Turkey and the PYD: A Modern Feud?

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 11 février 2016

Just like every other foreign power involved in the crisis in Syria, Turkey has its own agenda, writes Turkish academic Gokhan Bacik. But Turkey’s goals have evolved. The aim of toppling Bashar al-Assad has been replaced by a need to stop the Kurds from gaining international recognition


The Syrian crisis deserves a special place in the history of war. It is a war that breeds many other wars within it. It is a war within another war. What was the main reason for the Syrian chaos? Indeed, it was the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad government for a better one. But, after almost five years, many of the actors involved in the war have forgotten the major cause. Instead, they are more obsessed, naturally, with their own priorities. For instance, what is the general strategy of Russia in Syria? What is the Iranian strategy? Many questions like these would refer to different and even contradictory answers.

Turkey is no different. Ankara became part of the Syrian chaos with a major goal of toppling the Assad government. However, gradually, Ankara’s top aims have duplicated. As of today, Ankara’s equally important major strategy is to stop the Kurds. The recent developments prior to the Geneva Conference on Syria proved that Ankara is ready to reorganize its whole diplomatic agenda lest the Democratic Union Party (PYD) gets more international recognition.

Here is a simple rule about the Middle East: If a multiethnic Middle Eastern state where Kurds also live falls into a statehood crisis, the Kurds automatically gain a de facto or de jure autonomous position. The Iraqi case proved this, and the Syrian case is likely to prove the same.

Many question why Turkey is more alert on the PYD than the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The answer is simple: Turkey does not see ISIS as a long-term reality in the region. Accordingly, ISIS will fail to shape a sociological basis that would enable it to stay in the region for many decades. In other words, for Turkey, ISIS is, sociologically, an artificial threat. In comparison, the PYD’s sociological universe reaches far enough to include some adjacent areas within Turkey.

Thus, here is the Turkish nightmare: the emergence of a legal Kurdish autonomous region in Syria like the one in Iraq. Then the whole of Middle Eastern studies would try to find the answers to two questions: 1. How will a transnational Kurdish legal zone that stretches from Iraq to Syria change the region? 2. How will two legal Kurdish regions affect the adjacent Kurdish zone in Turkey? Which will digest the other? A good reader of Middle Eastern societies’ histories can easily foresee the answers to these questions.

The Kurds are at the apex of their historic march into earning nationhood. The deep problem of the Kurdish issue is simple: There is almost a Kurdish nation with no nation-state. Will they create their own nation-state? Or will existing nation-states (Syria and Turkey) even tolerate a Kurdish region like in Iraq? If both answers are not in the affirmative, the ethnic fight is likely to continue independent of the fate of the Assad regime in Damascus. One should not forget that the Kurdish problem in Turkey is not simply ethnic; instead, it is ethno-territorial, as a large zone exists that is dominated, and has been historically, by Kurds.

The bad news for Turkey is that there is a strategic value in the PYD for the West and even Russia. The PYD is a secular organization with experienced manpower, two qualities that no other group can offer. Yet, the Kurds’ fight against ISIS has nearly proven their legitimacy. Regardless of whether they are at the table in Geneva, the Kurds are key stakeholders in Syrian politics. Neither the U.S. nor Russia will stop seeing the Kurds as a critical partner. Ironically, Kurdish groups may establish such positive links with Iran, and even with the Assad regime. After all, we all should not forget that the legitimacy ticket for a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region would be given by Damascus.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by Today’s Zaman and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: Thousands of Kurdish students chant slogans during a demonstration on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, supporting the Kurdish language in the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria. Taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, Syria’s Kurdish minority has carved out a once unthinkable independence in their areas, creating their own police forces, even their own license plates, and exuberantly going public with their language and culture. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

The Author

Dr Gokhan Bacik is an associate professor of International Relations at Ipek University. Specializing in the field of state-society relations, he got his Ph D from Middle East Technical University, Ankara. His latest publications include Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008) as well as recent articles for Middle Eastern Studies, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Bacik is also an associate member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences.