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The reverberations of Ocalan’s speech were felt not only in Turkey, but also across Iraq, Iran and Syria – the scope of land in which Ocalan’s party has a political and military presence. In Syria, the PKK-Turkey peace process could persuade the PKK to shift from its quasi-alliance with Damascus to a working relationship with the Syrian opposition. PKK collaboration with the opposition has already begun in many cases, and conducted in full spirit could deliver a profound blow to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The PKK’s Syrian sister party, the Partiya Yeketiya Demokratiya (PYD), has entrenched itself in Kurdish cities along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, in the northeast corner of Syria (Hasakeh), and in the majority-Kurdish suburbs of Aleppo (Achrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsood). The young party, founded in 2003, has managed in the past two years to rise from being virtually unknown outside of Syria to being the most powerful political and military Kurdish force in Syria.
The PYD has not only held its ground in the face of Syrian armed groups attempting to gain control in its territories, but it has also eclipsed Syrian Kurdish political competitors supported by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. The PYD has pulled this off with a mix of political pragmatism, a well-trained and well-armed group of fighters known as the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG), a strong presence on the ground filling the vacuum left by other Syrian Kurdish political leaders who sought refuge early on in Iraqi Kurdistan, some intimidation and repression of political competitors, and the provision of heart-and-mind winning services, such as opening Kurdish-language schools and distributing fuel.
A tacit agreement between the PYD and the Syrian regime also played a key role in the former’s rise to power. In 2011, when Turkey called for Assad to step down and began to support the Syrian opposition, Damascus gave the PYD a virtual carte blanche to establish military checkpoints and political activities in Syrian Kurdish cities along Turkey’s border. As part of the deal, the PYD played a role in repressing anti-regime demonstrations in Kurdish cities. Most importantly, by allowing the PYD to flourish, Assad created a powerful card he could play against Turkey.
The PYD’s rapid rise to power startled Ankara. Turkey’s initial reaction was to devise a policy in partnership with its Iraqi Kurdish ally, Barzani, who had his own interests and proxy parties in Syria. Turkey supported Barzani’s efforts to prop up the Kurdistan National Council (KNC), a muddled coalition of 16 distinct, and sometimes competing, Syrian Kurdish parties with little to no legitimate representation inside Syria. This strategy – propping up the KNC as a competitor to check the PYD’s rise to power – has since proven to be an utter failure. A diplomat based in the region said, “Turkey and the KRG’s policy on the PYD was denial from the outset. It wasn’t a successful policy. All of the Kurdistan parties in Syria are factions of one party [Partiya Kurdên Demoqratên Sûrî, founded in 1957] except for the PYD. Only the PYD is something new, and it is the strongest on the ground in Syria.”
Though Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, has pumped money into its proxies within the KNC, the KNC has fragmented to the point that it has all but ceased to exist. A force of Syrian Kurdish army defectors trained by Barzani has been unable to move into Syria because the PYD has explicitly warned it will challenge any force in the Kurdish region that is not part of YPG. Undeniably, the PYD has earned the seat of power in Kurdish Syria, while the KNC has become increasingly irrelevant.
In July 2012, the PYD asserted its authority in Syria in an extraordinary show of power – party members ousted Syrian government officials in several PYD stronghold cities and hoisted their own flag atop municipal buildings (the extent to which the Syrian government cooperated with this plan is debatable). By 2013, the prospect of a PKK affiliate party hostile to Turkey well-established in Syria, potentially capable of threatening Turkish interests inside Syria and opening a new front for the PKK conflict along Turkey’s border, induced a rethinking of strategy in Ankara. The PKK’s rise in Syria was one of several factors that pushed Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to engage Ocalan directly – a controversial step in Turkey- in order to initiate a serious peace process in early 2013.
While it remains unclear to what extent, if at all, the PYD has been explicitly part of the PKK-Turkey talks so far, the revitalized peace process creates an opportunity for Turkey to gain a new ally in its involvement in Syria. In the past, the PYD has been left out of Turkish- and Barzani- hosted negotiations; the party was not invited to KNC meetings in Erbil, a November 2012 Syrian opposition meeting in Qatar attended by Barzani and KNC members, or an August 2012 meeting in Erbil attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, Barzani, the KNC, and the Syrian National Council (SNC), a Turkish supported opposition group.
Yet since the PKK-Turkey ceasefire was announced, Davutoglu has made statements to the effect of announcing preconditions that, if met, would open a dialogue with the PYD. Foremost among these preconditions is that the PYD “should not support the Assad regime”. Likewise, after the announcement of a PKK-Turkey ceasefire, the PYD expressed its willingness to start a dialogue with Turkey. PYD leader Saleh Muslim expressed his support for the peace process, and said “If they [Turkish government] recognise the Kurds of Turkey, they cannot continue to deny recognition to the Kurds of Syria.”
If the PKK-Turkey peace process successfully reconciles the two sides, the Syrian regime and its allies will no longer be able to rely on the PKK/PYD as a card against Turkey. A shift in the PYD’s position from tacit agreement with the regime to collaboration with the opposition can give a boon to the opposition in several ways. The PYD can enable the Free Syrian Army (FSA) by allowing its forces to transit through their territories, most critically in Aleppo, where a pivotal battle between the regime and the FSA is raging on.
The PYD’s well-trained and well-armed forces can offer military might and instruction to the disorganized and inexperienced FSA. The PYD can weaken the regime by refusing to cooperate in the arrest and intimidation of anti-regime activists in Kurdish cities, acts that once earned them the unflattering nickname “Kurdish Shabbiha”. On the political level, the PYD may consider joining the internationally recognized Syrian Opposition Council (SOC), giving a much-needed credibility boost to the SOC, which is criticized for being too Sunni and Arab dominated.
The PYD’s relationship with the regime is best described as a nuanced marriage of convenience, respected at times and disregarded at others. While the group has cooperated with the regime in repressing anti-regime demonstrations in Kurdish cities, it has called for the fall of the regime and shown a willingness to work with the Syrian opposition at other times.
The PYD and FSA have clashed in Tell Tamir and Ras al Ayn, and made agreements to collaborate on other occasions, most notably in February 2013 (soon after the initiation of direct talks between Turkey and Ocalan). The PKK, a secular party founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, is unnerved by the pan-Islamic ideology of many Sunni Islamist groups. The PYD views the intrusion of any armed group, especially Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, into Kurdish territories as a threat to the YPG’s authority and a preemptive assault on Kurdish aspirations to self-determination. Yet as the regime’s resilience has waned, the ever-pragmatic party has been pressed to hedge its bets with the opposition.
Eva Savelsberg, an analyst at KurdWatch, a Berlin-based NGO, explained that forging ties with the Syrian opposition could also help the PYD trounce its Kurdish competitors. “The PYD’s militia is already on occasion fighting on the side of the opposition, for example in Aleppo,” she said. “[But] cooperating with the Syrian opposition doesn’t necessarily mean that the conflict between the PYD and the KNC will diminish, because even if the PYD does work with the opposition they will still want to control the Kurdish areas. It may well be in the PYD’s interest to work with the opposition if the opposition is the group that has the most influence over the course of events in Syria. In this case, the PYD will want to cooperate, maybe strike a deal with them in order to be the group that is in officially in charge of administering the Kurdish regions.”
While the Turkey-PKK peace process may pave a path for a working relationship between the PYD and the Syrian opposition, it does not pacify the competitive tension between the KNC and the PYD, and more broadly between Barzani and Ocalan respectively. Without a nonviolence agreement in place, the entrance of Barzani’s trained force into Syria could spark clashes between his force and the YPG. The risk of Kurdish infighting is especially high over the key Kurdish city of Qamishli, where Barzani-affiliated parties have their strongest showing, and oil fields in nearby Rumeylan. Even if the Turkey-PKK peace process creates opportunities for the PYD to work with the Syrian opposition, internal Kurdish divisions may render the Kurdish factor to be yet another conflict driver in Syria.
Damascus and its allies Tehran and Baghdad have indicated their aversions to the Turkey-PKK peace process; Baghdad, for example, announced on May 14 it plans to ask the UN to block PKK fighters from withdrawing to Iraq from Turkey, as is stipulated in the peace process plan. As a Kurdish analyst with close ties to the PKK said that the peace process “risks taking the Kurdish card from Iran’s hands into Turkey’s.” The analyst continued, “The Iraqi Kurdish card is already more in Turkey’s hands than in Iran’s, but until Turkey solves its Kurdish problem at home, it cannot fully employ this card. Iran is now afraid that the Kurdish card will fall into Turkey’s hand, and if this happens, Turkey can play around the neighborhood as it pleases.”
Adding to Iran’s fears, a PKK realignment with a Turkish/Western axis could breathe new life into PJAK, the Iranian branch of the PKK which has since 2011 declared a ceasefire in Iran. Moreover, the PKK-Turkey agreement stipulates that armed PKK fighters must withdraw from Turkey to the Qandil mountains in Iraq, putting a new group of armed Kurdish fighters directly on Iran’s border, or inside Iran or Syria if those fighters choose to join PJAK or PYD, respectively.
To convince the PYD to shift to the opposition camp in Syria, and risk the relations the PKK/PYD has strategically built with Iran and more recently Damascus, Turkey needs to make it worth their time. If the peace process moves forward, there is a real opportunity for the Syrian opposition movement – at least its secular elements not ideologically opposed to Kurdish political gains in Syria – to gain from the PYD’s participation.