First Published: 2012-12-07

 

The Syrian Kurdish Issue in Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi Relations

 

Turkey, Iran and Iraq are deeply worried about the aftermath of Syria’s crisis. The irony is that Syria and Turkey had been teetering on the brink of war because of the Kurdish question and had agreed to cooperate against Kurdish ambitions. Ankara now perceives the development of the Syrian Kurdish issue as a serious national security threat, stresses Idrees Mohammed.

 

Middle East Online

Kurds in Syria will attract special attention from the triangle states of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Syria is the epicenter of powerful countries’ interests and the Syrian Kurdish issue is multi-dimensional. The triangle states all include significant populations of Kurds and have shared and conflicting interests in relation to the Kurdish question and beyond. Ironically the Syrian Kurdish issue could contribute both to the improvement, and to the deterioration, of their interstate relationships. Grasping this complexity provides Syrian Kurds with further power to play politics; on the other hand, the same complexity could have negative ramifications with regard to the future of the Syrian Kurdish issue.

Turkey, Iran and Iraq are deeply worried about the aftermath of Syria’s crisis. The irony is that Syria and Turkey had been teetering on the brink of war because of the Kurdish question and had agreed to cooperate against Kurdish ambitions. Ankara now perceives the development of the Syrian Kurdish issue as a serious national security threat. The improvement of the status of Kurds and the consolidation of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seen as being affiliated to the PKK, will make Turkish Kurds envious and increasingly motivate them to demand further rights.

Iran laments over Syria’s crisis. Together with the Syrian regime, Iran was influential in regional and international politics. They had also cooperated on the Kurdish question, coordinating moves against Kurdish aspirations in Iraq and, reportedly, worked side by side on the Turkish Kurdish problem. The downfall of Syria’s regime and the development of Syria’s Kurdish issue could be a threat to the Iranian regime given its own Kurdish problem.

With respect to Iraq, Syria’s crisis can be seen through three different lenses. While the Shiites feel the results of Syria’s crisis will hurt their power, the Sunnis believe that time is on their side as it would bring strong Sunni leadership in Syria, while for the Kurds, Syria’s crisis is a window of opportunity.

Iraqi Kurdistan benefits greatly from Syria’s crisis although this crisis could somewhat, and temporarily, affect its relations with various actors. Nevertheless, Syrian Kurdish leverage contributes significantly to the development Iraqi Kurdish internal and external agendas. The landlocked Kurdish region has an extreme need for a route to the sea and that could be offered by Syrian Kurds. The political position of Iraqi Kurds vis-à-vis Baghdad would be strengthened. Moreover, and given the interstate characteristics of the Kurdish question, Iraqi Kurdish influence over Syrian Kurds will strengthen the leverage and bargaining power of Iraqi Kurdistan towards Turkey, Iran and even a future Syria.

The Syrian Kurds may be magnets for Iran and Turkey and a source of rivalry between them. Iranian involvement with Syrian Kurds is necessary and may, together with others, have three main purposes. Iran suffers from its own Kurdish problem and increasingly feels pressured by regional and international developments. Accordingly, it needs to keep a close eye on Syrian Kurdish measures. Should it not do that, the Kurds would move in their own preferred direction. Secondly, Iran needs to ease its problems caused by Syria’s crisis. Explicit Iranian support for the Syrian regime has drawn Syrian opposition furious and remote towards Tehran. Thirdly, Iranian regional rivals, including Turkey, have significant influence over Syria’s crisis, which strengthens their regional position. The Arabs and Turkey would find it hard to digest a Kurdish federal region in Syria. Whereas Iran would feel that Syrian Kurds could be beneficial in affecting regional politics. Conversely, the Syria opposition has continually refused to accede to domestic Kurdish demands. Seeing themselves in a delicate position and afraid of losing considerable empowerment, the Kurds may consider making strategic alliances with Syrian Alawites and Iran, which would favor Iran.

There are attractive opportunities for Turkey to involve itself with the Syrian Kurds. First and foremost, Turkey continues to suffer from its endemic Kurdish problem, and the Turkish security mindset reflects a deep-seated fear of the state’s territorial dismantlement. The defense of Iraq’s territorial integrity and now the struggle for that of Syria has become Turkey’s perennial end game. In addition, Turkey cannot achieve its ambitious dreams unless it resolves its own Kurdish problem. And these points are directly related to the Syrian Kurds. Secondly, Turkey and Iran are regional rivals for influence. Turkey tried to contain Iranian influence in Syria. Now that influence is waning Turkey does not want Iran to take any opportunity to practice influence through the Syrian Kurds. Thirdly, Turkey looks at Iraq and imagines the future of Syria. Security and political stability would remain fragile. Syrian Arabs would be greatly influenced by the Gulf powerhouses and only limited attention would be paid to Turkish interests. With Turkey increasing needing energy and trying to be a hub, it surely eyes on Syrian oil concentrated at Kurdish regions. On the other hand, the Kurds may favor alliances with Turkey. Iraqi Kurds were appreciative of Turkish help and considered it as a protector against the Arabs. Syrian Kurds may face difficult challenges like those faced by their Iraqi brethren.

Such a context certainly attracts both Iraqi and Turkish Kurds into the game. For a start, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey have a considerable influence on the future of Syrian Kurds. Turkey has developed good-natured relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and together they coordinate actions on the Syrian Kurdish issue. Bearing in mind the Syrian Kurdish issue, it has also stepped forward to reach its own Kurds, including the imprisoned PKK leader.

While relations between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan have been affected by Syria’s crisis, Iran has recently appeared to seek a better understanding with Iraqi Kurds with regard to the Syrian Kurds. As for the Turkish Kurds, the Turkish government has publicly accused Iran of supporting the PKK.

It is a complex situation. Ankara and Tehran will continue to oppose to Kurdish statehood and Baghdad and Damascus will do the same. The Kurds will continue to seek greater rights and power. However, this does not mean that these states will not seek greater involvement with Kurds, but it will be exclusive insofar as specific Kurdish ambitions and Ankara’s and Teheran’s interests are viewed. This also does not imply that the Kurds should not seek or accept cooperation and involvement with them, but that it should be exclusive insofar as specific Kurdish interests are regarded.

Idrees Mohammed holds an MA in International Relations from Warsaw University. His thesis was on Turkey’s policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan. He now largely monitors and writes on Turkish foreign policy and Kurdish issues.

 

Libya loses control of Tripoli to Islamist-led militias

Iraq presses fightback against jihadist-led militants

Thousands of Huthis defy UN in new show of strength

Britain to go tougher on jihadist suspects

Wounded Gazans need long-term care

Libyan Islamist militiamen control US embassy compound

Israel shoots down drone over occupied Golan Heights

Yemen army suffers heavy losses in new wave of Qaeda attacks

Turkish army breaks silence on Kurdish peace talks

Islamic State offers grim inspiration to African extremists

Shebab target intelligence HQ in Somalia

Israel expropriates 988 acres of Palestinian land in West Bank

Iraq recaptures Amerli from Islamic State in biggest success so far

Saudi King calls for ‘strong and rapid action’ against jihadists

Jihadists distribute Yazidi women as spoils of war to fighters

Gulf countries resolve six-month dispute with Qatar

Egypt reduces Badie death sentence to life in prison

AU forces liberate former Shebab stronghold in Somalia

Philippines enters war in Syria!

Kurds put aside old rivalries to battle jihadists in Iraq

Iran says new sanctions cast doubt on US sincerity

US imposes new sanctions on Iran

US supplies arms to Lebanon to fight jihadists

Britain terror threat level raised to ‘severe’

Libya conflict takes its toll on migrants

UN chief lashes out at 'brutal' IS killings in Iraq

Over three million Syrian refugees have fled war

Libya's troubled interim government steps down

Obama admits 'no strategy yet' to fight IS

Israel counts losses and gains in Gaza: Heavy cost for 50 days of war

Saudi Crown Prince flies to France next week: Jihadist threat tops agenda

UN confirms capture of UN peacekeepers in Syria Golan

Islamic State executes dozens of Syria soldiers in new atrocity

'Jihad recruiters' arrested in Netherlands, Germany

Saudi Grand Mufti warns youth against ‘perverted’ calls for jihad

Neo-Ottomanism scores new victory in Turkey: From Ataturk to Erdogan

Fire rises up again from under ashes on Lebanon border

Vital aid arrives in war-battered Gaza

Lebanon seeks to tackle child marriage with new legislation

Hollande: Assad cannot be partner in fight against terrorists

Egypt quizzes Morsi for 'giving security papers to Qatar'

Top Saudi envoys hold talks with Qatar emir

Obama's warfare doctrine to be tested in Syria

UN moves to impose sanctions on Libya militias

Mother of US hostage to leader of Islamic State: Please spare my son