Turkey-PKK Tensions Continue to Impact Foreign Policy, U.S. Syria Efforts

erdogan Foreign Policy

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unveiled a plan last week to “bolster security and rebuild areas ravaged by conflict” that included bringing civil society groups to reinstated peace-talks, and implementing economic reforms such as interest-free loans for farmers. He emphasized that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) would not be invited to the talks unless they ceased violence. Davutoglu’s speech echoed President Erdogan’s January 20th statement about the “solution” to the Kurdish problem, which included first “[purging] the region of the terrorists and restoring public order,” and then sitting down with Kurdish citizens to determine a solution. However many argue that “restoring public order” to the region–eliminating the Islamic State and defeating the Assad regime–is not possible without addressing the “Kurdish problem” first.

There is growing concern in the international community with Turkey’s domestic politics and continued conflict with Kurds–in addition to the government’s continued crackdown on political dissidents, which has been highlighted by the European Commission for Human Rights and Freedom House earlier this month–but with the impact it has had on the United States’ efforts in the region. Henri Barkey wrote in Foreign Policy, “Turkey’s relations with almost all of its neighbors have soured. At the same time, tensions with the United States, European Union, and Russia have all dramatically increased. If Ankara has any sway today, it is mostly because of its geography — which gives it proximity to Syria and the refugee calamity — and its willingness to use strong-arm tactics in diplomatic transactions.”

In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week on “Political Trends in Turkey 2016,” Dr. Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkey Studies at the Middle East Institute, asserted that “without a rapid political solution to the Kurdish problem, Turkey will remain an ineffective partner in the fight against ISIS, derail future efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and fail to play a constructive role in Iraq and the region…To secure Turkey’s full cooperation in Syria, Iraq, and the fight against ISIS, the United States must use its leverage to push both parties to return to the negotiating table.”

Ed Stafford and Soner Cagaptay described that Ankara’s second priority in the Syrian civil war is preventing the PYD forces allied with the PKK from connecting their various territories and forming a cordon in the North. President Erdogan seeks to eliminate the PKK-PYD stronghold and to ensure that the Kurds do not continue to take advantage of the chaos and become more empowered, as the Syrian Kurds have done. This priority is second to defeating Assad and considered more important  to Turkish forces than defeating the Islamic State.

The Turkey-PYD conflict has also complicated the UN peace talks on ending Syria’s civil war, as Turkey refuses to join the talks unless the PYD is excluded. Ambermin Zaman of the Wilson Center asserts that “the  longer Turkey delays fixing its Kurdish problem, the bigger it will grow. It is time for Washington to recognize that Turkey’s relations with the Kurds are inextricably bound with its own national interests. It is time for Washington to have a Kurdish policy.