The Guardian view on Turkey’s Kurdish policies: compounding the region’s troubles
This week’s bombings in Turkey show that the country must radically realign its policies around the pursuit of peace with its own Kurds.
Turkey’s misguided policies have been taking that pivotal country in the wrong direction for several years. Now the errors and contradictions apparent in its domestic politics are becoming a major international problem, threatening to widen the conflict wracking the region in which until recently it was a force for stability and sanity.
The fighting in south-eastern Turkey between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK, is getting worse, and it is merging with the increasingly hot war between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Syria. While responsibility for bombings is hard to assign with certainty, it looks as if it is now reaching out to threaten Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in the shape of attacks like the one earlier this week which killed 28 soldiers and civilians in the centre of the city. The shelling of Kurdish positions in Syria and Kurdish return fire into Turkey is of a piece with the violence in the south-east, with fierce security sweeps there countered by ambushes and bombings.
The obvious threat the war between Turks and Kurds presents is that Turkish troops might intervene on the ground in Syria, ostensibly to create a safe haven for refugees or a buffer zone, but in fact to halt the military progress of the Syrian Kurds, whose army, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has been seizing territory along the border in recent days. The prospect which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fears is that the Syrian Kurds will be able to create a permanent mini-state on Syrian soil, stiffening the PKK in its opposition to Ankara, and influencing the Iraqi Kurds as well. The Turkish nightmare of a unified Kurdistan might then in theory not be too far away.
The YPG enjoy the support of the Americans, who have found them useful in the fight against Islamic State, and perhaps also of the Russians, who regard them as in effect neutral in their fight against the Assad regime’s enemies. If Turkish troops went into Syria, the Russians could react militarily. The Turks might then invoke the Nato alliance and the fat would be in the fire. Fortunately, it is unlikely that this scenario will come to pass, and more likely that the Turks will continue to try to persuade the powers, probably in vain, that the YPG are terrorists who should be repudiated or at least persuaded to halt their offensive.
Mr Erdoğan’s Turkey has boxed itself in. The fragmentation of Iraq and Syria handed Kurds in those countries advantages that Ankara had not expected. Having perhaps never been truly serious about a settlement with Turkish Kurds, it then let the peace process slip away, and now finds its foreign policy warped through and through by its obsession with blocking the Kurds, to the point where it seems blind to all other considerations.
It is hard to remember now that less than a year ago the Turkish government was still in peace talks with the PKK, and that only a few years before its reputation for reliability and pragmatism was such that it enjoyed good relations with Israel, Iran and Iraq, as well as close ties with Europe, America and Russia. Today, all those once healthy connections are at least frayed, and in some cases broken. The immediate danger of cross-border fighting may be averted. But until Turkey radically realigns its policies around the pursuit of peace with its own Kurds, it will continue to add to the region’s troubles rather than help to contain them.