On July 26, the leader of Syria's largest and most organized Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party of Syria, visited Istanbul. On the same day, the leaders of Syria's mainstream rebel groups met with commanders of rebel militias, including the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkish newspaper Cumhurriyet — which, it should be noted, tends to oppose the current Turkish government — reported July 27 that a religious civil society organization organized the meeting, which brought together a variety of groups bound by their mutual opposition to Kurdish separatism. The groups accused the Democratic Union Party of working in the interest of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Among the meeting's participants were two Syrian Turkoman groups, the Nur al-Din Zangi Brigade and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade. Ankara does not explicitly support these groups. Rather, it is using them to offset the growing popularity of the Democratic Union Party and Jabhat al-Nusra, which are highly organized, well equipped to service their constituents and very effective on the battlefield. Ankara would prefer to see the secular Free Syrian Army or the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood come to power if the al Assad regime eventually falls.
The Larger Threat
This leaves Turkey with few good options. The objectives of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Democratic Union Party run counter to Turkish national security interests. But Turkey knows it will have to contend with both groups for years to come, and while Ankara would not like to see either group gain power after the civil war ends, the government sees Kurdish separatists as the larger threat to Turkish interests for several reasons.
First, the international community can sympathize with the Kurdish desire for autonomy; transnational jihadism is somewhat less endearing. Second and more important, the Kurds constitute a domestic threat that the jihadists do not. Whereas the prospect of two Kurdish autonomous zones has galvanized the roughly 15 million Kurds living in Turkey, jihadism will have a negligible impact on the Turkish populace, simply because there are so few jihadists in the country. Furthermore, jihadism is a broad concept. While groups falling under the label seek to use military means to establish Islamist polities, they constitute a broad spectrum of diverse sectarian interests.
To some degree, Turkey's position is similar to that of Pakistan. Islamabad supported Islamist insurgents to bring down the communist regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s even though it knew jihadist activity would rise on its western frontier. In the late 1990s, the Pakistanis maintained ties with the Afghan Taliban to counter the non-Pashtun factions of the former Northern Alliance — despite the Taliban's relations with al Qaeda.
Turkey similarly understands that ousting the Baathist regime in Damascus will come at a price: Islamists of all types will dominate Syria's Sunni landscape. Like Islamabad, Ankara knows it must manage jihadists nonviolently.
To that end, the Turks appear to be parleying with Jabhat al-Nusra to counter the Democratic Union Party. Jabhat al-Nusra may be in the process of adopting a nationalist form of jihadism and abandoning the notion of a global caliphate. In fact, it is not even interested in a regional emirate, as evidenced by its initial refusal to merge with the Islamic State of Iraq and by its emphasis on its Syrian national character. Moreover, several reports indicate that Jabhat al-Nusra is dedicating substantial resources to civil outreach programs, establishing a rudimentary form of governance in areas it has wrested from Damascus' control.
It is therefore possible that Ankara could choose Jabhat al-Nusra as a negotiating partner in the future. But before that can happen, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan must be able to gain an influence over the group that goes beyond the immediate purpose of countering Syrian Kurds. There is reason to believe he will. Before his Justice and Development Party came to power, the Kemalist military backed Turkish Hezbollah (which has no relation to the Lebanese group) in order to fight the Kurdistan Workers' Party.
Hence the presence of the Nur al-Din Zangi Brigade and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade at the July 27 meeting. Just as the Pakistanis used ethnic Pashtuns to influence events in Afghanistan, the Turks, without explicitly supporting these groups, are trying to use Syrian ethnic Turkomans to shape the outcome in Syria.
In fact, the names of the two groups imply that they could acquiesce to Ankara's wishes. Many people recognize that the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade is named for the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. But just as notable is the Nur al-Din Zangi Brigade, which is named for a 12th century Seljuk Turkic ruler. His sultanate comprised the northern parts of Iraq and Syria, and he was a major figure in the Crusader wars in the Levant. Nur al-Din went on to capture Damascus and contemporary Jordan. His empire eventually fell to the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin.
Of course, the Syrian civil war differs greatly from the Muslim infighting that took place during the Crusades. But the Turks are proud of their heritage, and they will look to history as they attempt to suppress Kurdish separatism in the region.
Ankara will have to engage Jabhat al-Nusra or other potential challengers to the Democratic Union Party. Separating al Qaeda from the Taliban proved to be difficult; separating Jabhat al-Nusra from al Qaeda may prove to be equally daunting. Ankara hopes that its situation will be easier than Islamabad's. Notably, the Turks are pursuing a much more complex strategy — something the Democratic Union Party leader's visit to Istanbul shows.
Ankara would also want to leverage the Democratic Union Party against the jihadists to prevent the latter from gaining too much power. Turkey can use its relations with Iraqi Kurds to establish influence with the group. But ultimately, the Turks do not trust the Kurds, and they fear a jihadist fallout.
Ankara cannot afford to ignore both groups, so it will play both off each other. Maintaining that balance amid Ankara's many other growing challenges will be extremely risky. Turkey will find itself stuck in Syria for the foreseeable future. With no reconstituted Syria in the offing, Turkey — like Pakistan — will have untamed borderlands. Syria's turmoil weakens rather than strengthens Turkey, just as Afghan turmoil weakens Pakistan.