Independent and cutting-edge analysis on Turkey and its neighborhood

In order to understand the current rift on the regional issues between Ankara and Washington, first, we need to go back to September 2014. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had invaded Mosul three months before that. The group had already taken 49 people hostage from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul. And even after American kinetic operations against ISIL targets in Iraq started on 8 August 2014, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected two days later, Erdoğan was trying to convince the West that Turkey could not do much while ISIL held the hostages. Nevertheless, the US kept pressing Ankara.

I remember very well what happened when former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went to Ankara to ask Erdoğan to contribute to the coalition the US was trying to form against ISIL. “The main reason I (…) was here today is to start coordinating with the leaders of Turkey on working through some of these challenges, as we go forward and think through how we are going to deal with ISIL,” said Hagel.[1]

Clearly, he was hopeful, but obviously, it did not go well. Just four days later, the biggest advocate for Turkey in the Obama administration tried his hand. America’s chief diplomat went to Ankara. US Secretary of State John Kerry gave the press the same picture as Hagel.[2] He held talks in Ankara on September 12th to shape the strategy in the fight against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. But once again, while reiterating their readiness for “humanitarian assistance” in the region, Turkish officials declined to get involved in combat operations. Turkey’s “legitimate excuse” was, of course, the hostages.

The breaking point in US-Turkish relations occurred when the US military initiated airdrops in the vicinity of Kobani, Syria, resupplying Kurdish forces on the ground to defend the city against ISIL.

Finally, after two top-level visits to Ankara, the situation changed two weeks later. First, on 20 September 2014, 49 hostages that had been held by extremist militants for 101 days were freed in an operation, the details of which are still unknown.[3] Then, three days after that, the US military expanded its war against ISIL by sending waves of warplanes and launching Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria in an aggressive operation that marked a new phase in the conflict.[4]

Next, US Vice President Joe Biden met with President Erdoğan in person on September 25th at the Peninsula Hotel in New York. Turkey no longer had the hostages as an excuse, and in the eyes of the Americans, it was the right time for Turkey – a valuable NATO ally – to become an active member of the anti-ISIL coalition and open Turkish airbases to coalition aircraft that were beginning to fly over Syria.

Not only was Biden meeting with President Erdoğan, but US President Barack Obama was also trying to get Turkey on board. According to the American press aboard Air Force One at the time, President Obama picked up the secure phone and talked to arguably “his most fickle international ally” – President Erdoğan – but to no avail. [5] Hagel, Kerry, Biden, Obama. None of them succeeded. Turkey refused to open its bases. As long as Assad remained in power in Damascus, Ankara would not accept a strategy which did not focus on toppling the regime. Ankara also made clear that the use of Turkish airbases in the fight against ISIL would be predicated upon establishing a safe zone in northern Syria for the moderate opposition. The Turks were playing hardball with Washington, at least that was how the Ankara government portrayed the scenario to the public.

Now, it might seem strange that I have yet to mention the Kurds yet am attempting to chronicle Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds in the region. I think in order to understand the current rift between the US administration and the Turkish government over the Kurds, we need to examine the background that brought the two traditional allies to this point.

The breaking point in US-Turkish relations occurred when the US military initiated airdrops on October 19th, in the vicinity of Kobani, Syria, resupplying YPG forces on the ground to defend the city against ISIL.[6] For the first time since Obama took office in 2009, it became evident that the US government did not care what the Turks thought about an issue that Ankara considered a national security matter. It was only just before the drop that Obama called Erdoğan and told him about the upcoming operation.[7] Despite Erdoğan’s strong objections, the US went ahead with its plans.

The US tried numerous times to obtain Turkish cooperation [in the fight against ISIL], and Turkey resisted.

It is possible to draw different conclusions from this major dispute. For example, one can speculate about the US’ plans to change boundaries in the region to create a more stable Middle East or examine the consequences of the new US approach to Iran following negotiations on the nuclear program. But in the case of the Kurds, the back-story clearly shows how the policy rift developed between these two allies. In short, the US tried numerous times to obtain Turkish cooperation, and Turkey resisted. Ultimately, the US did what it thought it needed to do to degrade and defeat ISIL without Turkey and, once again, allied with the Kurds. Thus, Washington’s motivation in its policy vis-à-vis Syrian Kurds is clear. [8] The real question is about Ankara’s motivation. Why did Turkey initially resist joining the anti-ISIL coalition? Why did Ankara agree to open its bases to the US-led coalition in the summer of 2015? And why did the violence in Turkey’s southeast increase? Why did the Turkish government’s opposition to the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party associated with the PKK, grow during the conflict in Syria?

Assuming that President Erdoğan was the major and perhaps the sole decision maker in these cases, let’s examine these questions from two different perspectives. The first is in terms of President Erdoğan’s domestic policy goals and a constitutional change allowing him to transform the regime into a presidential system. The turning point on this issue was the June 7 parliamentary elections. The second perspective worth examining is Turkey’s Sunni-oriented foreign policy priorities in the Syrian conflict and related regional issues. The turning point for these policies was the fall of Tal Abyad, the Syrian town on the Syrian-Turkish border, across from the Turkish town of Akçakale in Şanlıurfa on 15 June 2015. Both the parliamentary elections and the fall of Tal Abyad happened in the same month, and both were the main reasons that the Turkish government opened its bases to the US-led anti-ISIL coalition in July 2015.

Change of the Constitution

When Salih Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), met with Turkish officials in the summer of 2013, the two sides were deeply suspicious of each other. Nevertheless, the Kurdish press close to Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, was suggesting a major policy change.[9] According to sources in the Kurdish media, Muslim had reassured Ankara that his group’s call for a local administration in Syria’s Kurdish region did not mean that the group was looking to divide Syria. But since the start of the Syrian civil war, Turkey saw the PYD as a branch of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In turn, the PYD accused Turkey of supporting radical Islamic fighters, including the radical Jabhat al-Nusra, who were trying to take over Kurdish towns and villages near the border. Still Muslim was able to go to Turkey and meet with high-level officials there. With support from Barzani, Muslim also flew to Turkey from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). He was even able to give an interview to the pro-government, semi-official wire service Anadolu News Agency, asking for Ankara’s blessing for the status that the Kurds had in Syria’s new order. Even as much as a year later, Ankara was still secretly hosting Muslim, who was able to meet with Turkish intelligence officials.

Domestic policy drove the [Turkish] government’s policy in Syria vis-à-vis the Kurds.

Turkish government officials did not deny these talks took place. To the contrary, they gave details to the press about how Turkish intelligence authorities urged Muslim to bring his forces under the command of the Free Syrian Army.[10] Nevertheless, when I met with Muslim on 28 February 2016, at the PYD’s offices in Brussels, he denied that he had ever met with Turkish intelligence officers, and said that his counterpart in the meeting with the Turks was Feridun Sinirlioğlu, the powerful Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Ministry. But more surprisingly, he also revealed that his October 2014 visit was not his last visit to Turkey.

After Muslim’s visit to Turkey in October 2014, there were a couple of major developments. Just two weeks after Muslim’s visit, the US military dropped arms to Kurdish forces in Kobani. Still, Ankara’s rhetoric did not change dramatically toward the Syrian Kurds. Even though Kobani eroded the trust between the US and Turkey, in February of 2015, the Turkish press reported that 523 Democratic Union Party (PYD) members fighting in Kobani against ISIL were treated in Turkey.[11] And when Turkey evacuated the Tomb of Süleyman Şah, which extremist jihadists in Syria were surrounding, the Turkish military passed through the PYD-controlled area to reach the site, just 30 kilometers away from the Turkish-Syrian border.[12] Also, during this evacuation, Salih Muslim secretly came to Turkey. He stayed in a safe house in Istanbul, and followed the operation from the beginning. He told me that he had the phone number of the crisis desk where PM Davutoğlu was sitting. When asked whether he communicated with the people in Ankara during the operation, he told me no, but he said that he received a phone call at the end confirming that the mission was accomplished. Throughout all of this, Turkey denied that it had cooperated with the PYD.[13]

It is worth noting that during this very same month, in a historic joint press conference at Dolmabahçe Palace, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the government announced a call by the jailed leader of the PKK for the outlawed group to hold a congress in the spring to discuss disarmament in Turkey.[14]

Up until the victory of the Kurdish forces against ISIL in Tal Abyad, Erdoğan thought that the Sunni groups could sustain the fight against the Kurds in the region.

Despite the mistrust between the PYD and the Turkish government, the two sides still maintained a relatively functional dialogue. But when the polls began to show that the HDP would be able to pass the 10 percent election threshold in the upcoming June elections, thus ending 13 years of AKP majority rule, Erdoğan’s strategy changed. First, Erdoğan began to step up his criticism of the government’s moves in the settlement process at the end of March, voicing his opposition to a landmark meeting that took place with the HDP and the 10-article declaration that came out of this meeting. “I do not find the meeting appropriate,” Erdoğan said of the February 28 gathering.[15] Next, the military began speaking up for the first time since the eight years of silence that followed a meeting in the spring of 2007 that Erdoğan had held as Prime Minister with Yaşar Büyükanıt, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. The Turkish military, hurt by controversial and truly unfair lawsuits against its members, was back in high politics, applying the old Kemalist regime’s hostile reflex toward the Kurds. Necdet Özel, who was at the time Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blamed the PYD for being an offshoot of the PKK, and complained that the PKK was being legitimized by their fight against jihadists in Syria.[16]

Was Özel’s accusation wrong? No, of course the PYD was more than just an offshoot of the PKK. In fact, it may even be the regional name of the PKK in Syria. But beyond this, the dramatic change in the Turkish military’s stance was an indication that President Erdoğan, who wanted to transform the country’s parliamentary form of government into a presidential system with himself at the helm, was preparing to ally with former regime elements to achieve his goals. The Kurds in Turkey were a major obstacle for the AKP, which is practically an Erdoğan franchise, especially if he wanted to gain a majority in the elections to change the constitution or at least pursue a referendum to achieve that goal. Thus, the Syrian Kurds who were associated with the Turkish Kurds also had to be targeted.

The domestic ambitions of Erdoğan became the driving factor here. The Turkish government’s policy towards the Syrian Kurds, in fact, was linked to its policy towards the Turkish Kurds.

A Sunni State in the Region

Domestic policy drove the government’s policy in Syria vis-à-vis the Kurds. But there was also an element of Ankara’s foreign policy here which coincided with Erdoğan’s domestic objectives: the Sunni-oriented foreign policy that the Turkish government had been pursuing since the start of the Arab Spring. Let’s not debate whether the Turkish government backed the radical jihadists in Syria to help them topple the Assad regime and establish a Sunni dominated government in Damascus. That is a question for another day. Aside from whether these groups were radical or not, even the Turkish government itself has not denied that Ankara backed the rebels in Syria who were fighting against the regime. The fact is, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the groups backed by Turkish intelligence were Sunnis. Turkey worked in this fight with other Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Furthermore, as a secular country, Turkey was pursuing a proxy war against Iran, the region’s non-Sunni actor.

Erdoğan probably believed that the only way to stop advances by the Kurds was to cooperate with the US, open the bases to the coalition, and use those bases as leverage on the US.

During this frenetic time, Turkey identified the Kurds as an obstacle, the only secular group in the civil war in Syria, that was challenging the advance of anti-regime Sunni groups. Thus, the Kurds were not only an obstacle to Erdoğan’s political agenda within Turkey, but they were also a major headache for him in Syria, obstructing Turkey’s access to the Sunni groups gaining ground against the Syrian regime, and Turkey did not want to miss an opportunity to be neighbors with an Islamic-oriented Sunni state for the first time in Turkish history.

Why was Tal Abyad a turning point? Because until the victory of the Kurdish forces against ISIL in Tal Abyad, Erdoğan thought that the Sunni groups could sustain the fight against the Kurds in the region. Indeed, the growing partnership between the PYD and US forces following the liberation of Kobani was a red flag for Ankara. Still, Ankara figured it had enough tools to stop any Kurds associated with the PKK, such as the Barzani-affiliated groups, the only partners Turkey had left in the region or the new moderate opposition groups which would be trained and equipped through a joint program conducted with the US government. In Tal Abyad, the Kurds proved they were very effective against ISIL thanks to the help of the Americans. They were the only group gaining ground against ISIL in Syria. And while the partnership between the Kurds and the US was growing after successes like Tal Abyad – which was exactly what President Obama needed to show the American people that his strategy against ISIL was working – the partnership between the US and the moderate Syrian Sunni elements was going nowhere.

Ankara’s Sunni-oriented approach to the region will endure because of the Shiite element in Iran’s foreign policy.

Ankara’s calculations changed immediately after the major election success by the HDP and when the PYD took control of an Arab-majority town, Tal Abyad, which was used as a logistical hub by ISIL. The creation of a Kurdish corridor from Iraq to Hatay along the Turkish border suddenly became a possibility. Erdoğan probably believed that the only way to stop advances by the Kurds was to cooperate with the US, open the bases to the coalition, and use those bases – vital to the Pentagon – as leverage over the US. After the fall of Tal Abyad, the Syrian Kurds would be prevented from taking the remaining 98 kilometers along the Syrian-Turkish border still controlled by ISIL. Turkey had negotiated with the US to allow American military forces to use the bases. The US agreed to the arrangement in July 2015.

The PYD never crossed the Euphrates River to take over the remaining portion of the Syrian-Turkey border, ensuring Turkey would always have a passage to a future Sunni state in Syria.[17] The remaining 98 kilometer corridor would become a lifeline for the Sunnis after the de facto split of Syria.

Concluding Remarks

Today, Ankara is still pursuing the same policy vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds. And the PYD issue is still playing a major role in differences between the US and Turkey. Is this sustainable? Especially after the hostility with Russia because a Russian jet was shot down by a Turkish F-16 on 24 November 2015, the deadly suicide bomb attack that struck Istanbul’s main tourist hub on 12 January 2016 (an indication that ISIL will ramp up its activities against Turkey), and Iran’s increasing role in the international arena after the nuclear deal, Turkey will not be able to pursue its policy toward the Kurds in Turkey and Syria. Not to mention, Turkey’s current policies are a source of friction with its traditional ally the US.

At some point, change has to happen. But no, the engine of change will not be a new paradigm in foreign policy. Ankara’s Sunni-oriented approach to the region will endure because of the Shiite element in Iran’s foreign policy. What will push Turkey to a rational stance on regional issues will not be its commitment to do more in the fight against ISIL either. Indeed, what will also soothe relations with Washington after the breaking point crossed in Kobani will be the renewal of the peace process at home, which is the only way President Erdoğan can realize his goals in domestic politics. Hints of this can be found in a piece written by Abdullah Demirbaş, who is the former mayor of Diyarbakır’s Sur district where the clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces became the symbol of the recent escalation in southeast Turkey.[18] “As I was rounded up along with hundreds of Kurdish activists and elected politicians, my teenage son left our house to join the PKK,” said Demirbaş in his article entitled “Undoing Years of Progress in Turkey.” Demirbaş relayed a poignant interaction with his son during which his son told him he was wasting his time with politics and dialogue. Demirbaş continued, “I dedicated my life to try and prove him wrong and bring him home in peace. I have been discouraged before but have never lost hope. Today, I struggle to keep that hope alive.”


[1] “Media Availability with Secretary Hagel in Ankara, Turkey,” US Department of State, 8 September 2014, www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/606927/media-availability-with-secretary-hagel-in-ankara-turkey

[2] “Turkey, US pledge joint struggle against terror,” Hurriyet Daily News, 12 September 2014,  www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-us-pledge-joint-struggle-against-terror.aspx?pageID=238&nID=71631&NewsCatID=510

[3] “As it happened: Turkey’s 49 hostages freed in MİT operation, says President Erdoğan,” Hurriyet Daily News, 20 September 2014, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/as-it-happened-turkeys-49-hostages-freed-in-mit-operation-says-president-Erdoğan.aspx?pageID=238&nID=71957&NewsCatID=510

[4] Craig Whitlock, “U.S. begins airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria,” The Washington Post, 23 September 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-begins-airstrikes-against-islamic-state-in-syria/2014/09/22/8b677e26-42b3-11e4-b437-1a7368204804_story.html

[5] Gregory Korte, “Obama, Biden try to win over Turkish president,” USA Today, 26 September 2014, www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2014/09/26/obama-Erdoğan-charm-offensive/16244155/

[6] “U.S. Military Conducts Aerial Resupply of Kurdish Forces Fighting ISIL,” United States Central Command, 19 October 2014, www.centcom.mil/en/news/articles/US-military-conducts-aerial-resupply-of-kurdish-forces-fighting-isil

[7] “Readout of the President’s Call with Turkish President Erdoğan,” The White House, 19 October 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/19/readout-presidents-call-turkish-president-Erdoğan

[8] Throughout the article, Syrian Kurds are used interchangeably with PYD or Kurdish cantons’ armed force YPG, due to the fact the PYD represents the strongest political party in Syria’s Kurdish region.

[9] Hemin Khoshnaw, “Salih Muslim’s Ankara Visit Marks Major Policy Change,” Rudaw, 29 July 2013, rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/29072013

[10] Sevil Erkuş, “Ankara urges PYD leader to join ranks of Free Syrian Army against al-Assad,” Hurriyet Daily News,  5 October 2014, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ankara-urges-pyd-leader-to-join-ranks-of-free-syrian-army-against-al-assad.aspx?PageID=238&NID=72545&NewsCatID=510

[11] Fevzi Kızılkoyun, “Turkey treated 523 PYD members from Kobane, paid 1 bln Turkish Liras for people fleeing the city,” Hurriyet Daily News, 4 February 2015, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-treated-523-pyd-members-from-kobane-paid-1-bln-turkish-liras-for-people-fleeing-the-city.aspx?pageID=238&nID=77856&NewsCatID=352

[12] “Turkey informs anti-ISIL coalition of Süleyman Şah operation on Syrian soil,” Hurriyet Daily News, 22 February 2015, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-informs-anti-isil-coalition-of-suleyman-sah-operation-on-syrian-soil.aspx?pageID=238&nID=78663&NewsCatID=352

[13] “Turkey: No contact with 'terrorist YPG' in ‘Shah Firat,’” Anatolian News Agency, 23 February 2015, aa.com.tr/en/turkey/turkey-no-contact-with-terrorist-ypg-in-shah-firat/72568

[14] “Kurdish peace call made amid row on security bill,” Hurriyet Daily News, 28 February 2015, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/kurdish-peace-call-made-amid-row-on-security-bill.aspx?pageID=238&nID=78999&NewsCatID=338

[15] “Settlement process causes growing rift between Erdoğan and gov’t,” Today’s Zaman, 22 March 2015, www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_settlement-process-causes-growing-rift-between-Erdoğan-and-govt_376001.html

[16] “PKK being ‘legitimized,’ Turkish army chief says,” Hurriyet Daily News, 25 March 2015, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/pkk-being-legitimized-turkish-army-chief-says.aspx?pageID=238&nID=80198&NewsCatID=338

[17] Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, confirmed this on 29 January 2016 during his weekly briefing and said that the YPG had not crossed the Euphrates River, with one exception, and that is in and around the Tishrin Dam. Warren said that it is other Syrian Arabs who are operating in and around the Tishrin Dam, not YPG forces. “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq,” US Department of Defense, 29 January 2016, www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/646903/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-warren-via-teleconference-from-bagh

[18] Abdullah Demirbaş, “Undoing Years of Progress in Turkey,” New York Times, 26 January 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/25/opinion/undoing-years-of-progress-in-turkey.html?_r=0

CONTRIBUTOR
Tolga Tanış
Tolga Tanış

Tolga Tanış is the Washington correspondent for Hürriyet newspaper.

From the Desk of the Editor Over the last couple of years, Turkey has weathered multiples storms in close succession: two general elections that took place in a polarized political climate, an escalation of the Turkey-PKK conflict, a crisis with Russia, the 2016 failed coup attempt followed by state of emergency measures, and the continued threat of terrorist attacks. The aftermath of the constitutional referendum in April...
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