Uneasy Balance: Weighing Turkish, Syrian, and Kurdish Interests

Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Event
Uneasy Balance: Weighing Turkish, Syrian, and Kurdish Interests September 10, 2012

I attended a panel discussion at FDD that debated the future of Turkish, Kurdish, and Syrian interests. Panel members were: Tony Badran, research fellow at FDD; Soner Cagaptay, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Ilhan Tanir, a reporter for the Turkish newspaper, Vatan; and, Dr. Fuad Hussein; Chief of Staff to President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
BLUF: The group felt that the Syrian regime will not survive. Internal, regional and international centrifugal forces would cause it to devolve into a Lebanon-style civil war but that this could occur along regional vice sectarian lines. One commonality among all the players: no one wants an Iraqi-style fracturing of Syria albeit for very different reasons.
Turkey: PM Erdogan is both ambitious and mercurial. Erdogan’s embrace of Asad years ago was turned on its head as his “little brother” failed to heed his advice to reform. This personal affront led to swift condemnation of the regime. Similarly, his relationship with KRG President Barzani and harboring convicted Iraqi VP Hashimi inflames the relationship with PM Malaki.
Turkey’s policy on Syria is evolving fast. “Inkblots” in Syria, along the Turkish border adjacent to refugee centers, are becoming de facto safe havens. Turkey is preparing the political battlefield with Washington (Erdogan interview with CNN-I, relocation of Syrian refugees, etc.) and will expect action from the administration – any administration – soon after the election. Turkey still remembers the Iraqi Kurd refugees that they hosted for years…
Increasing PKK attacks in Turkey are undermining public support for action in Syria believing the price may be too high. Erdogan’s desire to become President next fall is driving him to do everything he can to stop these attacks – to include drawing U.S. in and using military force unilaterally. The tripwire for unilateral action will be the shattering of Syria and evidence of PYD/PKK activity along Turkey’s southern border.
Turkey wants a “soft landing” (infrastructure, administration still in place when Asad leaves) but in the absence of such an outcome, they want an accelerated “hard landing.”
Iraq: PM Malaki fears a breakdown of Syria and subsequent spread of Sunni influence across the border to the edges of Baghdad. Similarly, he does not want Iraqi Kurdistan to grow any larger or more independent.
Syria: President Asad will make deals with anyone – including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), their Syrian offshoot Democratic Union Party (PYD), and other minority groups. Inside the country, he is claiming the role of “defender of minorities” by arming minority militias in the major cities.
There is an increasing Salafist/AQ influence. These forces bring ideology, guns, and $$ at a time when the opposition to running low on all three. Panel believed that 1% of all fighters 10-12 months ago were outsiders but are having a centripetal impact – estimate ~5% now – and continues to grow.
KRG: Trade deals with Ankara (which Turkey pens to become a regional oil hub and to spite PM Malaki) anger the central government in Baghdad and further politically divide Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad. Most recently, Barzani penned a deal with Ankara to build an oil pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Med to be completed in 2013.
Barzani has cobbled together various Syrian Kurd elements – Kurdish National Council, PYD (Democratic Union Party – Syrian variant of PKK), and the Union of Kurdish Democratic Forces – and is actively training fighters as well as administrative and civil personnel. The KRG neither publicly advocates Syrian Kurdistan independence nor a greater Kurdistan (of Wilson-era Treaty of Sevres variety). The distribution of Kurds in Syria makes such an outcome is unlikely anyway.
Iran: Is still an oil and gas provider for Turkey, but relations soured after Ankara’s acceptance of the NATO radar facility. Ankara sees Iran’s capture and subsequent release of PKK leader Murat Karayilan as a direct message to be mindful of too much interference. If the Syrian regime falls, Iran will likely try to establish influence areas inside Syria taking up the role of “protector of minorities.”

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