Kurdish worries drag Turkey deeper into
July 27, 2012
Female members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)
patrolling a street in the Kurdish city of Qamishli
in Syrian Kurdistan (western Kurdistan).
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Kurdistan flag is raised at the top of governmental
buildings and Baath party buildings in all liberated
in Syrian Kurdistan.
LONDON/ISTANBUL,— Turkey may be some way
from acting on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's
threat to strike Kurdish PKK separatists in Syria,
but week by week it finds itself sucked ever further
into its neighbour's worsening war.
The shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance jet
last month was seen by many as a turning point,
prompting Ankara to join Saudi Arabia at Qatar in
semi-covert support for the Free Syrian Army
fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.
On Friday, Reuters revealed the existence of a
secret Turkish operations centre where it worked
with the two Gulf states to provide aid and weaponry
to the rebels.
For most foreign powers, events in Syria's Kurdish
provinces are largely seen a sideshow compared
Assad's battle to survive. But Erdogan's comments on
Thursday made it clear that Turkey is alarmed by
worries over Kurdish PKK rebels taking advantage of
The Turkish leader - once a friend to his Syrian
counterpart who helped to rehabilitate Assad on the
international stage, but now apparently an
increasingly implacable foe - accused Damascus of
allocating five provinces to the PKK.
The PKK is considered as 'terrorist' organization by
Ankara, U.S., the PKK continues to be on the
blacklist list in EU despite court ruling which
overturned a decision
to place the Kurdish rebel group PKK and its
political wing on the European Union's terror list.
Turkey regularly strikes PKK bases in Iraq's
northern self-ruled Kurdish enclave, and Erdogan
made it clear the same option was being discussed
"We will not allow a terrorist group to establish
camps in northern Syria and Turkey," he told a news
conference before travelling to London for the
opening of the Olympics. "If there is a step which
needs to be taken against the terrorist group, we
will definitely take this step."
Rising numbers of refugees crossing the border could
put further pressure on Turkey. If, as many expect,www.ekurd.net
Assad's forces target the partially rebel-held city
of Aleppo in the coming days, numbers could soar.
Turkey has already closed its borders to commercial
traffic but says it will allow fleeing civilians
Whatever might happen on the Kurdish front, a senior
Turkish official speaking on condition of anonymity
said support for the rebels was set to continue -
although clear caution remains.
"Naturally we are watching developments in the
Kurdish region, but Ankara will not give up on its
support for the whole revolution because something
has happened in the Kurdish region," he said.
"We have been saying from the start, we do not think
it is right to impose a regime from outside... The
Syrian people must decide its own future."
The official declined to comment on what Turkey
might do if the PKK established itself in the
CROSSING RED LINES
What Turkey is desperate to avoid is a scenario in
which Kurdish parts of Syria (Syrian Kurdistan,
western Kurdistan) quietly break away from the rest
as the government, rooted in Assad's Alawite
minority sect, slugs it out with the predominantly
Sunni Muslim opposition.
"Any area which serves as a potential haven for the
PKK or its affiliated groups poses a direct threat
to Turkish security and Ankara's jingoistic rhetoric
should be judged in this context," says Anthony
Skinner, head of the Middle East practice at
UK-based security consultancy Maplecroft.
"Any government which allows the PKK to set up
training camps represents a red line for Ankara....
Ankara is again warning Damascus not to cross
But if it is to take military action, Turkey's
options are somewhat limited. Turkey might have the
largest military in the region, but a large-scale
ground incursion is seen as unlikely for now.
An airstrike on a known PKK facility - or perhaps a
Syrian government post believed supporting them -
seems a much more probable approach. But while air
defences over Kurdish areas are seen as a much less
sophisticated than those along the coast, the loss
of one Turkish jet already points to the dangers of
entering Syrian airspace.
"If Turkey could prove that there was an attack
coming out of Syria against Turkey, then it could
launch an air strike, if it could identify a
specific PKK camp in Syria," said Istanbul-based
security expert Gareth Jenkins. "The problem is
there would inevitably be civilian casualties
because these camps would be put near civilians."
Then, there is the risk of severe retaliation.
Earlier this week, Syria's government said that
while it would not use chemical weapons against its
own people, it might against any foreign
"Unlike with Iraq, attacks in Syria can very likely
draw Turkey into a prolonged military confrontation
with the Assad regime, which has a formidable
military and the political will to respond," says
Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at
the US Naval War College. "Syria and Turkey are both
heightening the rhetoric, but it would be a huge
gamble for both sides to engage in military
Turkish leaders have long regretted the way in which
northern Iraqi Kurdistan effectively seceded after
the 1991 Gulf War. At worst, Turkey now fears Iraqi
and Syrian Kurdish areas might try to come together
to form a larger Kurdistan - an entity that might
yearn for swathes of Turkish territory.
SIMPLY SABRE RATTLING?
Already, commentators in Turkish newspapers express
growing concern that that is exactly what is
happening. What the PKK may end up running in parts
of Syria, they say, may not just be assorted
training camps but a de facto Kurdish state.
The image of PKK members directing traffic and
performing other civic duties, some Turks worry,
could help swell its support both amongst Kurds and
more broadly. At the very least, the PKK would
probably have access to both new recruits and some
of the weaponry made available by Syria's wider and
"The recent developments could provide the PKK with
significant military opportunities. If the
government doesn't take any precautions and wastes
this most precious time, Turkey will face serious
security problems," Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security
analyst at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, wrote
in Hurriyet Daily News.
"The PKK wants to harvest the political
opportunities these military advantages would
provide, will rise up and be more aggressive about
reaching its aims."
Exactly how much support Syria might be giving
Kurdish separatists is far from clear, although some
Syrian opposition figures accused the PKK's local
partners, the PYD, of acting as enforcers for Assad.
Under both Assad and his father, Hafez, Turkish
accusations of Syrian backing for the PKK were
points of contention and occasionally led to threats
of outright conflict.
In 1998, Turkey moved tanks to the border and
explicitly threatened to send them into Syria if
Damascus did not expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan,
at the time sheltering in Syria. Hafez al-Assad took
the threat seriously enough to evict Ocalan - who
was shortly afterwards captured in Kenya by Turkish
forces and probable US support.
Some kind of at least tacit agreement from
Washington might still be needed for the Turks to be
willing to take action.
"The Turks have been going for a gold medal when it
comes to sabre rattling," says David Lea, regional
analyst for Control Risks, a consultancy firm.
"But someone - most likely the Americans - has been
sitting on their tail. I don't think the Turks would
do anything unless they knew the Americans were with
them. They want to act, but they don't have any good
options. It's a microcosm of the whole Syria
The PKK has several times proposed peaceful solutions regarding Kurdish problem,
Turkey has always refused saying that it will not negotiate with “terrorists”.
Since it was established in 1984, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish state,
which still denies the constitutional existence of Kurds, to establish a Kurdish
state in the south east of the country.
But now its aim is the creation an autonomous region and more cultural rights
for ethnic Kurds who constitute the greatest minority in Turkey, numbering more
than 20 million.
A large Turkey's Kurdish community openly sympathise with the Kurdish PKK
The PKK wants constitutional recognition for the Kurds, regional
self-governance and Kurdish-language education in schools.
PKK's demands included releasing PKK detainees, lifting the ban on education in
Kurdish, paving the way for an autonomous democrat Kurdish system within Turkey,
reducing pressure on the detained PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, stopping military action
against the Kurdish party and recomposing the Turkish constitution.
Turkey refuses to recognize its Kurdish population
as a distinct minority. It has allowed some cultural
rights such as limited broadcasts in the Kurdish
language and private Kurdish language courses with
the prodding of the European Union, but Kurdish
politicians say the measures fall short of their
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