The Syria Conflict Is Spilling Into Turkey In Ominous New Ways

YPG Kurds SyriaStringer ./REUTERSMembers of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) man a weapon mounted on a pick-up truck as they take position behind cement blocks in the Iraqi city of Rabia on the Iraqi-Syrian border

The Syrian civil war has become a Pandora’s box in the Middle East. The conflict ripped the country apart before leading to spillover violence in Iraq, Lebanon, and the UN-patrolled border region with Israel in the Golan Heights.

Now, it might be Turkey’s turn.

Turkey’s refusal to resolve the crisis in the Kurdish border city Kobane has enraged the country’s Kurds. The situation threatens to further complicate the region’s political and security dynamics — or even restart a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey itself.

Turkey’s Kobane Calculation

The ongoing conflict in Syria has become intensely focused on the Kurdish city of Kobane, located almost exactly on top of the Turkish-Syrian border. And the repercussions of the Syrian civil war in are now being felt broadly across Turkey — violently, at times.

Turkey, a NATO member, has been hesitant to become directly involved in the war in Syria and has not joined US-led coalition strikes against ISIS. Instead, Turkey has stuck to a policy where it demands that any meaningful strikes against ISIS must also include concrete efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

But this reluctance to become militarily involved in Syria has led to an uproar amongst the nation’s Kurdish minority, who make up an estimated 20% of Turkey’s overall population.

Turkish troops on the border are currently able to view the fighting in Kobane, but have refused to become involved in a battle that observers warn could turn into a massacre of Kurdish civilians if the city falls to ISIS.

Turkey kobaneREUTERS/Umit BektasTurkish army tanks take position on top of a hill near Mursitpinar border crossing in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 11, 2014.

Adding to the frustration, Turkey has refused to open a humanitarian corridor between its border checkpoint of Mursitpinar and Kobane. According to Turkey’s foreign minister, the opening of a humanitarian corridor would allow civilian fighters to stream into Kobane and actually constitute a war crime.

The limitation of Turkish Kurds crossing into Syria has less to do with concern over legality, however, and more to do with Turkey gaining strategic leverage over two Kurdish groups — the Syrian YPG and the Turkish PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU.

Soner Cagaptay, a Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sums up the relationship between Turkey and Kobane in one sentence: “Ankara wants to use the battle for Kobane to make the PKK/PYD recognise that they need Turkey to survive in Syria, thus folding the Kurds under its strategic vision for Syria’s future.”

PKK militantJames Gordon/en.wikipedia.orgA PKK militant in the mountains, December 2008

But the Kurds have not folded in the face of dual pressure from Turkey and ISIS.

Instead, the PKK has upped the stakes.

The Peace Process Breaks Down In Turkey

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the PKK, has announced that the two-year-old peace process between Turkey and the separatists would end by October 15 if steps were not taken to aid Kobane and if there weren’t concrete progress towards enacting the policies agreed upon between the PKK and Turkey.

But rapprochement between the PKK and Turkey — a signature policy of Turkish president Reccip Tayyip Erdogan — has already hit a dead end.

Turkish warplanes struck suspected PKK positions after the rebels shelled a military outpost in southeastern Turkey, according to the Turkish military. These were the first major airstrikes carried out against the PKK since the peace process began two years ago.

Should the peace efforts fall apart, Turkish President Erdogan and his ruling AKP party could face a serious public backlash.

Erdogan spent considerable political capital in an effort to reach an agreement with the Kurds and end the three-decade-long PKK insurgency, which has killed upwards of 40,000 people. These overtures wor his party considerable support among Kurds, who would likely abandon the PKK should fighting between Kurds and the Turkish military begin again.

Kurdish youth have already taken to the streets early last week in massive demonstrations across Turkey against what they saw as the government’s complicity with the siege of Kobane. Dozens of Kurds were reportedly killed in the government clampdown on the protests, and the PKK called its fighters back into Turkey for a possible resumption of hostilities against the Turkish state.

Map reuters kurdsReutersMap of the Middle East showing distribution of the Kurdish population in the region.

The Turkey-PKK conflict has raged at various levels of intensity since 1984. During the three decades of fighting, over 40,000 people were killed and the east of Turkey suffered substantial economic damage. In total, it is estimated the fight against the PKK has cost Turkey upwards of $US450 billion.

Should fighting between the PKK and Turkey resume, the fight against ISIS will become even more complicated as the PKK, one of the most capable forces in the fight against ISIS, will also return to a state of war with Turkey.

This development would make Turkish participation against ISIS in Syria even more unlikely as any anti-ISIS intervention would aid the Kurds.

Along with the rise of ISIS, the displacement of 9 million Syrians, the destabilization of Iraq and Lebanon, a sustained US bombing campaign in the region, and the deaths of some 200,000 people, renewed conflict between Turkey and the PKK would be yet another consequence of the Syria conflagration that might have seemed unthinkable when the conflict began 3 years ago.

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