Why Turkey Will Let Iraqi Kurds, But Not Turkish Kurds, Fight Extremists In Syria


ISTANBUL — For weeks, Turkey has barred Turkish Kurds from crossing the border into Syria to defend their ethnic fellows in Kobani against the Islamic State’s wrath. As the predominantly Kurdish town burns within eyeshot, Kurdish rage has prompted mass protests across Turkey and threats of reignited war with the Turkish state.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said for the first time that Turkey will let Kurdish fighters cross its border into Syria to defend Kobani. But only a particular subset of Kurds will be allowed across — not those from Turkey itself, but those from Iraqi Kurdistan, a major Turkish ally.

The announcement came several hours after U.S. planes dropped small arms, ammunition and medical supplies to aid Kobani’s besieged fighting force.

Turkey finds itself in a difficult situation as international pressure mounts on the NATO member to play a more active role against Islamic State militants. In addition to the Kobani situation, Turkish officials have come under fire for not quashing Islamic State recruiting efforts inside Turkey and for not curbing the flow of extremist fighters from Turkey into Syria. The United States, leading a coalition to strike the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, has pressed a reluctant Turkey to step up its game against the hardline group.

But the Turkish government has been reluctant to support Kobani’s defenders because of their ties to opposition forces in Turkey. Many of those now fighting for the city belong to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish group that demands greater freedoms for the local Kurdish population. Over 40,000 people have died in the three decades of fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK, the majority of them Kurds. Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has warned that Kobani’s fall to the Islamic State would mean an end to the already shaky peace process between the PKK and Turkey.

The PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S., no longer calls for autonomy. But Turkey still sees the PYD’s control of three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria as a major threat.

“At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Oct. 19. “It is also a terrorist organization.”

“It would be very wrong for America — with whom we are allies and who we are together with in NATO — to expect us to say yes,” he continued, “after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization.” Erdogan was referring to U.S. calls to help the fighters in Kobani.

Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday slamming the idea that Turkey should help Syrian Kurds. “Arming PKK’s Syrian affiliate is tantamount to giving weapons to the PKK,” he wrote. “Who will guarantee that the weapons given to PYD will not end up in the hands of the PKK?”

Now, in an apparent attempt to curb international criticism, Turkey has agreed to open a corridor to Syria for a different Kurdish force, the peshmerga fighters of Iraqi Kurdistan. A semiautonomous region in northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is one of Turkey’s top allies on issues of security and energy and a major exporter of oil to the latter country. Iraqi Kurdistan has also butted heads with the PKK and its affiliates in Syria.

In June, Turkey signed a 50-year energy deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which runs Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey analyst Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said that the deal served to both benefit Turkey and help bolster an alternative form of Kurdish nationalism, but that recent fighting has upset those ambitious plans.

“The PYD has received support from the U.S. and the coalition,” Stein said. “Turkey’s relationship with its traditional allies is strained, and the PYD is now viewed by many as being the tip of the spear against [the Islamic State].”

So the Turkish state is trying to find a way to navigate the increasingly complicated political situation that has unfolded with the Kobani siege without having to directly support a group linked to its longtime foe.

“The practical calculation in the end — or overly practical — to moderate the current situation is to let Barzani into northern Syria,” political analyst Ahmet Kasim Han of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University told The WorldPost, referring to Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “They hope the arrival of these forces will balance the political playing field. Because then there will be at least two parties in northern Syria, whereas right now, there is only one.”

Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hikmat told The WorldPost that it wasn’t clear when or if fighters would be sent to Kobani. But late Monday night, Hemin Hawrami, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official, said on Twitter that two peshmerga units would be deployed in the next 48 hours, adding that it was a “big success” for Kurdistan.

Abdulla Hawez contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq.