Erdogan’s gamble for control of the border between Turkey and Syria may turn out to be more than he bargained for.
If President Erdogan of Turkey is counting on Kurdish trust for his military campaign in Afrin, Syria, it will leave him severely disappointed. It is easy to forget that Erdogan was once lauded as one of the most pro-Kurdish politicians in Turkish history, gaining wide support from Kurdish voters in the elections that propelled him into ever increasing power from 2002-2015. The collapse and abandonment of the peace process with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in late 2015, his subsequent reliance on Turkish nationalist voters, along with his persecution of the HDP, (People’s Democratic Party) whose rise led to him almost losing power in the June 2015 election, has left many Kurds looking elsewhere for hope.
The Rise of the YPG
Since the beginning of 2012, the YPG (People’s Defense Units) have carved out a large swath of territory in northern Syria, and have become one of the most popular entities in the Kurdish world. Seen by Turkey as a mere extension of the PKK, the YPG has been unable to convince Turkey that its presence is not a threat. Focused mainly on defeating ISIS in Syria, in 2014, the YPG gained a high degree of prestige in the Kurdish world when they crossed into Iraq and liberated Mount Sinjar from ISIS, putting an end to the Yazidi Genocide, something which Northern Iraqi Kurdistan’s president Masoud Barzani seemed both unable and uninterested in undertaking. Furthermore, the months-long siege of Kobani, which saw the YPG gain a dramatic victory that forced ISIS into retreat, has led many Kurds to see the YPG as their champion.
The Growth of Turkish Concern
All the while, Turkey has done a great deal to thwart the YPG. Until recently, Turkey turned a blind eye when foreign militants crossed the border into Syria and joined ISIS, helping to enable the group to grow as quickly as it did. Turkish complacency with ISIS stopped by July 2015 when the group began to attack Kurdish targets within Turkey. Since then, Turkey’s means of fighting the YPG has shifted to using the FSA (Free Syrian Army), a group which is dedicated to fighting the Assad regime, but has made very few meaningful overtures to the Kurds for their vision of Syria’s future.
Arab-Kurdish Distrust in Syria
Kurdish-Arab distrust goes back to Syria’s French colonial era, but with independent Syria being an Arab majority state, Kurds have been on the losing end of the balance. In 1954, Syria began a string of measures that made it illegal for Kurdish self-expression – Kurdish music was banned, restrictions were placed on the speaking of the Kurdish language, and Kurdish politicians who did not immediately fall in line with Arab nationalist ideology were purged from positions of political and military authority. The Assad family continued these policies unabated, and with the start of the Syrian protests in 2011, the Kurds saw little choice but to fend for themselves.
For Syria’s Kurds, Erdogan has made his disdain for them plain to see – the collapse of the peace process and the persecution of Kurdish politicians has left them with no illusions as to what Turkish military occupation will bring. With the FSA left with no choice but to throw their support behind Erdogan after a string of losses against Assad, the Kurds are unlikely to welcome them. The Turkish-FSA alliance can expect fierce resistance as they draw closer to Afrin, and within Turkey, Kurdish discontent will grow. Erdogan’s gamble for control of the border may turn out to be more than he bargained for.