The recent UN Security Council call for a ceasefire in Syria has had little more effect than its previous pleas for an end to the carnage: next to none. It is not just President Bashar al-Assad regime’s continuing bombardment of the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces in north-west Syria, which opened a new front in the seven-year-old war in January, is accelerating and expanding.
The operation, surreally titled Olive Branch, is popular inside Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is whipping up nationalism, stirring speculation he will call early elections to consolidate his one-man rule. Yet the cost to Turkey of Mr Erdogan’s military extroversion is high.
Not for the first time, Turkey’s assault on the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) sets it bitterly at odds with its Nato allies, especially the US, which relies on the YPG as its strike force in the battle against Isis jihadism. Turkey’s poisoned history with the region’s stateless Kurds — both those inside its borders and spread across Syria, Iraq and Iran — is one of many issues undermining Ankara’s withering relationship with the EU.
Turkey’s main goal in Syria is to weaken the self-governing Kurdish entity, which the Kurds call Rojava or western Kurdistan, that is being built across swaths of northern Syria by the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union party (PYD). Ankara insists both organisations are branches of the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), which resumed a 30-year-old insurgency inside Turkey in 2015 after a two-year ceasefire.
Five years ago, a more pragmatic Mr Erdogan was engaged in detente with the Kurds, in Turkey and its borderlands in northern Iraq and Syria. At that time, he was a third-term prime minister on the cusp of a presidency that he is now remodelling in the image of his ally in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.
Then, his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam, was still seen as a Muslim analogue of Europe’s Christian Democrats. Its Kurdish policy seemed to break with the Jacobin centralism of the Turkish republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Mr Erdogan went further than any leader in talks to end the PKK insurgency, opening a cultural and political space for Turkish Kurds and trying to bring Kurds in north Iraq and Syria into Turkey’s sphere of influence.
It was a risky idea but a bold one: to forestall the spectre of a Greater Kurdistan by trying to bind Kurds from both sides of the border into a prosperous, Sunni “Turkosphere”— two nations in one state insulated against the Shia axis Tehran was building from Baghdad to Beirut. That arc of Iranian power is now much stronger.
Ankara also made efforts to stop the Kurds of northern Iraq moving from home-rule to independence, after their much-criticised referendum last September. But it was Iranian intrigue that fatally divided the Iraqi Kurds, as well as Tehran-allied Shia militia that wrenched control of oil-rich territory such as Kirkuk, disputed between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Iran-backed Assad regime forces are also taking advantage of the Turkish drive against the YPG in Afrin to reclaim lost territory in north-west Syria. As the French scholar Fabrice Balanche observed, after the YPG drove Isis from its Raqqa stronghold last autumn, “the return of the governments of Baghdad and Damascus to the areas occupied by the Islamic State [Isis] also means the arrival of Iran”.
Turkey’s position would probably have been much stronger had it continued with Kurdish detente. Instead, a series of severe challenges — from mass protests in 2013 to a coup attempt in 2016 — appear to have convinced Mr Erdogan there are plots to topple him. His pollsters showed Kurdish outreach was costing him votes in 2015, when he lost his majority in June only to regain it in a rerun election in November, after war with the PKK had resumed.
Salih Muslim, a PYD leader, said recently in an interview with Al Monitor that “had Turkey . . . worked with the Kurds, it would have become the most powerful country in the Middle East”.
Is it too late for Turkey to resurrect that idea? Probably. As Mr Erdogan’s party throws red meat to the wolves of Turkish nationalism, the notion seems positively fanciful. Yet, just as the AKP was once a popular brand outside the region — credited with its ability to marry Islam with democracy — the Kurds have also caught the international imagination. They are lauded for the courage with which their fighters, women to the fore, halted the Isis juggernaut. Turks and Kurds together would have made a powerful combination. They still would. The ascent of Iran at Turkey’s expense only highlights that.
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