How U.S. can arrange win-win-win for Turkey, Syria and Kurds

Earlier this month, the news broke that Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had been granted a meeting with his lawyers — his first such meeting in eight years.   

In his first major communication since the mid-2015 breakdown of the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state, Öcalan issued a statement calling for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict, urging the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to commit to diplomacy and work toward unity in Syria. 

The relevance of this statement for U.S. policy was compounded by events that occurred just before and after its release. On May 3rd, SDF Commander Mazlum Kobane said Turkey and the SDF were engaging in indirect talks. On May 6th, hours after Öcalan’s statement went public, Turkey’s election council annulled the results of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral vote, which had been won by the main opposition, and said that a new election would take place June 23.

The sequence of events made clear the links between the conflict in northeast Syria and the struggle for peace and democracy in Turkey. The Kurdish movement in both countries has understood this for years. Now, the United States seems to be catching on— and may have an opportunity to devise a solution that would serve U.S. interests as well as those of Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds.   

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced in early December the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the greatest immediate risk was the possibility of a Turkish attack on the SDF. As U.S.-backed SDF forces cornered the Islamic State (ISIS) in its last strongholds in March, Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar threatened to “bury” local fighters in Manbij, a city west of the Euphrates River that has proven one of the most promising applications of the Kurdish model. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, spoke of returning Northeast Syria to its “original owners”. This is the same coded threat of ethnic cleansing he issued before Turkey invaded the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin, displacing virtually all of its centuries-old Kurdish community.

Such animosity toward the forces that liberated more Syrian territory from ISIS than any other actor in the conflict is an extension of Turkey’s attempt to find a military solution to its Kurdish question. Kurds make up about 18 percent of Turkey’s population. For nearly a century, they have faced massacres, forced displacement, the prohibition of their language, and the denial of their identity. The greatest authoritarian abuses committed by successive Turkish governments have always targeted Kurds first and foremost— a pattern that has repeated itself with Erdoğan’s crackdown, with dozens of Kurdish politicians jailed and millions of their voters disenfranchised long before the cancellation of the Istanbul election.

The hostility has not been confined to Turkey’s borders. Ankara, which views the SDF (and its mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG) as an extension of the PKK, has long seen the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria as a direct threat. During the battle for Kobani, when the YPG held just a few buildings in the besieged border city, Turkish military personnel stood back and watched as ISIS advanced. Brett McGurk, former U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, has described at length how Turkey supported Islamist groups that target the United States simply because they fought against the SDF.

It is this contradiction that brought the US-Turkey relationship to its lowest point in decades—and which must be resolved in order to restore it.

Most experts back one of two approaches to this problem. The first is a restoration of the U.S.-Turkey alliance at the expense of the country’s democratic and progressive forces. This is a return to a failed policy at best, and at worst an endorsement of an expanded humanitarian crisis in Turkey and Syria. A 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Defense found that previous Turkish military operations in the country bolstered ISIS and other terror groups— directly counteracting U.S. strategy in the country.  

A smaller contingent calls for a permanent U.S. presence in Syria to protect the SDF, and for writing off the chances of cooperation with Turkey. This goes far beyond the guarantees the SDF has requested and raises the prospect of another U.S. “forever war” in the Middle East. Abandoning the possibility of a diplomatic solution in an effort to prevent war is counterproductive.

Neither of these approaches are sufficient to solve the interlocking crises. Washington's best course of action is to attempt a careful and courageous diplomatic feat— one that, if successful, will end one of the region’s longest wars and guarantee lasting stability. A renewed peace process in Turkey would allow U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria without fear of further instability. It would also contribute to Turkey’s democratisation, moving the country away from the erratic, authoritarian path that has brought it into conflict with its allies.

While ambitious, this is no longer as radical idea in US policy circles as its opponents might believe. In their interim report to Congress published earlier this month the Syria Study Group, a commission of experts chosen by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, found that “the long term solution to Turkish-YPG tensions is a renewed Turkey-PKK peace process”.

U.S. officials can take several steps now to make this a reality. The first— bringing Turkey and the SDF to the table— is already underway, according to the SDF's Kobane. Recent history shows that efforts toward peace in Turkey lead directly to cooperation with Syrian Kurds. During the 2013-2015 peace process with the PKK, the same Syrian Kurdish officials that Turkish authorities now subject to legal harassment in Europe visited Turkey for talks. In a show of mutual goodwill that appears shocking today, the YPG and the Turkish Armed Forces even undertook a successful joint military operation to recover the Tomb of Suleyman Shah.

This time, cooperation could move in the other direction. U.S. efforts to mediate on Syria could, if successful, be expanded to include a discussion of the situation within Turkey. Trust built up through Syria talks could allow both sides to accept this prospect.   

Next, U.S. officials could call for the lifting of the isolation imposed on Öcalan. At its most basic level, this is simply asking Turkey to implement its own domestic laws and international human rights obligations— both of which prohibit prolonged solitary confinement and guarantee the right to legal representation. Millions of Kurds across the Middle East regard Öcalan as their political representative, and his participation in a renewed peace process will be essential— as it was in the 2013-2015 negotiations. Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul has stated that the visit ban is no longer in effect, and Öcalan’s lawyers were allowed to hold a second meeting with him on May 22. While not evidence of a full lifting of the isolation, these are promising steps.

Finally, the United States should empower political and civil society forces within Turkey that have long pushed for peace. Nine elected members of parliament from my party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), currently sit in jail, simply because they supported negotiations and democratisation. If the United States wants to encourage Kurds and Turks alike to seek a political solution to their problems, they must encourage the Turkish state to open legitimate space for pro-Kurdish politics. Calling for the freedom of political prisoners is one important step toward this goal.

In a letter read at Newroz celebrations in 2013, Öcalan famously said that it was “time for weapons to go silent and for ideas to speak”. After eight devastating years of war in Syria and many more in Turkey, the idea of a peace based on pluralism, democracy, justice, and equal rights should speak powerfully to millions of people in both countries— and, this time, may just be loud enough for the United States to hear.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.