Syrian Kurds and Turkish Security: Zero-Sum Tragedy?

Having avoided disaster in Kobani despite Ankara’s thinly veiled hostility, a few short months later Syrian Kurds are taking the battlefield initiative against the Islamic State, giving Erdogan a security headache. The Syrian Kurds, only in Syria because they were made to feel most unwelcome in their homeland within Turkey, are led by those elements of the huge Kurdish minority in Turkey traditionally most insistent upon either equality or (at a minimum) autonomy. Should Erdogan misplay his reaction to the Syrian Kurds’ military advance that aspires both to cut the Islamic State off from the Turkish border (so valuable as a source of funds and recruits) and unite Syrian Kurdistan with Iraqi Kurdistan, he could reignite sectarian war within Turkey but this time with a hostile Kurdish army inside of the former state of Syria. A zero-sum tragedy that will either undermine Turkish domestic peace and democracy or deny justice to the long-suffering Kurds on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border appears imminent. Can a positive-sum rabbit nonetheless be pulled out of the sectarian hat?

A situation that at first glance may appear inevitably headed for conflict between the Kurds and Ankara may in reality be quite different. Ankara may be presumed to want border security and the loyalty of the domestic Kurdish population inside Turkey, while the Syrian Kurds may be presumed to want at the very least a secure political entity in Syria plus the right of regional Kurds to interact and secure civil rights for the Kurds within Turkey. These goals could easily be defined more ambitiously as the subjugation of the Kurdish people vs. the establishment of a unified Kurdish state slicing off some 25% of Turkish population and territory for integration with Iraqi Kurdistan and a chunk of Syria that might go all the way from Iraq to the Mediterranean, which would be very much a zero-sum tragedy.

In sum, the political situation within Turkey and the military situation along Turkey’s southern border are both at a tightly linked turning point mandating the most analytically precise political calculus. Turkish waving of a sectarian red flag or Kurdish demands for independence could cause a disaster. Cautious, open-minded policy planning and calm negotiation, on the other hand, could produce an historic positive-sum outcome, for each side, in this situation, can benefit greatly even as it gives serious consideration to the other side’s core interests.

An important initial step in designing a mutually accommodating foreign policy position on this delicate issue would be the very cautious definition of minimally acceptable goals, followed by the search for ways to gain further benefits without infringing on the interests of the other side. In other words, it is critical in such delicate situations to resist the normal impulse to make maximal demands that will be likely to provoke the adversary to dig in its heels and conclude that “force is the only language our adversary understands.”

If the two sides disagree on everything except the need for border security, trouble lies ahead.
If the two sides disagree on everything except the need for border security, trouble lies ahead.

 A logical first step in resolving tensions between Syrian Kurds and Turkey would be to focus on getting a secure border, something which the two sides are probably already in agreement at least over the short term, as illustrated in the diagram. Over the long term, Syrian Kurdish commitment to a peaceful border might well require the full integration of Turkish Kurds into the Turkish political system, something that appears much more likely now that the historic landmark of a Kurdish political party passing the 10% threshold for admission to parliament has been passed. The obvious Turkish step toward a peaceful border would be the opening of that border to Syrian Kurds, presumably in return for peaceful behavior by Kurds from Syria when visiting Turkey and Turkish police toleration of legal Kurdish political activity within Turkey.

Mideast Venn Diagrams - Positive-Sum Turkish Kurdish Goal Redefinition
Redefining goals more precisely or by focusing more carefully on the real goal rather than some intermediate goal that is thoughtlessly presumed to be required to achieve the real goal may reveal that both sides can win.

The position of the Syrian Kurdish goal of “autonomy” now partly in the zone of joint goals and partly in the Syrian Kurd zone is intended to signal that Ankara would not be likely to embrace that as a goal any time in the near future but might be willing to accept it as a tolerable outcome. Syrian Kurds would presumably need to maintain a clear focus on the need to behave in a way that would continue to elicit such Turkish tolerance of their rising political power. The diagram is just a snapshot of a possible stage in a long and complicated political process.

Given these caveats, the narrow area of overlapping interests illustrated in the diagram could be broadened significantly by minimally redefining key goals that differ, for the conflict in these goals is far more apparent than real. Rather than attempting to force the Kurdish minority in Turkey into loyalty through repression, Ankara can reasonably hope to earn the minority’s loyalty by further promoting on-going reform process that has now led to the electoral success of a moderate Kurdish party. Pitfalls certainly exist, e.g., Syrian Kurdish interest in the quick defeat of the Islamic State vs. Ankara’s desire to exploit the Islamic State as a means of eliminating Assad, but a mutual search for a positive-sum outcome should be able to manage this difficulty. After all, Assad is hardly likely to support Syrian Kurdish aspirations any more than the Islamic State is, so in return for Ankara’s support, Syrian Kurds might well offer to tolerate temporary Turkish support for the current Islamic State offensive against Assad. One might thus calculate that, as illustrated in the diagram, with a little creative redefinition of goals, Ankara and the Syrian Kurds could be seen to have broad common interests.

Once policymakers open their minds to the possibility of positive-sum outcomes, perhaps with the aid of such Venn Diagrams as shown above, fruitful negotiations with the adversary become conceivable, at which point more sophisticated analysis will be needed, though simple sketches can still be useful. This second stage requires evaluation of options at each step, with predictions about the response of the adversary.

Mideast Game Theory - Turkey-Syrian Kurd Rapprochement 1
Portion of the Policy Calculus that Ankara and the Syrian Kurds Need to Be Making, As of June 14, 2015

The June 2015 election over, the Turkish Kurdish HDP now holding enough parliamentary seats to deny the AKP a parliamentary majority, and the Syrian Kurds on the offense against the Islamic State along the Turkish border with Syria, the victorious AKP faces a tipping point: work with Kurds both domestically and internationally or provoke a slide back into sectarianism. To evaluate options, Turkey can conduct a policy calculus simplistically modeled in the “Ankara-Syrian Kurd Policy Calculus chart. Following the earlier diagrams, this diagram rests on the assumption that Ankara’s primary goal is border security. To calculate a winning strategy to ensure border security, Ankara faces, according to the diagram, the question of whether or not to open the border to Syrian (mostly Kurdish) refugees, thus avoiding the scandalous behavior of watching the Islamic State slaughter innocent civilians under the eyes of Turkish soldiers, as happened at Kobani. In the chart, Ankara is allowed only a “yes” or “no” answer. In reality, during the battle at Kobani last year and this week as a battle unfolded at the border crossing near Tal Abyad, Ankara adopted a third variation – opening and shutting and reopening border crossings. On June 14, Ankara reopened the crossing at Tal Abyad, allowing some 10,000 Kurds to begin fleeing to safety. So, public statements of concern notwithstanding, Erdogan chose “yes.”

Now, the ball is in the court of the Syrian Kurds (though no rule prohibits making two moves in a row). The most critical decision for the leaders of the Syrian Kurds as far as Ankara is concerned would seem to be the behavior of the refugees in Turkey: will their leaders counsel peace or violence? If the answer is “yes,” might the ruling AKP, which now needs a coalition partner, offer the domestic Kurdish party, suddenly possessing some 80 seats in parliament, an historic deal? Then things might get very interesting, since no assumption can be made that a domestic AKP-HDP coalition would automatically persuade the more radical Syrian Kurds to go along with a deal that they could easily undermine. So the decision-maker is left wondering how far into the future it is necessary to carry the policy calculus before actually making a decision.

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