- By Gonul Tol
After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan’s counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.
Ocalan’s call could mark the first step in ending one of the world’s longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey’s democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising.
The Syrian conflict has reshuffled the strategic cards of all regional and international actors but has posed a particular challenge for Turkey due to the unique place Syria occupies in Turkey’s regional and domestic calculations. Prior to the start of protests in 2011, Syria had been a key component of the Turkish government’s "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Following a near war between the two countries in 1998, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Syria the test case for his vision to engage all regional actors, including former adversaries, through trade, investment, and political and cultural exchanges. Domestically, engagement with the Syrian regime ensured its cooperation with Turkey’s nearly three-decade fight against the PKK.
Confronting a high-stakes crisis on its southern border, Turkey has pursued a cautious approach toward Syria’s uprising. Ankara initially asked President Bashar al-Assad to carry out reforms. However, frustrated with the growing bloodshed, it finally joined the anti-Assad camp in the fall of 2011. Beyond its efforts to shelter refugees and increase international diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime, Turkey took a proactive role in hosting and providing an organizational hub for the Syrian opposition. In retaliation, Assad granted several concessions to the Kurds and to the PKK in particular. He allowed Saleh Muslim, the head of the PKK’s Syrian offshoot Democratic Union Party (PYD), who lived for years in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, to return to Syria and permitted the PYD to operate freely in the northern part of the country. Competing for influence with the PYD in the Kurdish areas of Syria is the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella organization of about 16 Kurdish parties close to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Founded under the patronage of KRG President Massoud Barzani, the KNC is seen as an ally of the KRG and lacks legitimacy among the Kurdish population. The PYD, on the other hand, is organizationally strong and active on the ground. It provides social services as well as security in Syria’s Kurdish areas in the northeast. Yet, skeptical about Turkey’s role in the Arab dominated Syrian opposition as well as fearful of an Islamist take-over in post-Assad Syria, the PYD has largely remained on the sidelines of the conflict.
Kurds could be the decisive minority in the Syrian uprising, yet they are either reluctant to fight against the regime with full force or stifled by internal divisions. In an effort to unite Syrian Kurds as well as boost his image as the leader of Kurds, Barzani tried to broker a power-sharing agreement between the PYD and the KNC in June 2012. With the Erbil Agreement, both parties pledged to become a unified Kurdish front — a factor that might boost the overthrow of the Assad regime. But the prospect of a long-lasting unity between the PYD and KNC has been looking slim. The PYD does not trust the KNC due to Barzani’s close ties to Turkey and the KNC is a loose organization struggling with internal divisions without the muscle to exert influence in the armed conflict.
But that could all change if Ocalan’s call for a cease-fire and withdrawal leads to disarmament of the PKK and a democratic resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. In a recent phone interview PYD leader Saleh Muslim said that the eventual success of Ankara’s initiative could dramatically change the PYD’s relations with the KNC and Syria’s Arab opposition. The PYD’s distrust could give way to a working relationship with the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition if the opposition, freed from pressure by Turkey, addresses Kurdish demands. It could also build trust between the KNC and the PYD and lead to a united Kurdish front in Syria that has international legitimacy and strong standing with a fighting force on the ground.
As the Syrian crisis rages on with no resolution in sight, a united Syrian opposition that includes Kurds, fighting with Arabs on the same front could finally tip the balance against Assad. Turkey can be the glue that keeps Arabs and Kurds unified if it can finally find a long-lasting solution to its decades-old Kurdish problem. Only then can Turkey reclaim its hard-fought image as a regional superpower on the Arab street and pursue a confident Syria policy without subcontracting it to Barzani. So far, Turkey has refused to meet with the PYD due to its links to the PKK. Now that Turkey can talk to Ocalan openly, maybe Foreign Minister Davutoglu could talk to the PYD leader Saleh Muslim. That would tip the balance in Syria.
Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.