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Is a peace deal between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds possible?

By Paul Iddon 6/12/2018
Qamishli, Syria : A young girl stands in front of fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they attend the funeral of a fellow fighter killed in the town of Hajin during battles against the Islamic State (IS) group, in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishly in northeastern Syria, on December 3, 2018. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
Qamishli, Syria : A young girl stands in front of fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they attend the funeral of a fellow fighter killed in the town of Hajin during battles against the Islamic State (IS) group, in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishly in northeastern Syria, on December 3, 2018. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
Tensions between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey heightened once again in late October after the latter shelled the former and threatened to invade the Kurdish regions of northeast Syria. Decisive US intervention prevented the standoff from escalating.

The last thing Washington wants, so long as it has forces in Syria fighting ISIS, is a war between Turkey and its allies in the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Its recent establishment of "observation posts" in key areas along the Syrian border with Turkey following the clashes strongly indicates it wants to retain a stalemate of sorts between the two sides there, at least for the meantime. 

Despite these heightened tensions, YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmud told Rudaw later in November that his organization is "ready to resolve the issues through dialogue with the nation and state of Turkey."

Mahmud defined the Turkish nation as being at odds with its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party. Nevertheless, his assertion that the YPG is ready for negotiations with Ankara may signal that there is some, albeit remote, possibility of talks that could lead to a ceasefire or even some kind of peace agreement. 

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, pledged in a series of talks with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2012-14 to never attack Turkey. It has lived up to this promise despite increased Turkish aggression and attacks in recent months, including Ankara's unprovoked invasion of Afrin last January. 

With this being the case, and US troops physically standing in the way on the border, could Ankara make some kind of agreement with the PYD? Or is the Turkish leadership simply too hell-bent on removing the group from its southern border regardless of the consequences?
 Rudaw English put this question to analysts familiar with the matter. 

"The PYD may want a dialogue with Turkey, but the Turkish government doesn't seem to feel the same way about them," said Barin Kayaoglu, professor of history and a faculty fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).

"Local elections will take place in Turkey in March 2019, and the ruling AKP needs the ultra-nationalist MHP's [Nationalist Movement Party] support to maintain its hold on critical municipalities throughout the country, but especially in Istanbul and Ankara," he added. "Any 'normalization' with the PYD right now would spell doom for the AKP."

Another likely condition Turkey will have for even contemplating a ceasefire would be for the PYD to give iron-clad guarantees and proof that it has no active links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose main base of operation is Qandil Mountain in the Kurdistan Region. 

The US is reportedly already asking the group to make sure this is the case. According to BBC journalist Riam Dalati, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition held a meeting with leaders of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish fighting-force in Kobane back in mid-November. 

"A compliance investigation highlighted the YPG-core continuing relations with the PKK," during that meeting Dalati tweeted. "Coalition advised all relations should be cut, and money flow to Qandil stopped." 

Kayaoglu predicted that even if the PYD/YPG conclusively proves it has severed all its links with the PKK, "that may not be enough to sway the Turkish side." 

"In many Turkish minds, PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan equals PKK and PKK equals PYD because the PYD takes Ocalan's 'democratic autonomy' idea as its guide," he explained. "Ankara uses that as a pretext to hit PYD/YPG/SDF."

"But that is not to say that Turkey is 'hell-bent' on destroying the PYD," he added. "The Turks have signaled that, if YPG and/or SDF forces retreat from the border stretching from Kobane to Qamishli, they'll leave the PYD alone for the time being. I'm not sure if that's acceptable to the PYD/YPG/SDF though."

Kobane and Qamishli are the two primary Syrian Kurdish cities. Qamishli is the capital of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) and Kobane is an important symbol for Kurds given its enormous significance in the battle against ISIS. It was there YPG broke the brutal siege against the city and afflicted the marauding jihadist group with its first major battlefield defeat. Consequently, the PYD/YPG would unlikely vacate these two important urban centres willingly. 

The key to the future of northeast Syria, Kayaoglu predicted, is the ultimate longevity of the US military presence.

"I'm not sure if the Americans are there to stay long term," he said. 

"The largest internal political crisis in US history since Watergate is in the making (the Mueller investigation on President Donald Trump), and in such circumstances, American troops tend to return home," he noted, pointing out that a mere eight months after President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the North Vietnamese overran South Vietnam.

"Overall, the US public and their leaders lack the strategic patience to maintain their hold on prime geopolitical real estate," he concluded. "As the Assad regime recovers more territory, northern Syria's autonomy might become more uncertain – especially if there are no US forces there."

Professor Joshua Landis, a noted Syria analyst and the Director for the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, also expressed skepticism at the possibility of any kind of agreement between Turkey and the YPG. 

"It is unlikely that Turkey will climb down from its present position of demanding that the YPG be abandoned by the US and treated like a terrorist organization," Landis said. 

"Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria all have good reason to believe that the United States will eventually tire of supporting the YPG in north Syria," he added. "Just a few days ago, Ambassador Jeffrey said to a CNN correspondent that the US policy is not to eliminating Iranian influence in Syria."

Ambassador James Jeffrey is the United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement. He has spoken in favour of the US remaining in northeast Syria until the complete destruction of ISIS and the withdrawal of Iranian-backed proxy forces from Syria. 

However, when CNN asked him about the secondary Iran-related goal, Jeffreys admitted that "I wish I could say that but that's not US policy." 

This strongly implies that Washington's presence in Syria will only endure until it completes its original ad-hoc goal for intervening – the elimination of ISIS. 

Lawk Ghafuri, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, is more optimistic about the prospect of an Ankara-YPG peace deal. 

"So long as the US makes sure its interests in Rojava are safe and secure they don't care who controls that area," Ghafuri said. "The current PYD/YPG presence does serve its immediate interests there." 

As a result, Washington opposes Ankara taking any major action against the YPG so long as it needs that group for the ongoing fight against ISIS remnants in the middle Euphrates River valley. 

In the long-term, Ghafuri argues that the Kurds of Rojava need "to start a dialogue with Turkey" just as the KRG did a decade ago, which led to a substantial thaw in relations and a reduction in tensions. 

Washington, he reasoned, could help make this happen since Turkey would likely make substantial compromises in order to successfully take delivery of the fleet of fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter-bombers it ordered from the United States. Washington could, therefore, condition delivery of these warplanes on Turkey not attacking the PYD/YPG, after once again giving Ankara guarantees that the group will not threaten its border. 
Ghafuri also argues that this is only possible if the PYD demonstrably proves it has no affiliation with the PKK. 

"To make that even clearer the PYD/YPG need to show they are against the PKK," he added. 

"Also, in order for the Rojava Kurds to come to the negotiating table with Ankara they need to safeguard American interests in the region as much as they can, and slowly show they have no links to the Assad regime, Russia or Iran," he concluded. 


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Peace for Kurdistan | 6/12/2018
The PKK must end hostilities with Turkey, since the Kurds are the loosers and are the only victims of this horrendous war that costs generations of young Kurds being killed for nothing other than death, destruction and poverty. The Kurds must stop fighting because they have no international support at all and the United States has once and again betrayed them and have sided with their oppressors everywhere.
Hama | 6/12/2018
If only PKK would give up on power in Rojava or at the very least share power with the Kurdish opposition in Rojava and specifically KDP in Syria, all of this could be avoided and Kurds would be protected in Syria for years to come with Turkey even defending Kurds from Assad when the time comes with whom they have very bad relations. But PKK won't budge at any cost. They will drag Kurds into the grave with them. Kurds in syria are either too brainwashed or too scared to speak up against PKK's authoritarian rule. I don't know what PKK is thinking. Sacrifising kurdish youth fighting ISIS and doing the dirty job for America. Do they serioualy expect America to help them long term with all the populism going on in the west? Or are they betting on making a deal with Assad and officially becoming servants of Iran.
guest2002 | 7/12/2018
Turks are no friends of Kurds. Before there was a PKK, turks killed and slaughtered Kurds and Armenians and .......... and Kurds have every right to defend themselves by any means possible. And Kurds have every right to form groups and parties . And why not ask Turks to mind their own business and leave Kurds alone. Turks helped ISIS and other jihadis kill Kurds. Turks gave jihadis weapon to kill Kurds. Turks trained jihadis to kill Kurds. Turks invaded kurdish lands. Turks are jihadi terrorists, while PKK has helped fight against jihadis and we saw them fight against ISIS in Shangal to save Yezidis in Shangal and fought inKirkuk against shiia jihadis, whenKDP and PUK just ran away and left Kurdish civilians defenseless!!! Shame on those who sell out their Kurdish brethren to Turks, Arabs and Persians!!!
Enough of PKK | 7/12/2018
PKK are hell bent on killing Kurds. They don't care about Kurdish lives.
Tron | 7/12/2018
i really cant understand why kurds have to justify themselve in face of millenia long onslaught lies and deception against them. the turks wont offer such thing because they know kurds are very well aware of turkish psychopathic and neurotic love for treason and killing of its closest allies like americans saudis soviets kurds armenians byzatnians mongols iranian ...

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