News / Middle East

Turkey Signals More Pragmatic Approach to Syria's Kurds

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Berlin, April 18, 2013.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Berlin, April 18, 2013.
Dorian Jones
— When Syrian Kurds announced their intention to declare an autonomous state, Ankara reacted with anger and threats and deployed its army along the border. But in what is seen as a remarkable change in stance, it recently hosted a meeting with the leader of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Syrian Kurdish group it had earlier labeled a terrorist organization.

The Turkish foreign ministry made headlines last month when it hosted PYD leader Salih Muslim for a series of high-level diplomatic meetings in Istanbul. Both sides described the meetings as positive, and further meetings are reportedly set for later this week.

Amberin Zaman,  a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, describes the diplomatic move as groundbreaking.
 
"The fact that it happened at all was significant, because for the longest times, the Turkish government has been keeping the PYD and its leader at arm's length. They claim the PYD is no different from the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and therefore suggests that they, too, are terrorists. But whether the actual substance of these meetings yield any positive results is a different matter," said Zaman.
 
Ever since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces withdrew from Syrian Kurdish regions on Turkey’s border, allowing the PYD to take control of much of the area, Ankara has viewed the developments with suspicion.

These suspicions were further heightened when the PYD announced plans to declare autonomy in a region that borders areas populated by Turkey's own restive Kurdish population. The Turkish government had repeatedly warned it would never allow such a move, describing it as a “red line” - a term used to indicate a limit or critical point.

But Metehan Demir, a defense expert and columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, suggests Ankara is now taking a more realistic approach toward the Syrian Kurds.

"Over the years we understood red lines are not enough words to prevent the developments. It's not enough only saying 'I cannot accept'. Even if you can accept or not, something is happening there. Therefore, Turkey should revise and go to cooperation as well," said Demir.
 
Analysts suggest a key factor in Turkey's more pragmatic approach to the Syrian Kurds could be an awareness that it is powerless to stop the PYD.

Although the Turkish army massed forces along the Syrian border following the PYD’s announcement it was planning to declare autonomy, Sinan Ulgen, head of Edam, an Istanbul-based research institute, claims Ankara is unwilling to intervene militarily.
 
"A direct intervention is certainly unwanted at this point in time. There is no support for it among the Turkish population either," said Ulgen.
 
How Ankara’s relationship develops with the PYD could well be determined in meetings with the group's leadership later this week. But observers say the Turkish government will also be aware that its own restive Kurdish population will be watching developments carefully.

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