Turkey is set to debate the shape and extent of reforms promised its Kurd minority beginning next week. That Ankara is accelerating the process speaks to growing pressure from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has threatened to break its much-vaunted March ceasefire if no progress is made by the beginning of September. A huge amount of political capital is at stake here for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom a definitive end to the thirty year-old conflict would do a lot to secure his presidential bid in 2014; the leader is expected to call on Kurdish politicians to support an expansion of presidential powers in exchange for Kurdish rights.
As the Turkish government makes strides towards a domestic peace, it is warming to Kurds across the border in Syria. Turkey’s foreign ministry met with leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in July, and a new round of talks with that entity are scheduled for later this week. Though Turkey opposes PYD’s calls for Kurdish autonomy within Syria, it has softened its previous antagonism for two reasons. Ankara isn’t willing to risk a military intervention to prevent the creation of a Kurdish mini-state (not when Turks are already angry over spillover near the Syria border), and its hostile stance towards Syrian Kurds threatens the tenuous peace with the PKK. That said, the Turkish government is hedging its bets in the region — despite meeting with PYD bigwigs, and offering a one-time humanitarian aid package, Ankara continues to support opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Kurds. Which is getting politically trickier: the battle between al Qaeda-linked rebels and PYD fighters heated up Sunday when insurgents kidnapped 13 Kurds, bringing the number of abductions over the past two weeks to 250.
The escalating rivalry has prompted the entrance of another Kurdish faction. On Saturday, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — a largely autonomous statelet in Iraq — vowed to defend Syrian Kurds against rebel fighters. Here, Turkey’s hand is also visible. Uneasy about Syrian Kurds’ ambitions towards autonomy — not unlike that achieved in Iraq — Ankara had been pressuring Barzani to challenge PYD’s influence in Syria. Barzani, who backs a PYD rival coalition within Syria, complied by sending armed militia members into Syria on May 18, who were promptly detained, and sealing parts of its border. The move backfired as members of the PKK and PYD — not to mention Barzani’s political rivals back home — accused the KRG of acting like the enemy. Hence Barzani’s August 10 political maneuvering. But like Turkey, the KRG is unlikely to attempt a direct intervention in Syria — not at the risk of angering Baghdad, on which it still depends for funding.
Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey are not the only regional players with an eye squarely fixed on Syria’s Kurds. Russia and Iran are also jumping in the melee to express sympathy with the minority group. On August 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the U.N. Security Council to censure a “terror attack” on Syrian Kurds by radical militants. Iran also appealed to the United Nations to condemn Kurd massacres, and reportedly backed PYD’s plan to create a transitional authority during an August meeting with party leader Salih Muslim. Such gestures come as little surprise — both Assad allies have been endeavoring to paint the Syrian opposition as al Qaeda-linked bad guys. Easy enough when radical groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are intensifying their presence. Rebel assaults on Kurds may tip the propaganda war into Assad’s favor. Or, at the least, give Russia and Iran another fig leaf in supporting Damascus. Not that it changes much for Syria’s Kurds. For now, the PYD is pursuing long-sought autonomy, but the minority risks serious retaliation once the conflict ends — from both camps.
So who will be the winners in the increasingly internationalized struggle over their political fate of the Kurds? Assad stands out as a one — and so does Tayyip Erdoğan. Not so much the Kurds.