Syria's Civil War Is Breaking Turkey's Frail Peace With the Kurds

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) a pro-government Kurdish group in Syria, has taken control of Ras al-Ain, a town on Syria's northern border with Turkey.

Turkey has stated that it will not tolerate this development. The presence of the PYD — an offshoot of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization — at Turkey's doorstep threatens not only the country's border region, but the entire solution process (as negotiations are being called) between the Turkish government and the PKK. If the PYD successfully retains Ras al-Ain and strikes a deal with Bashar al-Assad for an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, along the lines of the one in northern Iraq, this could embolden the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, in his ongoing peace negotiations with the Turkish government.

Recent developments in Syria's civil war are threatening to destabilize Turkey, as Kurdish rebels gain ground close to the border between the two states. The intransigent government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan must begin to make concessions in its negotiations with Kurdish groups before the Syrian situation disrupts negotiations entirely.

At the same time, the Turkish government is resisting important changes and reforms that would improve relations with Kurds. For example, the ruling AK Party has no plans to lower the election threshold for party representation in parliament or for state funding; lowering the election threshold from the current 10% would be an important step for Kurdish and minority representation in Turkey. Additionally, even though it seems palatable to all sides, there have been no moves to permit the use of Kurdish in schools and public places, where appropriate. Lastly, Turkey will need to consider granting more autonomy to the Kurds living in Turkey, and granting additional powers to municipal governments. As it stands now, Ankara rules the regions in a highly centralized way.

Turkey can accomplish these three changes — setting the election threshold below 10%, relaxing restrictions on the use of Kurdish, and granting more autonomy for the Kurdish region — unilaterally, with no negotiation necessary. Such changes would go very far in establishing trust and good faith in future negotiations. The AK Party claims that such policies would be unacceptable to nationalist Turks, but this could very well be an excuse to continue to be stubborn.

With few concrete signs of cooperation from the Turkish government, and a changing situation for the Kurdish cause in the region, the solution process is looking less and less viable. A recent report by the International Crisis Group confirms that Turkey fears the resurgence of the PKK in the form of a PYD buttressed by Assad. However, it remains unclear what, exactly, the relationship between the PKK and the PYD is.

The appointment of Cemil Bayik serves as a further sign of the deterioration of the peace talks. In contrast to the more moderate Murat Karayilan, who he is replacing, Bayik is a hardliner. This shuffle in leadership may severely impact the discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Öcalan, and further strain their relationship.

The PKK has already begun to extend an olive branch in the form of a withdrawal of their 2,000 forces from Turkey to Iraq. However, Erdogan has claimed that they are not withdrawing fast enough. Worse, Turkey has offered no similar concessions to indicate their dedication to the process.

The final element of this disastrous and tragic mix is the spate of recent uprisings in Turkish cities, which stem from the Gezi Park protests. Responding to the heavy-handed police crackdown on mostly peaceful protests, Kurds argue that if a viable peace is to exist between Turks and Kurds, the Turkish state must take further steps toward democratization.

Volatile enough on its own, the Kurdish problem has only been exacerbated by the Syrian civil war. Assad continues to shrewdly use the PYD to foil his most vocal critic, Erdogan. If the PYD proves strong enough and if its aims dictate further action, it can be the straw that breaks the back of the solution process.

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Eric Tillberg

I graduated from Oberlin College in 2007 with degrees in Art History and Music Performance (double bass). Currently studying International Relations at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, I'm interested in Turkey and the Turkic world. I play Go at the KGS 6k level and am an avid fan of the board game Diplomacy.

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