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling against their persistent calls for independence, or at least autonomy. He claims that the Kurdish administration in Rojava is hand-in-glove with his domestic Kurdish insurgents, the PKK, which he has dubbed a terrorist organization. He would like to move troops into Rojava, and crush his opponents.
This is the issue that has led to a tug-of-war between the US and Turkey.
Long before civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the nation’s 2 million Kurds, accounting for 15 percent of the population, had aspired to some degree of autonomy. Their opportunity came with the internal uprising that year against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Three years after the conflict began, IS troops flooded in and started winning vast swaths of Syrian territory. Up in the north-east, the Kurds began fighting them. Backed by air support and special forces from the US and its allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces began to prevail,winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.
By the time Russia intervened in support of Assad in September 2015, the process of defeating IS was well under way. Gradually but inexorably, its territory shrank. Finally on Friday 22 March 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.
Assisted by the massive Russian military intervention, Assad has regained some 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria. The Kurd-occupied region, which is about 25 per cent of the old Syria, is now an integrated territory formally designated the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). It is not a sovereign state nor, if statements from its leaders are to be believed, does it aspire to be one. It is a semi-autonomous region, and there have been formal moves by its leaders to reach an accord with the Syrian president. Early indications are that an accommodation within a post-war Syrian constitution is a distinct possibility, along the lines of the arrangements in Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdistan is a separate element within the Iraqi constitution.
The fly in this ointment is Erdogan. Any such formal recognition of the DFNS would be anathema to him. Fractious Kurds struggling to achieve a degree of autonomy have been a constant political problem for all Turkish governments including Erdogan – a problem stemming back to 1922 and the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The subsequent Treaty of Lusanne gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, including the large portion of the Kurdistan homeland that lay within it, to the new republic. With a stroke of the colonial pen, some 20 million Kurds were declared Turkish, and Kurds now comprise about 20 percent of Turkey’s 85 million population,
Because the leading political party in the DFNS – the Democratic Union Party (or PYD) – is linked to the PKK, Erdogan asserts that the DFNS itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests. Accordingly he objects to Peshmerga forces being positioned along the Syrian- Turkish border. Recently Erdogan began ramping up his rhetoric. “Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security,” he said in a televised speech in Ankara. Rumours of an imminent Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds began circulating.
The US found itself torn between supporting its Kurdish allies and standing by its NATO partner, Turkey. Seeking to deflect Turkey from military action, Washington initiated talks with Turkish defence officials. On August 6, while they were still proceeding, Erdogan threatened to launch an assault on the Kurdish fighters, the YPG. On August 7 the US and Turkey announced an agreement. They would create a safe zone in north-eastern Syria, allowing Turkey to protect its borders. Details of the length and depth of the zone were not revealed.
Erdogan is clearly intent on reducing the size and the influence of Rojava. The borders of the territory, which sits within Syria, run alongside those of Kurdistan, which lies within Iraq. If the two blocs were ever to unite, the Kurds would be some way along the road leading to an independent sovereign state. But the Kurdish-occupied region of Turkey abuts both on Syria’s Rojava, and on Iraq’s Kurdistan. The pressure from Turkey’s 20 million Kurds to amalgamate with their ethnic brothers and sisters would intensify. Kurdish independence – a virtual undoing of the Treaty of Lausanne – could well become a new battle-cry.
So a nightmare for Erdogan is the prospect of a Syrian Kurdistan emerging from the current peace negotiations being led by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – the Astana process –of which Turkey, along with Iran, are also sponsors.
“We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it.”
His view on that has, if anything, toughened in the last four years. For the moment he is being restrained from taking military action by a newly forged, and rather precarious, agreement with the US. How long will that hold?