The joke goes something like this: A Kurd on death row is asked his final wish, and he says, “To see my mother.” Then the Turk is asked. “For the Kurd not to see his mother,” he replies. That sums up Ankara’s current vision of northern Syria.
President Obama’s special envoy on the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, got attention last week in New York from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his visit in February to the town of Kobani in Syria, the ultimate symbol of Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State. He received an award from the Kurdish fighters there — whom Erdogan considers terrorists.
“Don’t do it again,” Erdogan is reported to have told McGurk on his way out.
For Washington, the rivalry between the Turks and the Kurds has at times been beneficial, enticing the Turks to fight the Islamic State and the Kurds to take on audacious targets such as the jihadists’ strongholds in Tel Abyad and Munbic. The Syrian Kurds have been an effective United States ally in the fight against the Islamic State, and they will continue to play a major part in an upcoming offensive against the Islamic State capital in Raqqa.
But over the past year, in order to work with the Syrian Kurds without hassle from Ankara, Washington has largely turned a blind eye to the deteriorating Kurdish situation inside Turkey. However, this juggling act cannot be sustained for too long. Without some sort of a Turkish-Kurdish deal, it is only a matter of time before the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups on the border clash with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces there. Instead of trying to “manage” this fragile situation, the Obama administration should use its remaining days to cajole Erdogan to start a peace process with the Kurds.
The Kurdish issue is no longer solvable within the national borders of any one country; what happens in Turkey is intricately related to the Syrian equation and vice versa. The issue is also not a simple counterterrorism matter, either; there is significant support for the Kurdish movement within Turkey.
Erdogan is right in saying that Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgents are related. The PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is the powerful older brother of the Syrian Kurds and has been waging a war against Turkey for decades. Erdogan is also right to complain about the PKK’s campaign of violence inside Turkey — since the abrupt end of peace talks last year, violence has gotten worse and the casualty figures are mounting. But his heavy-handed military response is not winnable, given the size of the rebellion, and is only brewing more resentment for future generations of young Kurds, thus risking Turkey’s long-term unity. Any deal between Turkey and the Kurds will calm the brewing insurgency inside Turkey that has already cost thousands of lives and has the potential to destabilize a significant NATO ally.
Turks have to think big and long-term. Instead of nostalgically naming bridges and tunnels after Ottoman sultans and indulging in Turkish nationalism, Turkish leaders should act like proper descendants of an imperial power. That means giving up the Kurdish obsession in Syria and starting negotiations at home. A former Turkish official once told to me, “In the long run, Turkey would either shrink or expand.” The latter option would be the imperial one. And for that, Turkish leaders should become the patron saints of Kurds in the region and support a friendly Kurdish entity in Syria.
Lastly, there is the issue of democracy in Turkey, which everyone in the West seems to have given up on. The Kurdish issue has always been a litmus test for the overall quality of Turkish democracy — affecting everything from free speech to elections. Since the end of the peace talks with the Kurdish insurgents last year, Turkish democracy has been diminishing day by day. The Turkish government has lately started removing elected Kurdish mayors and has already stripped most elected Kurdish deputies in Ankara of their immunity, a sign that they will start arresting them over the next few months.
It may just be that the key to reversing Erdogan’s authoritarianism and preserving the fragile gains in Syria is by going through the Kurdish peace process yet again.