The third round of talks on Syria, to which the entire world is looking with hope, began in Geneva last week.
No question about it — the start of these talks, which involve hundreds of actors behind the scenes, is auspicious, but the wounds are also deep and it is a process in which many bridges are being and have been burned. After all, we are talking about a conference salon hosting a political regime that has killed its own people with bombs and an atmosphere in which the word “terror” now appears to have so many different meanings. Although everything is on the table at these talks, the Kurds and the Syrian pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) appear to be stuck between the chairs at these talks. Ankara and Syrian opposition forces close to Ankara insist that the PYD ought to be included in the delegation representing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, asserting that the PYD does not qualify as “opposition.” As for the Kurds, they are resolute in their desire to participate under the mantle of the “opposition.” In the general tangled mess of these Syrian talks, distinguishing the different opposition sides is no easy job. So, let’s scrutinize this scene closely to try and figure out just where the PYD stands in all this.
While Ankara, Arbil, and nationalist Arab contingency forces in Syria play an important role in making the PYD “stuck between the chairs” in the Geneva talks, it’s important to point out that the PYD is not entirely innocent. When the Syrian crisis was newly under way and it appeared the Assad regime was about to be toppled, it is well-known that Damascus turned three regions along the Turkish border over to PYD control. The PYD rewarded this gesture by allowing Syrian state institutions in these regions to stay standing. This is why, in these “cantons,” we can speak of a shared Assad-PYD leadership. What’s more, this cooperation has not been limited solely to these cantons. In fact, with only a few exceptions, the PYD has avoided violent clashes with Assad forces.
Of course, Assad’s seeming love for the PYD is completely rooted in pragmatic strategy, which could be defined as the search for alliances in regions that can’t be defended militarily. There can also be no question that it is a message to Ankara. Even during the years when the Assad-Baathist regime, which was a deep representation of Arab nationalism, opened its doors to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, Syria was clear on its strong stance against Syrian Kurds, both in terms of policies and general exclusion. This nationalist strain has an extension in the opposition. In the case of a possible peace process, it is not unthinkable that the PYD could become a power that could threaten the unity of Damascus and the whole of Syria. Both the Kurds and the PYD are aware of this. But the conditions in place today are working in favor of the Kurds. Not only Assad but also Moscow, Washington, Berlin and even Paris are now elbow to elbow with the PYD in talks.
It is not only the PYD’s effective fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces on the ground in Syria that has sparked the similar views espoused by Washington and Moscow on this organization. It appears now that Washington and Moscow have already come to some sort of agreement in the case of possible peace in Syria and the rebuilding of the country. What these countries both want is a “secular” and democratic structure, not unlike what exists in Turkey. The Shiites, Christian minorities, Druze and secular Muslims as well as the Kurds and the PYD are all seen as critical cornerstones in any secular order that is to emerge in Syria from here onwards. This is why the West’s view on the PYD has changed so deeply in the last couple of years. But despite this, although the West may support the PYD, it does not embrace it. And it cannot embrace it, for it fears not only Arab nationalists but also problems with both Ankara and Arbil. This is why the most chaotic and confused region in the whole mess is composed of the rectangle of Ankara, Arbil, the PYD and the PKK.
In the meantime, everyone — from Washington to the EU, Moscow and Tehran seems to have a horse in the race unfolding in this rectangle. But let’s pay particular attention to the speediest of these horses. Both Ankara and Arbil wish to be in cooperation with the West in this arena and for a conservative type of Islam rooted in Nakshibandi traditions to emerge as the main influence in the region. The leftist and secular policies of the PYD make these two capitals uncomfortable, which is why the PYD is actually a natural ally for Assad, Moscow and Tehran. In the end, though, the solution to this all does not lie in this corner of the rectangle. Instead, it lies in the arena occupied by Ankara, Washington and Arbil. And this is where the drama for the PYD, or more specifically the PKK, is rooted. The PYD-PKK does not only have bad relations with Ankara but also with Arbil. Are they the sole reasons for this fight? They are not. But they have lost their way in this tangled mess.
The Ankara-Arbil axis might well be the most influential and effective line when it comes to bringing about peace in Syria. They don’t even have to do that much. They need to see that despite all its many flaws, the secular democracy carried forward by the 100-year-old Turkish Republic could bring a solution and peace to Iraq and Syria. Are the historical religious wars of Europe not a telling lesson from the past as well? As for the PYD losing its way within the larger tangled mess out there, might it not have something to do with their confusion, not over secularity, but over democracy? When it comes to elbow-to-elbow meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad, there don’t seem to be too many problems.