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Erdogan and Syria’s Kurds: Who is the Cat and Who is the Mouse?

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Whatever it is, the show is on, and we have still some time before we hear “That is all, folks”. According to eyewitnesses in Gaziantep, the small but key town on Turkish-Syria borders, Erdogan already sent 35 tanks to the border region. What is discussed in Ankara is the establishment of a Safe Zone (SZ) extending along the borders from Idlib to Adana to Azaz to Manbij to Kobani to Tal Abyad. The US ruled out officially any intentions to establish a buffer zone that directly involves American capabilities. Yet, the idea of helping the Kurds to establish such a zone on their own seems to be challenged by a US major regional ally.

Erdogan did not yet deploy forces in any point other than Gaziantep. Nothing unusual was detected in Barak across the all-important Jarabulus in Syria. Nothing in Rihanli and nothing in Killis, Akcakale or Cobanbey. Erdogan needs to deploy more forces along this border arch if he indeed intends to invade Syria. Could he be bluffing?

Yes, he could. Yet, there is no question that he is now restless after the capture of Tal Abyad by the PYD. (The Democratic Union Part-PYD-is the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Worker’s Party-PKK- and its military wing the People’s Protection Units-YPG). The direction of events across the borders is exactly the opposite of what he hoped for. He believes that Washington’s reluctance to agree with previously discussed plans to establish a SZ in the North of Syria was intentionally meant to empower the Kurds to control an East-West border strip that maybe helpful as a buffer zone.

The belief common in Ankara is that the Americans are only focused on ISIL and that they are not serious about getting rid of Assad. They, the Americans, consider the Kurds a friendly force because it fights ISIL. But Erdogan’s list of concerns grants the top to the Kurds, followed by Assad second. ISIL is evaluated in Ankara according to its position on both enemy accounts. Why should the Turks be motivated to fight ISIL at least in the current situation on their borders?

The Kurds themselves care mainly about controlling their region and potentially a little more if possible. They are encouraged to focus on this “little more” so far as it means fighting ISIL. If ISIL and the Kurds are fighting against each other that will certainly please Assad as well. A Kurdish win will make his enemy Erdogan very unhappy. An ISIL win will make the Americans unhappy. As for him and his regime, the North is already a “cas perdu”-a hopeless case-anyway. It is lost now and will remain lost for long time to come. But if Turkey enters the North, that will disrupt the entertaining show for Assad and his gang in Damascus.

At the current moment, the Turkish military deployment near the borders with Syria is meant to be a pressure tactic. Erdogan’s Generals oppose an intervention in Syria and so do the allies in NATO. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu asked the UN to create a SZ in the North of Syria. A UN controlled SZ may abort Kurdish plans to create their own entity in the North and “internationalize” the whole issue. Erdogan warned all who may listen, and primarily the Kurds of course, that he “will never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s borders”.

But whatever the fuming Erdogan imagines himself to be, he has a point here. By rushing things too much too fast, the Kurds of Syria make themselves more dependent on a friend who prefers to do too little too late. The realpolitik of KRG President in Iraq Massoud Barazani is more prudent in such circumstances. The debate within the quasi leftist PKK now is centered on whether this is the right moment to fulfil the long due national aspiration of the Kurdish people. To determine the answer, the only reference that should be analyzed is the balance of power between the relevant forces. It is not an ideological or moral issue. It is political.

The PKK, with its allies in North Syria, are alienating Sunni opposition, fighting ISIL, cleansing regions doomed strategic for their project from Arabs and may soon be fighting the Turks. Too much, too fast usually is as shortsighted as too little, too late. A strategy does not obtain its justification from objective necessity alone, much less from ideological or moral arguments, it should be based mainly on the availability of means and resources to achieve a clear set of goals within a specific balance of power. It also requires a well-researched understanding of its consequences and the nature of the expected resistance. Ancient Egyptians engraved on the wall of one of their temples: Sleep a night before you talk. Sleep two before you do. Time to reflect and think over. Barazani is not popular with the PKK, but he better be given credits for carefully navigating his boat in such stormy unexplored waters.

The Kurds should not fight other powers’ wars. They should be cautious in stepping outside their historical territories. There is no free lunch in the current Syrian moving sand. While they work to achieve their legitimate national aspirations within their historical areas, they should build strong ties with the rest of the Syrians around them who are trying to achieve their own national aspirations. Going out of their areas, if without a broader alliance with other Syrian Arab moderate opposition groups, will cast them in a negative image in the eyes of the rest of Syrians. It will be Syrians, not Americans, who will be their neighbors for a long time to come.

A Turkish operation in Syria will be different than similar previous interventions in Iraq in that the former may be a long term attrition. Former Turkish Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Ilker Basbug believes that such an operation will be “long term”. The operation will require 18 thousand troops in its first phase. Its requirements in the following phases do not seem to be sufficiently studied by the impulsive Turkish President. For now, Erdogan is likely to blink. But will he make his bold move sometime tomorrow?

Turkey’s relations with ISIL are frequently covered in media reports, however exaggerated at times. ISIL, for Erdogan, is as helpful as it weakens Assad and the PYD. As the PYD is turning now to be a force to reckon with in the chaotic North Syria, ties between the Turks and ISIL will only strengthen. The exaggeration will turn to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. From now on, it will be even harder for Washington to convince the naturally suspicious Erdogan of anything related to Syria whatsoever. The Turkish President better be advised to take a deep breath and listen to what the ancient Egyptians wrote on their temple. He will only push his forces into the explosive mix of North Syria. And he should not hope for an international political cover whatsoever.

Erdogan is in a tough spot. His choices are difficult indeed. He may in his despair make the Kurdish choices as difficult and ignore the Pharos’ advice. The only way to ease him out is for the Kurds and the international players to provide the Turkish President with more credible guarantees that the ceiling of the Kurds in Syria is similar to that in Iraq so far as Syria remains a single country even only in name. It will be a sign of prudence by the Kurds. It is not going to help anyone, including the Turks and the Kurds, if Turkish troops enter Syria. Furthermore, if the Turks go to North Syria, will there be any guarantee they will ever pull back again?

The PYD in its part should credibly and practically address the concerns of the Turkish President. PYD leader Saleh Muslem denied any intentions to establish their own state in North Syria. But the PKK and Ankara have been in war in South East Turkey for decades without any serious prospects of a Kurdish state there, not in the medium term at least. Furthermore, nobody believes Muslem, not even his followers.

PKK-Ankara peace talks could turn to be a crucial element in calming the elephant who wants to enter the North Syria china store.