BACKGROUND: On 21 March 2013, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan, declared a historic unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state. Halting a thirty year insurgency that cost over 40,000 lives, the peace talks between the government of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Öcalan have enjoyed broad public support. With the ceasefire occurring eight months after the July 2012 establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria by the PKK-affiliated PYD, an opportunity existed for the Erdoğan government to arrive at a grand bargain to create a de facto greater Kurdistan client state on Turkey’s southern border.
Such a grand bargain is potentially congruent with the PKK’s own pan-Kurdish regional agenda, developed in response to Turkey’s 1999 capture of Öcalan and the re-emergence of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) after the 1998 Washington Agreement ended a four-year, intra-Kurdish civil war in Iraq. To outflank its political rival the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by KRG President Massoud Barzani, the PKK established affiliated parties in the three other regions of greater Kurdistan from 2002 to 2004 – including the PYD in Syria in 2003. Öcalan then promulgated his 2005 "Declaration of a Democratic Confederalism," envisioning a confederation of four autonomous Kurdish regions, each simultaneously in a federal relationship with the particular state in which it exists.
The PYD’s establishment of three autonomous cantons in Syrian Kurdistan constituted a major breakthrough for the PKK’s program. Reflecting the PKK's confederalist agenda, the PYD refers to its cantons as Rojavayê Kurdistanê (‘Western Kurdistan’) or more commonly Rojava (‘the West’), undermining the KRG’s authority with the implication that Iraqi Kurdistan is simply 'Bashur' ('the South') and belongs in a pan-Kurdish confederation.
If Ankara were able to reach an understanding with Öcalan and provide Turkish Kurdistan or ‘Bakur’ (‘the North’) with some semblance of autonomy, an Ankara-oriented PKK/PYD confederation would dominate approximately two-thirds of the greater Kurdistan population. Given Öcalan’s confederalist agenda, an accord between the AKP government and the PKK could have resulted in a Turkish grand strategy for Kurdistan whereby the KRG remained sufficiently autonomous to continue energy exports to Turkey but constrained from outright independence by being subsumed into a pan-Kurdish confederation. The KRG and Rojava would become part of a de facto greater Kurdistan client state serving as a “buffer zone” insulating Turkey’s southern borders.
However, the AKP needs to retain the support of a segment of the right-wing, Turkish nationalist voter base, as evidenced by the August 10 presidential election results (See August 13, 2014 Turkey Analyst) and therefore has been slow to meet Kurdish expectations for some form of local autonomy and language rights. Indeed, Turkey had abetted the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to undermine the PYD-led autonomous region of Rojava. With the besieged PYD defenders of Kobane surrounded by ISIS on three sides, the Turkish government stationed tanks and soldiers on its border with Kobane to prevent Kurdish volunteers and supplies from reinforcing the autonomous Kurdish enclave. The Turkish government views the PYD with deep suspicion because of its ties to the PKK. Smoldering Kurdish resentment within Turkey erupted into four days of violence during October 7-10, leaving over 40 people dead, hundreds wounded, and thousands of buildings torched.
IMPLICATIONS: As late as October 18, 2014, President Erdoğan continued to purvey the notion that the PYD and the PKK were equivalent and that the PYD was a terrorist organization. Despite Erdoğan’s rhetoric, on October 20, 2014, the United States airdropped weapons and munitions to PYD forces defending Kobane. The direct military cooperation between the United States and the PYD was the outcome of talks between the PYD and the U.S. as well as intense negotiations between the PYD and the KRG.
After a week of negotiations during October 14-21 in Dohuk conducted under the auspices of KRG President Barzani, the PYD agreed to a 30-member council to govern Rojava that would share power with Syrian Kurdish parties more closely aligned with the political parties in the KRG. The KDP-dominated Kurdistan Regional Parliament concurrently approved Barzani’s request to send KRG Peshmerga fighters to Kobane. The events signal a marked change in the nature of the relationship between the KDP and the PYD. In April 2014, the KRG had dug a 17 km trench between the PYD’s cantons and Kurdish areas in Iraq ostensibly to prevent ISIS fighters in Syria from crossing into Iraq. PKK/PYD-affiliated media denounced the trench as Barzani’s venal attempt to divide Rojava from Bashur, demonstrating the KRG’s betrayal of greater Kurdistan.
With large quantities of Western military aid being sent exclusively to Erbil, the PYD has realized its need to develop a political modus vivendi with the KDP-led KRG. In the course of the Dohuk negotiations, PYD Chairman Salih Müslim also met with a delegation led by U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken on October 18 and reiterated the PYD’s commitment to participate in a broad campaign against ISIS. The U.S. airdrop of weapons and munitions to PYD forces in Kobane followed on October 20. Ankara then followed upon Washington’s action by announcing that it would allow the transit of two hundred KRG Peshmerga through Turkey to join the defense of Kobane, reversing its previous rejections of PYD requests to open a land corridor for the resupply of Kobane. If the Peshmerga engage ISIS with the heavy weapons it has recently acquired from Western powers, they will significantly tilt the balance of forces in favor of the Kurds.
A Kurdish victory in Kobane achieved through KRG reinforcements facilitated by Turkey would benefit Ankara from several respects. The more conservative KDP is the only Kurdish party with which Turkey’s AKP government has relations. With the PYD dependent on the KDP-led KRG for weapons and additional fighters and Rojava governed by a broader coalition of parties, the KRG’s growing influence in Rojava could serve to bring the autonomous Kurdish areas of Syria into greater alignment with Turkey.
Quite importantly, a Turkey-facilitated KRG-PYD military alliance would diminish the influence of acting PKK political leader Cemil Bayık who remains hostile to Ankara and favors alignment with Tehran. Bayık believes that the PKK's all-Kurdistan agenda is best be served by aligning with Iran's support for the Shiite government in Baghdad and the Alawite government in Damascus. Bayık's position had enjoyed widespread support, as PKK and PYD fighters had been defending Rojava from ISIS and al-Qaeda attacks abetted by Turkey. Should Ankara deepen its cooperation with the PYD in coordination with the KRG, the Bayık current in the PKK would be significantly weakened providing Abdullah Öcalan the political opportunity move the PKK closer to Ankara and Erbil. In what may be a telling sign, as the Dohuk negotiations commenced on October 14, Osman Öcalan, the brother of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, declared his support for Barzani’s KDP. Referring to the KDP as “the mother of the Kurdish national movement,” Öcalan informed the Kurdish press of his intention to form a conservative Kurdish party within Turkey modeled on the KDP. While the Turkish public may find it difficult to accept the entrance of the PKK in to the political arena as a legitimate actor, it may accept the party operating under a new name or in a new coalition.
CONCLUSIONS: Concurrent with Turkey’s agreement to open a corridor for KRG Peshmerga fighters to reinforce Kobane, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced the AKP and PKK have agreed to a roadmap to reach a peace agreement.
Although details have not been released, both Davutoğlu and deputies from the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who are in frequent communication with Abdullah Öcalan have expressed optimism for a breakthrough within six months, two months prior to Turkey’s July general elections. If the AKP-PKK roadmap offers a meaningful accommodation of Kurdish demands within Turkey, dispelling the growing impression that the AKP is simply stringing the Kurds along, Ankara is poised to create a more amenable constellation of Kurdish political allies.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: Boris Niehaus via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0)