A group of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters raised a huge poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the political and spiritual leader of the terrorist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who has been in Turkish prison since 1999 on conviction of treason in the small Turkish island of Imrali. Turkey has designated PKK a terrorist group and banned its activities across the country and announced a state of war against the militant group.
The incident is significant from two aspects, with it expected to leave its own impacts on the regional and Syrian future developments.
Impacting Turkey-US relations
The Syrian Democratic Forces are key allies to Washington in the developments of the Syrian fronts. The SDF is a coalition whose body is mainly made of Kurdish YPG militias. The US provided the SDF fighters with military training, organizational support, and weapons under the cover of the so-called international anti-terror coalition in an attempt to steer clear of being empty-handed on the battlefield and in rivalry with other actors. But the arrangement has aroused ire of Turkey, a key US ally in West Asia region. Ankara is afraid that the Syrian Kurds could gain power in northern Syria and next to the Turkish borders and so pose future dangers to its national security. Moreover, the Turkish leaders describe the YPG an extension of the PKK in Syria and are concerned that strengthened Kurdish power could even deepen the identity gaps of the 18-million population of the Kurds of Turkey with the Turkish government.
But the US administration has so far declined to take the idea seriously, arguing that there is no adequate evidence leading to observation of links between the two. However, with the Friday raising of the poster of the PKK’s ringleader, the Turkish claims of links between the PKK and the YPG were made clear. Having in mind that the US blacklisted the PKK as a terrorist organization, continuation of backing for the Syrian Kurds will raise questions about the Washington’s approach towards terrorism.
On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in speech at the Istanbul D-8 summit raised doubt about the American and European intention to fight the terrorists of the PKK.
“How can the US explain the poster of Ocalan in Raqqa? Is this the way they are cooperating with us in the struggle against terror? You are not standing by us against terrorism. You would not allow this if you were,” he was quoted as saying.
Turkey argues that part of the US-supplied arms to the Syrian Kurds go to the fighters of the PKK, something posing threats to the Turkish national interests, according to Turkey’s leaders. The US-Turkey relations witnessed chill after the July 2016 failed coup in Turkey. Erdogan accused the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the putsch and called on Washington to expatriate him, but Washington so far failed to do so, a snub that motivated Ankara to bolster ties with Moscow. The October 9 arrest of the Turkish employee of the American consulate in Istanbul for spying charges has even worsened the already frayed Ankara-Washington relations.
Some questions present themselves here: will the US forsake its own interests to win the Turkish contentment? Will the White House bow to the Ankara pressures to disarm the Kurdish militias now that Raqqa is reclaimed? No is the highly likely answer to these questions because the US has limitations getting directly involved in the Syrian war mainly due to the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran opposition. If Washington quits supporting the Syrian Kurds on whom it spent money and time to train and equip, it will strip itself of forces as efficient as the SDF at least in the short run.
On the other side, Ankara has repeatedly asserted that it will never accept establishment of Kurdish autonomy on its southern borders with Iraq and Syria, and that it will use all of the options at its disposal, including military action, if the Kurds set up their own autonomous region.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the US will disarm the Kurdish forces as this looks quite impossible because the weapons can be stored massively amid the chaos of war. Washington, having no will to disarm the militias, certainly will not bother finding the arms storehouses. Additionally, the US can announce the Kurdish fighters disarmed while they keep their guns at homes. The Turks know this well. The Americans want a constant presence and influence in Syria, and destabilize the conditions if things do not go as they desire in a bid to press the neighboring countries like Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurds stand out as the best candidate to play in the hands of Washington.
Boosting greater Kurdistan ideal
Beside provoking the Turkish sensitivity, raising Ocalan poster in the newly-liberated Raqqa carried a more important message: Showing support for the ideal of the greater Kurdistan. Essentially, the Kurdish leaders have consistently highlighted this ideal as the final end of their separatist struggles. Despite the fact that in some periods they have concealed their intentions due to some considerations, these are seen as tactics as their unchanged strategy remains foundation of the greater Kurdistan state. For instance, the Iraqi Kurds in post-Saddam Iraqi approved of a federal system, but the tumultuous internal, regional, and international conditions incentivized them to hold their independence referendum.
A successful independence vote in the Iraqi Kurdistan region could embolden Erbil leaders to take next steps, mainly towards building the bigger Kurdistan by absorbing Kurdish regions in other countries. Meanwhile, the PKK and YPG, once in stark ideological and political contrast to Iraqi Kurdistan’s leader Masoud Barzani, decided to put aside differences and support his secessionist agenda.
Accordingly, the Syrian Kurds, who themselves are struggling for autonomy in northern Syria, by displaying the imprisoned leader’s poster have expressed their clear will to unite with Kurds of other regional countries towards forming an inclusive Kurdish country. Step-by-step movement to the greater Kurdistan goal is a strategy to most of the Kurds. The Syrian Kurds might now argue they simply want a federal region, however, when a federal system is full-fledged, they will seek separation taking cue from the Iraqi Kurds.