“Establishing a ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria won’t make Turkey safer”

A new phase has begun in Syria with Turkey’s decision to open the İncirlik airbase to coalition forces fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continue at full speed to design an exit strategy for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. As the civil war moves into the second half of its fourth year, who seems to have the upper hand in Syria regarding strategic as well as political gains?

This week, Şalom hosts Micha’el Tanchum, from the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, to discuss the latest developments in Syria with particular focus on the role of the Kurds in the equation.



What’s your assessment of Turkish foreign policy towards Syria?

When thinking about your question, we need to remember that Turkey's strategic relationships have undergone dramatic shifts during the [Justice and Development Party] AKP's 13 years in power. It is no secret that these shifts have resulted in a drastic weakening of Turkey's strategic position in the Middle East. Now, one approach to improve the situation is the so-called ‘Safe Zone’ in northern Syria where Turkey will attempt to manage a coalition of Islamist and non-Islamist militias. These proxies have no loyalty to Turkey. Ankara has not succeeded until now in the use of proxies in Syria. These proxies have resources available to them from Qatar, other Gulf states and elsewhere. I see no evidence to suggest that Turkey's long-term national interest will be served by this approach. The Turkish military has been circumspect about overextending itself in Syria and with good reason.


Do you regard Turkey’s decision to join the anti-ISIS coalition and particularly the opening of İncirlik to the use of coalition forces as a ‘game changer’ in combating ISIS?

On a tactical level, it is quite helpful because of the geography. From İncirlik, anti-ISIS coalition aircraft can [fly] to the conflict zone in under 15 minutes. This makes air support for ground forces combating ISIS more effective.


Coming to Iran, what are the possible repercussions of the nuclear deal with Tehran? Is there any sign of moderation in Iran’s regional policies?

The nuclear deal means Iran will be flooded with foreign investment if Iran decides to run its economy in a more rational manner. Iran needs to do this in order to meet the rising expectations of the population for a better standard of living. At the same, a great deal of cronyism plagues Iran's industrial sector through the Iranian military's ownership of a significant segment of the economy. If the contradictions are managed, then Iran will become an economic powerhouse in the region. I think the West hopes Iranian engagement with the global economy will bolster the reformist factions in government and strengthen liberal currents within Iranian society. This hope seems more like a bet than a strategy.  It is difficult to see how the West will be able to use its commercial investments in Iran to restrain Iran’s attempt to expand its hegemony in more locations in the Middle East.


How do you compare and contrast Iran and Turkey’s approaches vis-à-vis the Kurds in the region?

First, remember that an outright majority of the region’s Kurdish population lives in Turkey. Also, Turkey’s Kurdish population comprises a larger proportion of the overall Turkish population than Iranian Kurds do in Iran. About three-quarters of the Kurds in Iran backed President [Hassan] Rouhani in the elections. Bolstered by the Iran deal, Rouhani has the political capital to offer some form of political payback. His first trip after the announcement of the Iran deal was to the Kurdish region of Iran. Iran will make at least some symbolic gestures to the Kurds – for example expanding Kurdish-language education. It is also a valuable propaganda tool when Turkey is in such conflict with its own Kurdish population. 

Given Turkey’s complex position in the region, it needs to have its Kurdish population at peace with the state. Sultan Yavuz Selim and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk each succeeded in defending eastern Anatolia from invaders because they were in alliance with the Kurdish population.


Do you foresee an independent Kurdistan in Iraq in the near future?

If the [Kurdistan Regional Government] can 1) stay coherent politically, 2) earn sufficient energy revenues and 3) develop an air force and air defenses to deter Tehran and Baghdad, then the KRG will succeed in becoming independent. I think there could be a referendum within a year or perhaps two. The three factors plus battleground conditions will dictate the timing of a declaration of independence.


Do you think Israel may somehow become a part of the anti-ISIS coalition or become involved in the Syrian war out of security concerns along its border?

I do not think Israel will be an official member of the anti-ISIS coalition. Israel is already involved in various ways to protect its borders.


What is your assessment of the success against ISIS? Do you think ISIS will eventually become a legitimate partner to negotiate with the US and other regional actors?

ISIS opposes all states in the region. It will make common cause temporarily with certain Arab states against Iran and Shi’i militia. The Kurds have proven that an effective fighting force on the ground with Western air support can defeat ISIS. The two problems in dealing with ISIS are 1) ISIS has not been isolated and still receives support from actors in the region [while] borders need to be sealed; and 2) There are not sufficient reliable ground forces.


In your article in Foreign Affairs, ‘Rojava’s Witness’ you mentioned a strategic nightmare for Turkey regarding Iran’s growing influence over the Kurds in the region. Could you please elaborate more on this issue?

Turkey will pay a much steeper price than it bargained for if it pushes the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and/or the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] to Iran. This is what I call in my Foreign Affairs article Ankara’s real strategic nightmare.[1]  A Kurdish corridor led by the PKK and friendly Kurdish parties in Iraq such as the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] could emerge stretching from the Iraq-Iran border at Khanaqin through Makhmur and Sinjar in Iraq’s disputed territories and from there to the Kurdish areas of northern Syria along Turkey’s southern border. The situation would be worse in Turkey’s southeast. With direct Iranian support for the PKK, Turkish security forces would have greater difficulty enforcing the will of the Turkish state in the region. In this case, the PKK could truly establish an alternative state structure. Moreover, it would be beholden to doing Tehran’s bidding. If Ankara were able to reach an understanding with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, and provide Turkish Kurdistan some semblance of autonomy, an Ankara-oriented PKK/PYD confederation would dominate approximately two-thirds of the greater Kurdistan population.

Given Ocalan’s democratic confederalist agenda, an accord between Ankara and the PKK could result in a Turkish grand strategy for Kurdistan whereby 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, time is not on Turkey’s side. The new generation of Kurdish militants emerging in the east will soon no longer be under the central control of the PKK. The nature of the conflict is changing and if it continues, Ankara will find itself without a partner for negotiations and an even more intractable adversary in the field. The cost to Turkey in lives and money will be much greater than we are seeing today. Turkey’s economic development will suffer as will its social progress.

If Ankara and the PKK can return to the ‘Dolmabahce roadmap’ wherein meaningful accommodation of Kurdish demands is implemented concurrent with the decommissioning of militants within Turkey's borders, as in the days of Selim I and Idris Bitlisi, Turkey will create a constellation of amenable Kurdish allies.


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