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Debate Over Syrian Kurds at Peace Talks Reveal Complex Ties

By Nicholas Danforth

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

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Peace talks currently underway in Geneva, aimed at ending Syria’s five-year civil war, faced no lack of obstacles from the outset. Anti-Assad rebels threatened to boycott the talks unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first ended the siege and bombardment of civilians in rebel-held areas. Assad and his supporters in Moscow, meanwhile, seemed happy to play for time as their military forces continue to make progress on the ground.

Against this backdrop, the debate over whether, or in what capacity, representatives of the Syrian Kurds would attend the talks is perhaps most interesting for what it reveals about the complicated and evolving relationship among Washington, Ankara, Moscow, and the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.

When Russia first suggested that the PYD participate in the Geneva talks, Turkey was quick to voice its displeasure, going as far as to say it would boycott the talks if the PYD attended. The United States declared itself “very mindful of Turkish sensitivities” on the question of PYD participation, declining to demand a spot at the table for the PYD, but subsequently sending presidential envoy Brett McGurk to Kobani to reassure the Kurds. Ultimately, UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura did not issue an invitation to the PYD, but suggested he was seeking a formula for bringing them in at a later stage.

In response to questions on the issue, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the PYD of siding with the Assad regime and refusing to cooperate with Turkish-backed rebel groups within the Syrian National Coalition. But Ankara’s real fear is that the PYD’s success in Syria will dangerously strengthen the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in its fight against Turkey. For Washington, by contrast, the PYD’s military success confronting ISIS in Syria remains the group’s main appeal.

Most recently, the United States and Turkey have disagreed over the expansion of PYD forces in the Jarablus region west of the Euphrates River. Ankara has repeatedly stated that PYD forces crossing the Euphrates would be a Turkish red line. But since Kurdish forces, operating with coalition support, seized the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates on December 26 and continued to advance west toward the city of Manbij, the Turkish government has appeared eager to paper over this seeming violation. The troops crossing the Euphrates, the Turkish government claims, belong in fact to the Syrian Democracy Forces (SDF). While the SDF is widely regarded as an extension of the PYD with limited Arab participation, Ankara continues to insist that the forces holding the Tishrin Dam and fighting their way toward Manbij are predominantly Arab rather than Kurdish.

Nonetheless, if some modus vivendi has been so far maintained, news that the PYD is planning a much larger push into Jarablus is certain to create tension. Amid suggestions that the PYD is undertaking this campaign at the behest of Russia, the Turkish government has already declared that it reserved the right to use “hard power” in response to PYD movement west of the Euphrates.

It is exactly this well-known and persistent U.S.-Turkish tension, however, that fuels the suspicion that Russia suggested the PYD come to Geneva in part to drive a further wedge between Washington and Ankara. Russia, which has sought to exacerbate rifts in the NATO alliance on other occasions, hoped to sow U.S.-Turkish discord with its rhetoric as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for example, in a recent statement almost certainly intended to target Turkish sensitivities, said: “(U.S. Secretary of State John) Kerry’s always having problems with U.S. partners in the region, like Turkey. He always calls on us to find a way out…”

If nothing else, the fact that Russia is so eager to use the PYD to set the U.S. and Turkey against each other should push both countries to redouble their diplomatic management of the group’s regional role. What’s more, the PYD’s participation will hardly be a make-or-break factor in the success of the Geneva talks. When sufficient will exists on all sides to solve the core conflict between Assad and Syria’s principle opposition groups, the issue of PYD participation can most likely be finessed, just as the PYD’s initial foray across the Euphrates has been. Indeed, in his criticism of the PYD, Davutoglu already hinted at this possibility, stating that while the group had to choose between Assad and the opposition, “if the PYD revises its position, they could be included in the process.”