The Kurdish Syrian opposition group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has become the de facto primary ground forces ally of the United States in Syria and is poised to play a leading role in any assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) capital. This creates a series of difficult problems for the Gulf Arab states. In the short term, the assault might serve their interests as even a PYD-led success could drastically undermine ISIL, which the Gulf Arab states view as a major threat to their security. But, in the medium-to-long term, the strengthening of the PYD in Syria could create serious problems for the Gulf Arab states’ relations with Turkey.
Turkey is an essential, strategic asset for the Gulf Arab states, whose top foreign policy priority for at least the past decade has been to contain the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. Turkey was supposed to balance Iran, a task for which Iraq had been deployed until it was invaded by the United States in 2003 and effectively shattered as a regional force. This strategic vacuum prompted the rapprochement with Turkey throughout the 2000s and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s declaration of Turkey as a strategic partner in 2008.
Turkey’s strategic importance also prevented a total collapse of Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates when the parties adopted irreconcilable stances regarding the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. However, the Gulf Arab states have failed to detach Turkey completely from Iran. Nonetheless, Turkey proved to be a critical ally for the Gulf Arab states on some other issues. Especially, in Syria, Iran’s long-standing ally in the Arab world, Turkey came out on the side of the Gulf Arab states, supporting the rebels attempting to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Even this limited partnership is at risk now, because the rise of the PYD in Syria is an equal, or even greater, threat for Turkey than the presence of ISIL because of its impact on Turkey’s perennial Kurdish problem. Turkey’s Kurdish problem is as old as the republic, and is now more complex and troublesome than ever.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party is the third largest party in Turkey’s Parliament, controlling more seats than the Turkish nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party, and enjoying considerable sympathy in major capitals, including Moscow and Washington. The Kurdish separatist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is waging heavy urban warfare against, and inflicting severe casulties on, the Turkish armed forces despite the military’s heavy-handed measures against the Kurdish organization.
The PYD is, in effect, the PKK’s Syrian branch and controls a large swathe of important territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border. Even worse for Turkey, the PYD not only enjoys sympathy and popularity in the West, but it is also a major, if not in practice the only main, ally the United States and Russia have on the ground in their fight against ISIL, particularly in certain areas. Indeed, U.S. Special Forces were heavily involved in supporting the PYD’s last assault on Raqqa. With the heavy weapons and training provided by the United States and Russia, the PYD is rapidly becoming a formidable force on the southern border of Turkey.
Turkey’s Kurdish problem was never going to be solved quickly, but the situation in Syria has only made the issue more complex. This conundrum will alter Turkey’s priorities in the Middle East and largely drive Turkey’s foreign policy in the decade to come.
The Kurdish problem has frequently shaped Turkey’s foreign policy. Specifically, in the 1990s many Arab states did not support Turkey in its fight against the PKK, and this pushed Turkey toward developing much stronger relations with Israel. That history might repeat itself soon. That the PKK has an active militant branch in Iran, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, encourages, and even mandates, cooperation between Turkey and Iran.
If the Gulf Arab states adopt a neutral position on the rise of the PKK/PYD in Syria, they will not put all aspects of their relations with Turkey at risk. However, the ruling party in Turkey will find it increasingly difficult to persuade the public of the value of Turkey’s engagement in Syria against the Assad regime if this in practice ends up strengthening the PKK. Depending on promises from the Assad regime and Iran regarding the PKK/PYD, Turkey might even consider amending its current policy, which calls for the overthrow of Assad.
Some commentators in Turkey interpret the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was the chief architect of Turkey’s foreign policy in the 2000s and during the Arab Spring, as a signal that Ankara might change its foreign policy toward the Assad regime, decrease its support for the rebels, and even seek a reconciliation with the Syrian regime. This would be a clear defeat for the Gulf Arab states in their efforts to contain the growth of Iranian influence in the region.
Yet, as noted, the Gulf Arab states will inevitably face a dilemma concerning ISIL. For the United States, Russia, and the European Union, ISIL is the prime threat in Iraq and Syria and the PKK/PYD is an asset.
Turkey, at least rhetorically, also sees ISIL as a threat. But, for Ankara, it is not the existential threat posed by the PKK/PYD. For Turkey, ISIL might actually be a force that could balance and even undermine the PKK/PYD in northern Syria. Not surprisingly, Turkey has therefore dragged its feet, despite all the pressure from the United States, on joining the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIL. In the past, Turkey imposed certain restrictions on ISIL’s activities inside its territories. But, it has not fully committed to a total defeat of ISIL in either Iraq or Syria.
If the Gulf Arab states stand with Turkey against the PKK/PYD, they might find themselves at odds with the United States, Russia, and EU. If not, they may find themselves at odds with Turkey. Which is preferable, or if this choice can be avoided, is hard to say. Therefore, Turkey’s deteriorating Kurdish problem is likely to add a new dimension to the geopolitical predicament arising from Syria that is currently confronting the Gulf Arab states.