The Syrian Kurdish Issue in Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi Relations
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.