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Op-Ed: How Turkey Misreads the Kurds

Turkey's military

The article below was originally published by the New York Times on Feburary 24th, 2016.

The Turkish government’s hostility toward the Kurds is drawing the country further into the Syrian war, complicating the battlefield and fanning new tensions between Ankara and the United States. The dispute with the Kurds also risks bringing Turkey into direct conflict with Russia, destabilizing the region even more.

Turkey’s Fears of Kurdish State

Turkey has long feared Kurdish aspirations for a separate state. The Kurds are an ethnic group of perhaps 35 million in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, where about 15 million live.

Last fall, in a politically calculated move before an important election, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey resumed a war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., in the southern part of his country. More recently, his forces began attacking Kurdish militants across the border in Syria.

Difference Between Kurds

A big part of the problem is that Mr. Erdogan refuses to acknowledge important differences between the two Kurdish groups. The United States and Turkey both consider the P.K.K. a terrorist group; it has openly claimed responsibility for bombings and attacks that have shaken Turkey.

By contrast, the United States sees the Syrian Kurds not as terrorists but as a highly effective adversary against the Islamic State whose focus is protecting Kurdish areas of Syria from the civil war. Washington provides the group with intelligence and other assistance.

Turkish policeman and protesters clash during a demonstration against government-imposed curfews

Turkish policeman and protesters clash during a demonstration against government-imposed curfews. Credit: Ilyas Akengin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week, Turkey added to the tensions by blaming the Syrian Kurds for a bombing in Ankara that killed 28 people. The Syrian Kurds denied responsibility; American officials say the culprit was likely a P.K.K. splinter group. Mr. Erdogan went so far as to demand that the Americans choose between him and the Syrian Kurds, which Washington refused to do.

US Calls to End Attacks

The United States has urged Mr. Erdogan to halt his attacks on the Syrian Kurds, who now control most of the 565-mile boundary with Turkey and may soon seize the last section of territory that would give them a contiguous region. American officials say the Turks agreed to a pause in the fighting negotiated by the United States and Russia that takes effect Saturday.

At the same time, Washington has asked the Syrian Kurds to resist taking advantage of the chaos of war to seize more land. An effort on their part to claim that final patch of territory along the border could provoke Mr. Erdogan to come down even harder with military force.

Russian Involvement

One worry is that Russia, which is also courting Kurdish allegiance by providing air cover for their operations, would then retaliate against Turkey on behalf of the Kurds.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia may indeed be looking for an excuse to pay Turkey back for shooting down a Russian jet that strayed into Turkish airspace in November, but Mr. Erdogan should resist giving him an excuse to do so.

Erdogan’s ‘Kurdish Problem’

Mr. Erdogan’s problems with the Kurds are largely of his own making. He had in fact made some headway in peace talks with Kurdish leaders in Turkey before resuming hostilities last year. He should seek ways to revive that process.

As for the Kurds in Syria, he should stop shelling them and instead work with the United States to find a way to accommodate what could eventually become an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. Mr. Erdogan has found a way to work with the Kurds in Iraq. Fighting Syrian Kurds and inflaming tensions with America makes no sense.

[To read the original article, visit The New York Times]

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