I write these words as the flames of war threaten the Middle East. The Israeli conflict with Hamas has lasted nearly two months. Iran’s hidden strikes against American bases in Syria and Iraq are increasing, and the U.S. is stepping up its military footprint in the region in turn. To international silence, Turkish air strikes against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue. On October 27th, Turkey assassinated a senior SDF commander who worked as a coordinator with the U.S.-led international coalition and had years of experience in fighting ISIS. In late November, drone strikes killed three people, including an NGO worker, and injured eight more within the span of three days.
In such a time of escalation, few, if any, talk about a way out. Talking about a new Kurdish-Turkish peace process is like walking alone in a minefield. There is no alternative to war in current Turkish policy towards the Kurds and the communities allied with them in North and East Syria. Turkey’s occupation of the cities of Efrin, Serêkaniyê, and Tal Abyad is the most prominent examples of this, along with its clear support for extremist groups and jihadist factions to fight the SDF. Six months after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won re-election, it seems that Turkey will continue with this policy.
But this was not always the case. Recent history tells us of Kurdish-Turkish meetings and coordination in Syria that can be built upon—and may be a cornerstone for reaching comprehensive peace in northeast Syria.
Ten years ago, in the early days of the Syrian war, an official Kurdish delegation representing the Supreme Kurdish Authority crossed from Dirbesiye into Turkey, heading to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. The Kurdish delegation included Salih Muslim, Elham Ahmad, Aldar Khalil, Asia Abdullah, Muhammad Musa, Abdul Salam Ahmed, Abdul Rahman Hamo, Abdul Majid Sabri, and Mustafa Mashayikh. The head of the Turkish delegation who received them was Feridun Sinirluoğlu, who told the Kurdish delegation that he was meeting with them with the knowledge of Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu and then- Prime Minister Erdogan.
Kurdish officials told the Turkish delegation that they were looking forward to good neighborly relations with Turkey and that there was no need for Turkey to fear the presence of Kurds on their southern border. They communicated their readiness for dialogue.
Irreconcilable interests quickly emerged: Kurds were determined to protect their identity and nascent political project, while Turkey sought to use the Kurdish administration as a pawn in its expansionist project in Syria. Despite near-certainty on the part of both sides that the path to an agreement was blocked, the discussions continued.
The meetings even led to some Turkish-Kurdish coordination. When the ISIS onslaught in Syria was at its peak, Ankara coordinated with Salih Muslim, the current co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to request the transfer of the body of Suleiman Shah from Karakozakh, near the Euphrates River, to the village of Ashma in Kobani countryside on the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey feared that ISIS would destroy the archaeological site.
Muslim says that he and Abdul Rahman Hamo coordinated the operation through several meetings held in Istanbul, Urfa, and the Murshitpinar crossing between Kobani and Turkey. The Kurdish politician and his colleagues had hoped that this coordination might plant the seeds of trust between both sides.
In coordination with the Autonomous Administration and with the protection of YPJ and YPG fighters, Turkish soldiers and armored vehicles entered and crossed the streets of Kobani, which had become a symbol of resistance against ISIS and international support for the Kurds months earlier. At that time, Saleh Muslim was on a hotline with a Turkish operations room, which thanked him after completing the transfer of the body. This prominent event was the talk of the media at the time—but without mention of the Kurdish role.
Today, there is not any sign of a possible Turkish-Kurdish peace in northeast Syria. Four years after the failure of the U.S.-brokered “safe zone” project in northern Syria and Turkey’s subsequent occupation of Serekaniye and Tal Abyad, there is no doubt that the decision of former U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw his forces from Syria and greenlight a Turkish attack decreased the chances for a peaceful settlement. That disastrous decision led to the displacement of about 250,000 people from the “safe zone” and Russia’s incursion into Washington’s areas of influence in Syria.
Is it possible for the Kurds and Turks to have joint coordination and good neighborly relations once again? The answer may lie with the United States—perhaps the only power able and willing to give a definite answer.
Previous positions in this war do not bode well. On May 2, during the visit of a delegation from the Syrian Coalition and the Negotiating Committee, which are close to Ankara, to Washington, a meeting with representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council was scheduled—but never took place. Some sources say that Ankara refused to allow it.
Earlier in the year, Turkey also refused to allow aid sent by the Autonomous Administration to pass to earthquake victims in Turkish-occupied northwest Syria. Many opposition officials said that this was a Turkish decision that they were unable to challenge. It seems that Ankara is strict in its rejection of any rapprochement with the Autonomous Administration or the rest of the political and military formations in the northeast of the country. With harsh and continuous Turkish objections, there seem to be some efforts to connect the northeast and northwest through civil society organizations—what’s called bottom-up rapprochement—to pave the way for potential connectivity on higher levels when circumstances allow.
Continued Turkish airstrikes against northeast Syria— let alone a potential new ground operation—pose a significant risk to U.S. and Coalition personnel, undermine the counter-ISIS mission, and cause great instability and insecurity for all in the region. Last month’s air and drone attacks inflicted over one billion dollars in damage, killed dozens of people, and left millions struggling to access heat, fuel, and clean water as winter closes in.
The bombing campaign ultimately resembles a slow-motion ground operation. It has the same impacts: collapsed markets, massive migration from the region, and an uncertain future for those who stay. Even the counter-ISIS mission—the stated reason for the Coalition presence in Syria—is being neglected due to Turkish threats. The Coalition is not offering meaningful actions on the most pressing issues, like ISIS foreign fighters, ISIS- linked families and detention centers, which puts further unbearable pressure on the AANES. With a local tribunal set to take place in northeast Syria, the international community must support local authorities to the greatest extent possible to deal with this threat.
The most important point is for Washington to realize that a Kurdish-Turkish peace in northeast Syria is a fundamental task for its interests in long-term stability and security, to include such a settlement on its agenda, and to conceptualize and implement practical steps to achieve one. Current U.S. officials occupying senior positions on Middle East policy, including former U.S. special envoy in North and East Syria Nicholas Granger, who is now based in Istanbul, and White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, are familiar with the issue. It has long been apparent that there is no military solution to the conflict and that attempts to achieve such solutions leave all parties less secure. Will the U.S. and its allies finally put that understanding into action?
(Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images)