Turkey’s Kurdish obsession explains Putin’s gains and US strains

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia September 29, 2021. Sputnik/Vladimir Smirnov/Pool via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Editor's note:

Turkey’s historic failure to find democratic solutions to Kurdish ethnic demands has created a deeply insecure and chronically irrational Turkish political culture, precipitated the end of the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership, and pushed Ankara to work with Moscow, writes Ömer Taşpınar. This piece was originally in Responsible Statecraft.

There are some countries where a single issue can explain pretty much everything that is wrong with its domestic and foreign policy. Turkey’s Kurdish predicament is such a case. Ankara’s historic failure to find democratic solutions to Kurdish ethnic demands has created a deeply insecure and chronically irrational Turkish political culture.

Almost one hundred years after its inception, the Turkish Republic is still obsessed with the fear and trauma of its foundational decades. Where others see manageable Kurdish demands for decentralization, federalism, and minority rights, Ankara sees terrorism and the beginning of an intractable, bloody disintegration.

Almost no issue at home or beyond borders escapes this Turkish mental eclipse when it comes to Kurds. From its military incursions into northern Syria, to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transformation from reformer to autocrat, or from the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400s to Erdoğan’s chances of winning yet another presidential election by dividing his opponents, Turkey’s Kurdish predicament has all the answers.

For anyone paying attention, the end of the Turkish-American strategic partnership also came because of Kurds. As a legacy of the Ottoman dissolution, Turkish nationalism has always been deeply suspicions of Western intentions. American wars in Iraq, with each one resulting in even more Kurdish autonomy, exacerbated this Turkish insecurity bordering on conspiracy theories: a Greater Kurdistan was in the making under American protection.

But for most Turks, it is in Syria that the Kurdish-American conspiracy turned into prophecy. American military cooperation with Kurdish militias proved simply too much to digest for Ankara. Making matters worse was the specific identity of the Syrian Kurdish group Washington decided to arm. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, is a Kurdish militant group in Turkey designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington. Desperate to fight ISIS with an effective ground force, the Pentagon decided it had no better option than teaming up with the Syrian wing of the PKK, the PYD, or Democratic Union Party.

It was a temporary and tactical partnership, devoid of any long-term strategic dimension, Ankara was told. But, to Ankara’s dismay. U.S. support for Syrian Kurds continues to this day, despite heavy turbulence under the Trump administration. Most recently, on September 15, only days after the frantic evacuation of U.S. forces from Kabul, CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie visited northeastern Syria to convey some sense of U.S. credibility with its Kurdish allies.

Why such U.S. engagement with Syrian Kurds, one may ask. Wasn’t Turkey, the second largest army in NATO, a better option for Washington in the fight against ISIS? The short answer is no: ISIS does not present an existential threat to Turkey the way the PKK does. In any case, CENTCOM commanders had no patience for any reminders extolling Turkey’s NATO credentials, including its steadfast contribution to Washington’s just-abandoned war in Afghanistan. They knew full well that Ankara welcomed jihadi infiltration of Syria by opening its borders wide. This was a Machiavellian move on Erdoğan’s part, more so than a display of ideological camaraderie. After all, these jihadists were the most effective fighters against Turkey’s main enemies in Syria: the Assad regime and secular Kurdish nationalists.

Enters the S-400

Today, on the surface at least, it is the thorn of a Russian missile defense system under Turkish possession that appears to have derailed Turkish-American strategic relations. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will see that Erdoğan’s decision to purchase S-400s was also a direct result of strategic imperatives related to the fight against Syrian Kurds. Ankara was greatly alarmed about Kurdish autonomy and territorial gains in northern Syria, and any Turkish cross-border military incursion to stem the Kurdish tide required Moscow’s blessing.

After all, Russia had boots on the ground and owned the skies of its client state. Putin’s green light to Erdoğan was always going to come with a heavy price tag, especially after Turkey downed a Russian jet in November 2015. Disappointed with NATO’s lack of tangible support, Erdoğan not only apologized to Putin, but was also expected to kiss the Tsar’s ring.

The process that would end with Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles began in 2016 at a time when Erdoğan appeared particularly vulnerable. He had just survived a bizarre coup attempt that summer, during which F-16s bombed the outer walls of the Turkish Parliament and his presidential palace. While it took days for the Obama White House to express support for Erdoğan, Putin called him the night of the failed coup to offer his support. Desperate to restore his authority and project some renewed sense of power, Erdoğan ordered a military offensive into northern Syria the following month.

Operation Euphrates Shield became the first of a series of three major Turkish military incursions into northern Syria between 2016 and 2019. All these major ground operations needed to be carefully deconflicted with Moscow. The last one, in 2019, also required coordination with a chaotic Trump White House. While Trump first gave a green light, he later changed his tune and threatened Turkey with heavy sanctions. Such discord on the American front made Turkish-Russian coordination even more essential for Ankara. But in this strange partnership where Ankara and Moscow supported opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, Putin always had the upper hand and never hesitated to play it hard.

In February 2020, when 33 Turkish troops were killed by air strikes in Idlib province — the last pocket of anti-regime resistance in Syria — Erdoğan had to pretend Russia was not involved. He had simply no interest in escalating military tensions with Moscow. The same dynamics continue to this day. On issues ranging from Turkish dependence on Russian natural gas to Turkey’s agricultural exports and tourism revenues, Putin holds all the cards. But it is in Syria where Erdoğan is most vulnerable. If tomorrow Russia were to bomb Idlib province, home to three million people, Turkey would face at least one million Syrian refugees at its borders. At a time when Turkey already hosts four million Syrian refugees and public opinion blames the government for this burden, Erdoğan is in no mood to jeopardize good relations with Putin.

Erdoğan recently was in New York and had high expectations of meeting the American president. Snubbed by Biden, Erdoğan defended his S-400 decision in an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation on the grounds that Turkey is a sovereign nation that needs no permission from Washington to pursue its national security interests. What he naturally failed to mention is that he is beholden to Moscow.

A few days later, after a closed-door meeting with the Russian leader in Sochi, Erdoğan praised Russia and personally thanked Putin for their positive agenda on issues ranging from nuclear energy to military-industrial cooperation. No wonder Putin looked entirely satisfied in his meeting with Erdoğan.

At the end of the day, selling S-400s to a NATO country that has now been expelled from the F-35 advanced fighter aircraft program and made subject to American military sanctions is no small feat for Moscow. If I were Putin, I would have expressed my thanks to Turkey’s Kurdish insecurity for this situation.