After the US airdrops over Kobane, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he has a hard time understanding why the town is so strategic for the United States. Erdogan also may have a hard time grasping the myriad US national security interests at stake in a post-Bashar Assad Syria.
Only a day before the ammunition airdrops to the Kurdish fighters in Kobane, Erdogan repeated that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is equal to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) -- a “terrorist” organization that cannot be bolstered with arms.
"It would be wrong for the United States — with whom we are friends and allies in NATO — to talk openly and to expect us to say 'yes' to such a support to a terrorist organization," Erdogan said. Within 48 hours, the Turkish government declared it would grant the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces passage to Kobane, as a response to Washington’s approval of arms transfers to PYD.
For the first time, the White House publicly stated that PYD is different from PKK, thus not considered a terrorist group by the United States.
Does US-PYD cooperation signal a change in Washington’s grand strategy in the war on the Islamic State (ISIS)?
The US-PYD rapprochement is aimed at sending a clear message to Ankara to negotiate a road map in Syria. The Obama administration seems to prove that it is Turkey which has more to lose in the case of non-cooperation.
Eric Edelman, former US ambassador to Turkey, is among many in Washington’s opinion circles who called for a benign neglect in the past few months. “We have communicated by what we’ve said and what we’ve done over a decade that we think Turkey is absolutely essential to what we do and that is irreplaceable and that we need Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States, NATO, and the West,” Edelman told Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center earlier this month. “I think that’s a mistake and I think that we continue to do this at our own peril.”
Edelman’s comments are especially worth considering when analyzed next to 2013 report on the issue, “US-Turkish cooperation toward a post-Assad Syria.”
It highlights the significance of Turkey but also notes dire challenges as American and Turkish interests are diverging. The main issue at stake is how a post-Assad Syria looks. “The Erdogan government has not shown much concern for Syrian minorities. Indeed, its support for Muslim Brotherhood-allied rebels in Syria would seem to indicate that Turkey is pursuing a sectarian agenda,” the report says.
For nearly two years, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have failed to allay such suspicions in Washington. The AKP government’s stubborn insistence on removal of the Assad regime increasingly backfires, as the Obama administration pays grants urgent attention to the Iraq crisis.
Kobane has become a significant battlefield primarily because of its symbolic importance in the larger war in Iraq. Thus, it is not realistic to expect the Obama administration to push hard against the Assad regime in the near future.
Syria is a microcosm of the larger regional competition between Sunnis and Shiites. Northern Syria is already a failed state. Simply removing Assad, therefore, is not enough to introduce stability in the region. Preventing anti-Western militants from gaining yet another haven is a major priority for Washington.
In order to gain Western trust, the PYD has capitalized on its secular identity, especially through promoting women in its ranks. Kurdish women fighters who are dying for freedom have been represented in Western media next to ISIS cruelty against women. The PKK’s accumulated repertoire, due to its Marxist heritage, has proven to be effective in helping the PYD’s public image. The PKK ideology has long reconstructed “Kurdish women” through a utopian symbolism. In its early stages, the PKK narrated the enslavement of Kurds through images of captive women under tribal patriarchy. Since the early 1990s, the emancipation of Kurdish women has become a dominating discourse in the movement. In a conceptual perspective, it is not surprising: any nascent form of nationalism depicts free women to symbolize a free motherland.
Yet, there is more than meets the eye in the PKK case. Through its images of women, the PKK and the PYD aim to convince the West that they are pro-democracy and thus reliable partners in the region against Islamist extremists.
The PYD’s success in Syria, however, depends on its broader strategy of power-sharing among Kurds. Without a strong Kurdish unity and some form of a democratic parliament, Washington would remain reluctant to support Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Such a power-sharing project would also ease Turkey’s position against PYD in the long-run.
On Wednesday, the PYD and Syrian Kurdish parties reached a settlement in Dohuk. A previous attempt, known as the Erbil agreement, was not successful in removing mistrust among Kurds. Yet, this time, under the pressure of ISIS threats, Kurds may succeed in overcoming long-standing challenges. The current deal now includes a joint military force, a hard step towards unification.
Recent developments make Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani more than ever critical in shaping the regional politics. By being at the epicenter of US-PYD-Turkey relations, the Kurdistan Regional Government needs to capitalize on this moment of opportunity.
Mustafa Gurbuz is a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press).