"We are ready to protect Turkmens and form an alliance with them against al-Qaeda."
This unexpected offer came from Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is steadily increasing its influence in Syria and is commonly referred to as the "Syrian franchise" of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In an interview with Al-Monitor via Skype, Muslim voiced concern about the attacks on Turkmens by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was "excommunicated" by al-Qaeda a few days ago but nevertheless follows its bloody terror tactics by the book. "All the people in Syria are our brothers. Our doors are wide open for Turkmens. We are waiting for them to contact us," Muslim said.
If we recall that until last summer Turkmens — guided primarily by Ankara — were fighting the Kurds alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra, Muslim's "forgiving" and "embracing" approach could sound unusual but in real political terms it is infinitely savvy.
Here's why. The Kurds who recently declared "transitional autonomy" by setting up three separate "cantons" are enlisting members of diverse ethnic and confessional groups — including Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidis and Alawites — as part of an effort to boost their legitimacy. If the Kurds under PYD leadership can succeed in attracting Turkmens to their ranks that would be a major propaganda victory. This is because the presence of the Turkmens would help overcome widespread suspicions that the Kurds' real goal is to establish a separate Kurdish entity.
More important still, a quick glance at the map will show that an alliance with the Turkmens would constitute a strategic victory in the field. Turkmens, like the Kurds, are scattered around Syria because of the Baath Party regime's forced assimilation policies and for economic reasons. Still, they maintain a homogenous presence primarily in the Bayir area in northern Latakia, which is a cluster of villages between the Turkish province of Hatay and the Mediterranean Sea. For Syrian Kurds who aim at controlling the Arab settlements splitting their cantons, the Bayir region is also essential for their dream of reaching the Mediterranean Sea. The same goes for ISIS. As I wrote in the daily Taraf, this is why ISIS launched an intensive terror campaign to expel the Bayir Turkmens from the area.
ISIS, which earlier seized control of the border town of Azaz where Turkmens and Kurds cohabit with Arabs, recently captured the Cobankoy township where Turkmens are in the majority. Faced with the specter of further bloodletting, thousands of Turkmens have fled to Turkey. In the face of these setbacks, how should the Turkmens respond to Muslim's overtures? A credible reply to this question is not possible without briefly touching upon Turkey's Syria policy and its historical approach to Turkmens.
Veteran foreign affairs correspondent for the private Turkish news channel NTV Mete Cubucku wrote an intriguing tweet on Feb. 1: "It seems that the process for generating consent for the Turkish armed forces to enter Syria has started." The process Cubucku alluded to was most likely the recent fuss kicked up by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government about Syrian Turkmens and the Turkish army's increased activities along the Syrian border. We learned, for example, from a news report in the pro-government daily Sabah that a mortar fired by ISIS while clashing with the FSA landed near the Cobankoy border on the Turkish side. The report approvingly observed that the army had responded "with more than adequate" fire, destroying a convoy of ISIS vehicles in the process.
Indeed, the long ignored drama of Turkmens is getting more coverage in the Turkish media, and the government has stepped up its rhetoric with regard to the threat posed by ISIS. Here is what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said about the ISIS convoy that was hit: "We have been very cautious not to intervene in Syria until now, but the threat is drawing nearer. Who is responsible for this? The Bashar al-Assad regime. If the UN's mission is to maintain international security, peace and stability, this is the right time to do it. If they can't do it now, when will they do it?"
There are those who interpret Davutoglu's remarks as a fresh invitation to the international community to militarily intervene in Syria by citing al-Qaeda's threat. (When I say intervene, I am alluding to formulas such a "cordon sanitaire" or a no-fly zone, or both.) As the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) lawmaker Mehmet Seker recently put it, the Turkmen angle is being played up so as to win public support of a Turkish public that remains overwhelmingly opposed to Turkish intervention in Syria by appealing to nationalist sentiment. Had the same scenario not been tried with the Iraqi Turkmens as a pretext for intervention against the Kurds in northern Iraq?
Such views may be exaggerated but one thing is certain, the Turkmens serve as a useful tool to shift attention from the massive corruption allegations that are rocking the government. The most concrete example of this was the recent case of the convoy of intercepted trucks said to be under the protection of the national spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT). The government insists that the trucks were stopped for inspection by rogue members of the security forces who were receiving their orders from its newly declared enemy, the US-based Sunni Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The Interior Minister Efkan Ala claimed that their cargo was "aid for the Syrian Turkmens."
But the Turkmens declared that no assistance from Turkey had arrived.
How should Turkmens respond to Kurdish proposal?
Reverting to the question asked at the beginning of this article, Syrian Kurdish sources Al-Monitor spoke to claim that the Kurds had made an alliance proposal with Turkmens earlier but that Turkey had blocked it. Muslim asserted in our interview that "some Turkmens have joined the PYD's military wing, the People's Protection Units [YPG]." I brought this up with Ziyad Hassan, the leader of the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, who lives in Istanbul. Hassan said the claim that Turkmens had joined the YPG was a "lie" because it was out of question for Turkmens to ally with the PYD. "The PYD is no different from the PKK," Hassan said, adding that the Turkmens were "always on Turkey's side and were awaiting military assistance.
Even the government is no longer bothering to conceal the fact that Turkey has been providing logistics and limited military support to the Syrian opposition. Everybody knows by now that Turkey acted as a go-between for weapons flowing from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya to the armed Syrian opposition. And the result? Extremists have supplanted the so-called moderates. The Syrian leader remains very much in charge. Meanwhile, Turkmen commanders have revealed that the FSA tasked to deliver weapons to Turkmens have not done so.
It is impossible to predict what even a generous arming of Turkmens will produce other than provoke the ISIS and regime forces to go after them with renewed ferocity. Will Turkey be compelled then to intervene on their behalf? If so, Turkey and the Turkmen alike will find themselves bogged down in a bloody quagmire. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow with the Middle East Forum who has shot to prominence with his research on jihadist groups in Syria, said ISIS doesn't have the luxury of opening a new front against Turkey. Tamimi, contacted by Al-Monitor via email, said the ISIS threats against Turkey were "fakes."
While the ISIS presence may not be as Tamimi claims, an immediate threat in the medium to long term, its entrenched presence along the Turkish border does pose a security risk to Turkey and the region. Being that the Turkmens are unable to defend themselves, the surest way for them to avoid being effaced altogether would be to strike a deal with the Kurds, and distasteful as they may find this, take part in their transitional administration. This would help guarantee their security, while giving them some say over the autonomous regions in what the Syrian Kurds call "Rojava."
Rather than blocking the alliance, Ankara should be discreetly supporting it. Turkey, which until yesterday was provoking the Turkmens against Iraqi Kurds, today vaunts them as "strategic partners." Who remembers the Iraqi Turkmens? It is inevitable that a similar situation will develop between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. All you need to do is glance at the map.