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GÖKHAN BACIK

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GÖKHAN BACIK
September 09, 2012, Sunday

Northern Syria and Turkey: Need for small ideas

Ankara expects the fall of Bashar al-Assad sometime in the future. Syria, however, is likely to become a greater threat to the region in the wake of that event.

Can one be sure that the opposition groups have the capacity to establish an egalitarian and participatory political system after Assad? No. The fear now is not the Iraqization of Syria but its Lebanonization. What is meant by a "Lebanon-like crisis?" Many explanations can be offered, but the most important of them is "a very long period of chaos." In the event of a prolonged state of chaos in Syria, northern Syria will be the physical contact point between Turkey and that country. Therefore, Turkey needs a special northern Syria strategy along with its wider Syrian strategy.

According to recent observers, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), known for its affiliation with the Turkish terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has secured a somehow muscular position in various northern Syrian cities like Efrin, Qamishli, Terbaspi, Girke Lege, Sari and Kani. The PYD shares power in these cities on different levels.

There is a delusion in Turkey about the rising role of the PYD in northern Syria. Many Turks believe that the PYD is a recent phenomenon in the Syrian crisis. It is not. The PYD-style Kurdish political activism in the region has been a reality for a number of years. It is the habit of Turkish diplomacy to discover things only in periods of crisis. Kurdish organizations operated in the region long before Ankara became alert to the situation in northern Syria. Indeed, the recent Syrian crisis has helped these organizations, but their story does not begin with that crisis.

Worse, Turkey's strategy towards Syria during the long period of peace between 2002 and 2012 lapsed only on the northern Syria factor. Turkey's perception of Syria in this period was cognizant of the two-points of the power base there: Damascus and Aleppo. But, given the authoritarian nature of the Assad regime, it was of course not possible to develop a transparent Kurdish strategy for northern Syria. I am not sure that Ankara had even a covert strategy on northern Syria in that period. The upshot was that Ankara did not equip itself with the important instruments that it could have employed in northern Syria.

Ankara warned several times that it would not tolerate an “infrastructure of terrorism” in northern Syria. I am not sure that such words made sense to the Kurds. Instead of uttering them, Ankara could have tried to deploy various other strategies. For example, it should have increased its pressure on the Syrian National Council (SNC) to develop its relations with the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Meanwhile, Ankara should have engaged in a careful analysis of the inner structures of the several groups within the KNC. That council includes groups such as the Kurdish Left Party and the Kurdish Democratic Wifaq Party, a PYD splinter group founded by Fawzi Shingar.

Also a key issue here is Turkey's approach to the PYD. It is now clear that Ankara sees the PYD as almost a terrorist organization. But labeling is not a complete strategy. Ankara should also decide where the PYD has to be confined. Even if it deems the PYD an enemy of Turkey, Ankara should reflect on whether it is better to keep the PYD inside the Kurdish National Council.

It is time to realize that grand stances are no longer effective in the region. The need is for operation through the local dynamics and political structures. Turkish foreign policy has so far been oriented by seriously grand paradigms such as "zero problems with neighbors." It is now time to formulate issue-oriented, local-scale, efficient tactical paradigms. Even a “Turkey's strategy on Syria” manifesto would be flawed, for there is no united Syria. Grand paradigms should be consigned to a repository labeled "interesting intellectual ideas with no impact in the field," for it is states with small but efficient ideas that are likely to determine the direction of regional politics.