Turkey, U.S. Need to Change Policy Towards Syria’s Kurds

Special for the Armenian Weekly

On Nov. 5, I was among a group of panelists who took part in the European Parliament’s 10th conference on Turkey and the Kurds. It was surely an honor to address such a distinguished crowd, including the widely acclaimed woman Kurdish politician and activist Leyla Zana. But I can happily confess that my greatest joy was to be able to finally meet Saleh Muslim, my co-panelist and the co-chairman of Syria’s most influential Kurdish party, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), in the flesh.

The author with PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim
The author with PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim

Mr. Muslim and I had spoken countless times. But we were never able to meet in person. Not for lack of will or of opportunities. He was supposed to be in Washington last month to speak at a groundbreaking conference organized by Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish grouping, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to discuss the role of the Kurds in the new Middle East. But Mr. Muslim was unable to come and was left addressing us all via Skype.

This is because the U.S. government denied him a visa. Not because Mr. Muslim had committed any crime. Not because the PYD had committed any unlawful act. Nor was it because the main Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Defense Units (YPG), in Syrian Kurdistan or Rojava had ever engaged in terrorist activity. On the contrary, they are combatting well-known and extremely brutal terrorist groups who are officially designated as such by Europe and the United States. I am talking about al-Qaeda, about the heartless people who killed Mr. Muslim’s youngest son Sherwan in October, not to mention countless innocent civilians

Mr. Muslim continues to be denied a visa because of the well-worn and utterly hypocritical policy of supporting so-called “good Kurds” against the “bad.” It is a policy that has been practiced for centuries and continues to be practiced by regional powers, including my own country, Turkey.

This policy is not only harmful to the Kurds but to the very countries that practice it, and to regional stability as a whole. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rojava, where Turkey has been mentoring assorted and armed Syrian opposition groups, not only to fulfill its thus far elusive goal of toppling President Bashar Assad but also to keep the Syrian Kurds’ legitimate aspirations in check.

This policy is morally and strategically flawed.

I say morally flawed because Turkey’s policy of keeping its borders shut with areas that are under the Syrian Kurds’ control means that tens of thousands of people living in those regions are deprived of urgently needed humanitarian aid. Of medicine, of water, of milk. Women and children, the sick and the elderly are suffering as I write.

Turkey has repeatedly claimed that its policy on Syria is based on ethics, on morality. If so, how can Turkey justify keeping its doors shut to the Kurds when border gates controlled by other opposition militias remain open?
Ask a Turkish official and the answer you get will no doubt be that the PYD is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syrian clothing. My answer to that is, “So what?” To be sure, there are close ideological and organizational links between the PKK and PYD. According to some estimates, one third of the PKK’s fighting force is made up of Syrian Kurds. I met some of them when I last went to the Qandil Mountains in 2010.

It is therefore unsurprising that sympathy for the PKK runs strong among Syrian Kurds who have lost countless sons and daughters in the mountains and whose mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters have, like Mr. Muslim and his wife, Ayşe Effendi, been jailed by the Assad regime.

Also let us not forget that the borders drawn up by the Allied powers less than a century ago left many Kurdish families divided. Turkey’s Kurds cannot remain indifferent to the plight of the Syrian Kurds, for they are one and the same people. Label it as you will, the Kurdish movement inspired by the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is growing stronger by the day. It is the most popular Kurdish movement in Turkey, in Iran, and in Syria. It is well established in Europe and increasingly so in the United States. Most importantly, the PKK is moving away from violence to peaceful politics. Ocalan has declared unequivocally that the days of armed struggle are over.

The other reason why Turkey and the United States say they won’t engage with Mr. Muslim and the PYD is because the latter has refused to join the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition and to take up arms against the Assad regime. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, made it clear that this is why Ankara has frozen dialogue with Mr. Muslim.

Setting aside the fact that the Assad regime has committed crimes and must be punished, looking at the tragic and messy picture in Syria today, the path chosen by the Kurds—that of neutrality—seems unquestionably right. Rojava is, relatively speaking, one of the safest areas in Syria, and not just for the Kurds.

Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Alawites, and Yezidis all have been offered protection and a chance to take part in the Syrian Kurds’ brand new experiment with democratic self-rule. They have been spared the destruction of Assad’s killing machine. The Kurds of Syria are at last able to taste freedom. The PYD’s strategy is paying off.

But what of Turkey’s strategy? If the purpose was to prevent the Kurds from pursuing their cultural and political rights, it has clearly failed. The Kurds are steadily consolidating their autonomy through the establishment of local councils, and plan to hold elections and draw up a constitution. Their battle against the jihadists has won them a growing number of friends within Syria and beyond.

Moreover Turkey’s perceived backing of jihadist groups in a proxy war against the PYD is jeopardizing its attempts to make peace with its own Kurds. How can you purport to be seeking peace at home when you are complicit in the Kurds’ suffering next door? And what is the logic in refusing to deal with the PYD—on the grounds that it is no different from the PKK—when you have accepted Abdullah Ocalan as a legitimate interlocutor for achieving peace?

And how can Ocalan and the BDP believe that Turkey is acting in good faith when it is applying such double standards? The Kurds certainly want to know.

If the main concern is Turkey’s security, well that hasn’t worked out all that well either. All along our 900-kilometer border with Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash Sham or ISIS is steadily consolidating its hold, save for in those areas controlled by the Syrian Kurds.

I recently spent several days touring the Syrian border. People are scared. Very scared. Especially the Alevis in the Hatay province who fear that al-Qaeda will attack them as well. I spoke to Ali Yeral, a leading Alevi sheikh in Hatay, who told me that he and his family had received numerous death threats. Also in Hatay, I met Syrian Turkmen fighters who had just returned from their villages across the border. They were desperate for help. ISIS had seized control of their villages, unleashing a reign of terror among the civilian population. Just months ago, Turkmen brigades had fought alongside the jihadists against the Kurds. One of the Turkmen who took part in the battle against the Kurds told me that Turkey, as he put it, “gave us lots of bullets.”

Al-Qaeda’s growing presence in Syria is also threatening to destabilize Turkey’s close ally, the Iraqi Kurds. ISIS claimed responsibility for the October suicide bomb attack that claimed the lives of innocent civilians. While many of us have criticized the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq for sealing its border with Rojava, the fact remains that above and beyond the differences between the KRG leader, Massoud Barzani, and the PYD, the Iraqi Kurds want at all costs to prevent the war between al-Qaeda and the Syrian Kurds from spilling over to their side of the border.

To sum up: Turkey needs to change its Syria policy and to resume government-level dialogue with Syria’s Kurds. There is absolutely no reason why Turkey and the Syrian Kurds cannot enjoy the same kind of strategic and economic ties that Turkey now has with Iraq’s Kurds.

The same holds true for Europe and America. Be they in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or Syria, the main Kurdish political parties are secular, and pro-Western, and though we cannot as yet call them true democrats we can credit them for trying.

The Kurdish movement inspired by Abdullah Ocalan is no exception. The funny thing is that when I talk to Turkish and Western officials in private, they all agree. My trip to the border left me feeling that things are changing for the better, that Turkey has finally realized the enormity of the risk and is making an effort to restrict the movements of al-Qaeda.

In turn, much responsibility lies with Mr. Muslim and his friends to prove that they are truly committed to democracy and to disproving the claims of all those who say that the PYD is bent on replacing one dictatorship with another.

My hope is that they will not seek to settle past scores with the Arabs, and to uproot those who were forcibly settled by the regime in Kurdish lands. For they, too, are victims. I recognize that none of this simple or easy in times of war. I look forward to traveling to Rojava in the near future. I am hearing encouraging rumors that I may be able to cross through Turkey, legally; that the borders may soon be re-opened. And if not, as we say in Turkish, when one door closes another opens.


This article is an adapted version of the speech delivered by Amberin Zaman at the European Parliament on Dec. 5‏, 2013.

Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist newspaper and a columnist for the independent daily Turkish newspaper Taraf. She is also a regular contributor to the Al-Monitor news portal. Zaman was a stringer for The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times for several years. Her main field of expertise is the Kurds. You may follow her on twitter @amberinzaman
Amberin Zaman

Latest posts by Amberin Zaman (see all)


  1. Turkey is the only party that can provide not just long term security but also economic development to Kurds and Kurdish entities in the whole region. It has already happened in Northern Iraq. The only real democracy Kurds in the region enjoy right now is in Turkey. Yes, that says more about the region than Turkey but that is the reality. What Turks or any other respectable democratic state would not entertain is the demands of separation or autonomy. Once such extreme rhetoric is removed from the discussions everything is possible. Kurds hold the cards.

  2. @Murat. Autonomy would not be “extreme”; it is the only viable and lasting solution to the Kurdish issue, not repression/forced assimilation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.