It is obvious that the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with the neighbors” policy no longer works, in the face of Turkey’s support for the Syrian defectors who oppose the Assad regime. The foreign minister must now deal with potentially hostile reactions by Syria and its closest ally, Iran, that could have destabilizing regional implications. Iran, for one, cannot afford to allow the Assad regime to fail. It provides Iran with a foothold in the Levant from which to support Hezbollah and threaten Israel on its Lebanese border.
Syrian and Iranian retaliation against Turkey can readily take the form of support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or P.K.K. This group once again has become increasingly violent in its promotion of Kurdish separatism in the Turkish southeast. Syria, Iran and Turkey share a common cause in resisting demands by Kurdish opposition movements in their countries. Only months ago, all three were cooperating in suppressing the P.K.K. For Turkey, this was a welcome change from the 1990s, when Syria and Iran supported the P.K.K. in order to pressure Ankara for foreign policy concessions. Now Damascus and Tehran could again play the P.K.K. card.
To counteract potential Syrian and Iranian subversion and the separatist appeals of the P.K.K., Turkey needs to adapt its zero problems policy to its own southeast. In 2009, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a “Kurdish opening”—a bid at reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. However, he quickly closed it, leaving many Kurdish demands for economic development, political rights and cultural recognition unanswered. The Turkish foreign minister’s recent veiled threat to send troops across the Syrian border may be insufficient to deter Syria and Iran from subversively supporting the P.K.K. For a comprehensive resolution of the “Kurdish question,” Ankara also needs to implement effective policies that will over the long term improve the economic, political, and cultural life of Turkey’s Kurds.