White House national security adviser John Bolton has a reputation for volcanic anger — but his temper is probably nothing compared to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Ankara on Tuesday, the Turkish leader refused to meet with President Trump’s top aide because he was angry about Bolton’s comments on a stop in Israel about the need to protect the Syrian Kurds after a U.S. troop withdrawal.
“It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel,” an irate Erdogan said as he repeated, once again, that Turkey was planning to take on Syrian Kurdish groups — allies to the United States but terrorists to Ankara — once U.S. troops leave.
But despite Erdogan’s enthusiasm, a Turkish-Kurdish conflict in northern Syria would be a disaster for all sides. It would torpedo United Nations’ efforts to end the Syrian war, allow the Islamic State to revive in eastern Syria, and, worst of all, bog down Turkey and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), both U.S. allies, in yet another iteration of a "forever war.”
(The Kurdish issue is an alphabet soup of acronyms. But the major fighting force inside Syria is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the backbone of U.S.-backed SDF. However, YPG is also closely affiliated with Turkey’s own insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, alias the PKK, which has been fighting a guerilla war against Turkey for the past 40 years.)
Bolton was right to try to slow down U.S. withdrawal from Syria and to avoid another Turkish-Kurdish conflict. But traveling to Ankara to try to dissuade Erdogan was the wrong start. The Turkish president has made it plenty clear that he considers Kurdish forces on his border terrorists linked to the PKK and intends to create a 10- to 15-mile buffer zone that will likely engulf key Syrian Kurdish towns such as Kobani. Erdogan is riding on a nationalist wave at home and has the backing of Russia in his Syrian expansion.
The Trump administration needs to think bigger — geographically and politically — in order to prevent a Turkish-Kurdish fight inside Syria. I am talking about offering Erdogan a grand bargain for a comprehensive peace with the Kurds. Americans would need to do what they have been avoiding — that is, rolling out maps and engaging in geostrategic engineering, to develop a comprehensive peace plan between Turks and Kurds across Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The issue can no longer be addressed solely within the nation-state boundaries of Turkey, and there is no solution that would work solely for Syria.
It sounds like a huge undertaking, but a grand bargain is actually easier than trying to deal with just the Syrian piece of the puzzle. Kurds in Syria are a threat to Turkey because Ankara fears they might someday feed the PKK insurgency within Turkey itself. As long as that threat persists, Erdogan will never accept Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
To persuade him otherwise, the United States would need to give him a win at home. That’s why the starting point of any grand bargain would have to be concessions from Kurds inside Turkey. Washington would have to somehow convince the PKK, YPG’s parent organization, to declare a cease-fire and withdraw its forces from Turkey — in return for Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Such a grand bargain would appeal to Kurds and Turks if there were a serious U.S. commitment.
The rest of the Syrian puzzle is easier. If the PKK withdraws from Turkey, Erdogan would have no valid reason to go after Syrian Kurds. The northern part of Syria is not a contiguous Kurdish zone — dispersed among the Kurdish-majority towns are Sunni Arab towns. To stabilize the area, Americans — sorry you broke it, you bought it — need to take the map of northern Syria and divvy it up between Turkish and Kurdish zones of influence. Kurds would have autonomy in Kurdish-majority towns such as Kobani, Serikani and Afrin, and Turkey would be the patron saint of remaining Sunni Arab towns. It could extend the infrastructure development it is already conducting in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria to west of the Euphrates River into Sunni communities across the region. Diverse and self-governing local councils in Kurdish and Arab zones would eventually negotiate a limited autonomy deal with the Syrian regime under the protective gaze of United States.
This is not utopianism. I am old enough to remember when Turkey had a peace process with the PKK and frequently hosted representatives of Syrian Kurds in Ankara for talks. And that was only in 2014.
In the good old days, Ankara actively sought peace with the Kurds and intense negotiations continued on and off for eight years. The process fell apart only because the Kurdish gains in Syria led the PKK to walk back its earlier promises and Ankara to freak out about the Kurdish expansion on its borders. To fix it, we need to go back to the map of Syria.
In its heyday, a key component of the Turkish-PKK peace process was detailed discussions of a PKK withdrawal from Turkey in return for legitimate politics and a reform in Turkey’s governance model. No doubt we are very far from that now after four years of renewed war and increasing authoritarianism in Turkey.
But it is never too late for a good political strategy.
At heart, Turks and Kurds know they need one another to survive in this region. This was the formula that worked for centuries under the Ottomans, and it can be the formula again. In his less angry moments, Erdogan understands and even wants to embrace Ottoman models of governance for Turkey. So, Mr. Bolton, don’t start trying to convince Erdogan. Work with your Kurdish allies for a grand bargain that involves Turkey and Syria and see what he says the next time you are in town.