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Why Turkey Allowed Peshmarga Passage to Kobane
   
 
 
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Why Turkey Allowed Peshmarga Passage to Kobane

 
Thursday, 13 November 2014 12:01
 
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by Idrees Mohammed*
EPOS Insights

 

Turkey allowed the passage of an elite force of Kurdistan Region's Peshmarga with heavy weapons to the Syria's Kurdish town of Kobane. The so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters have staged a well-organized campaign on Kobane. Besieging the town from three sides and taking reinforcements to attack it so aggressively, the foundation stone of Syria's Kurdish project, championed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), came under a real threat. Kobane could be effectively defended by the Kurds, but any Kurdish help to Kobane was destined to be coordinated with Turkey given its border with the town. Turkish border with Kobane became the only appropriate Kurdish route to safety and defending the town. The insoluble geographic realities provided Turkey with a card effective enough to be played in an important game.

Turkey's own Kurdish problem greatly influences its foreign policy. This is crystal-clear in Turkey's relations with Syria. One of the major sources of the tension between Turkey and Syria was what Turks dubbed Syria's sponsorship of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 1980s and 1990s. The situation became serious enough that in 1998 Turkey massed thousands of troops on border with Syria. The Turkish chief of general staff characterized the situation as an undeclared war between Syria and Turkey. Feeling sufficiently concerned, Syria succumbed to Turkish threat and expelled the PKK leader. Syria's decision paved the way for the improvement of mutual relations. In the coming years, presidential visits were exchanged, meetings at cabinet level were held, and a free-trade zone was established.

For Turkey, Syria's crisis would open a can of warms. This is derived from Turkish fears regarding Syria's Kurdish future and its possible spillover effects on Turkey. There are two main Kurdish political camps in Syria. One of them is affiliated with the Kurds in Iraq and the second one with the Kurds in Turkey. The duplication of Iraq's Kurdish experience in Syria's Kurdistan is not likely for several reasons. The predictable outcome is that the Kurds will be more integrated into the political process. The Kurdish camp that is close to the PKK is expected to continue to have the upper hand.

Whatever the situation, one important thing is undeniable: The Kurdish status in Syria has changed for better. The consolidation of Kurdish political power in the neighboring country is considered threatening by Turkey. Turkey fears such a consolidation will have domino effects on its own Kurds especially due to the established ties between the PYD and the PKK. With the Kurds in Iraq and Syria enjoying some of their rights, the Kurds in Turkey will feel that they have been treated unfairly. And emboldened by the consolidation of Kurdish power in Syria, the Kurds in Turkey will increase pressure on the government and demand more rights.

Although Turkey moved troops to the border with Kobane, it refused to act. Turkey maintained three old-new conditions to help defending Kobane. Since it suspects that an unspoken alliance between Syria's regime and the PYD exists, Turkey requested from the PYD to declare its stance on the regime. Turkey also equalizes the PYD to the PKK and demanded that the PYD distances itself from the PKK. Moreover, Turkey calls for the removal of Bashar Al-Assad and is a staunch supporter of Syria's opposition. It thus demanded the PYD, to join the ranks of the opposition. Effectively, Turkey demanded the dissolution of the PYD-championed Kurdish cantons in Syria's Kurdistan.

Turkey's inaction towards Kobane subjected it to harsh criticism from the Kurds. The PYD accused Turkey of supporting the IS. The logic is that Turkey determines Kurdish gains in Syria as a threat and identifies the IS as an instrument to destroy them. Turkey's policy was fundamentally changed from shielding Al-Assad to toppling him. It miscalculated that the international pressure and the internal political and military opposition would have him gone soon. It turned a blind eye to fighters using Turkish territory to join anti-Al-Assad groups in Syria. Turkey was eventually hurt by the hand many suspected it fed when IS took hostage its diplomats. The NATO member is becoming a neighbor of an internationally called terrorist state rather than a Kurdish entity.

Developments in Syria's Kurdistan were a major factor behind the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Turkey was alarmed by the Kurdish gains in Syria and the PKK was emboldened by them. As the crisis in Syria was deepening, the violence in Turkey hit a level that was not recorded in a decade. The peace process was developing despite sporadic exchanges of accusations. The IS attack on Kobane put the process in jeopardy. Turkey was warned of grave consequences if Kobane was to fall to the IS due to the widespread belief that Turkey was accomplice. The PKK threatened that the process would end. The Kurds held large protest. It seems as if the Kurdish politics in Turkey and Syria are two parts of the same body – cutting one bleeds the other. The fate of Kobane in Syria was linked to that of the peace process in Turkey.

While Turkey's own Kurdish problem was a major factor behind its permission of Peshmarga passage to Kobane, the relations with Kurdistan Region also contributed to Turkey's decision. For several years, Turkey and Kurdistan Region have improved relations. They have already cooperated on a gamut of issues. When the IS attacked Kurdish regions in Iraq, Turkey was expected not to stay as a passive bystander to the imminent fall of Erbil to the IS. Turkey's attitude did not mean an end of the relations. However, it did disappoint the Kurds. On the other hand, Kurdistan Region found itself in a delicate situation due to developments in Kobane. There is a moral dimension and geopolitical interests at stake. Kurdistan has a moral duty to defend Kurdish interests elsewhere. Also, maintaining the relations with Turkish government and the Kurds in Turkey and Syria is strategic for Kurdistan Region. The fact that the Kurds are ready to be part of an international anti-terror coalition and the Peshmarga is allowed the passage and deployment in the territories of other states is extremely important. The decision to deploy the Peshmarga came in this context. And Turkey took the lesson: It cannot keep paying a deaf ear to Iraq's Kurdish frustration and will have zero-friends instead of zero-problems.

Kobane was another case to test the relations between the United States and Turkey. While the United States demands Turkey to play an active role in the anti-IS coalition, Turkey sets conditions in return of more actions. The crux of the matter is that the United States and Turkey disagree on priorities in Syria. The United States determines the IS as the main threat and the one that should be dealt with first. Turkey identifies IS as a consequence of Syrian regime policy and that Al-Assad should be dealt with first. The United States needs ground forces to weaken and destroy IS – a role that can be played by the Syrian Kurds. Turkey sees the fractured Free Syrian Army as an alternative to Kurdish fighters. The United States helped the Syrian Kurds militarily. Turkey was against such a step. The tension was increasing to the point that the United States would move on despite Turkey's refusal. Turkey's grudging allowance of Peshmarga passage to Kobane was a step to maintain its relations with the United States. It needs the United States in order to have a voice regarding discussions on the future of Syria.

Turkey is deeply concerned about the consequences of the Kurdish-IS fight. The IS's attacks have caused security concerns, economic damages, and psychological effects in Kurdish regions. However, they also contributed to improve Kurds image internationally. Fighting on behalf of the world, the Kurds are facing a state that is threatening to the whole humanity. They are receiving more attention from powerful powers. The Peshmarga is made more professional and recognized internally and internationally as an effective force. The PKK and the PYD are also obtaining a better status. The peace process is developing in Turkey and there were calls for the removal of the PKK from the terror list. The PYD is receiving more legitimacy. Throwing a heavy blow to Turkish government, the United States, differentiating with Turkey, declared that it does not equalize the PYD to the PKK.

 

* Idrees Mohammed teaches International Relations in University of Duhok’s department of Political Science. He tweets @IdreesMohammd

Photos: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Thursday, 13 November 2014 12:30
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