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 Turkey’s Syrian Kurdish Dilemma

 Opinion — Analysis
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Turkey’s Syrian Kurdish Dilemma ‎ 4.8.2012 
By Chase Winter
Special to

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PKK leader banner in liberated Kurdish city in Syrian Kurdistan. Photo: UKS Read more by Chase Winter | See Related Links

Some 25 tanks took part in military exercises the Turkish military conducted in the Nusaybin district of Mardin province, Turkey's Kurdish region just 2 km (1 mile) from the Syrian border, on Aug. 1, 2012. Photo: AA
August 4, 2012

One by one, cities and towns in the Kurdish-populated areas of Syria along the Turkish border are falling under the control of Kurdish forces. The Kurds have taken Kobane, Afrin, Cindires, Derka Hemko, Amuda, and Girke Lege in the north and northeastern corner of the country [Syrian Kurdistan]. This move has created a new dynamic in the 17-month rebellion against the regime in Damascus and sounded alarms in Ankara.

The Kurds’ campaign follows the July 18 bombing that killed four of the Syrian regime’s inner circle and weeks of fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities. To put down the revolt in these strategic cities, the Syrian army pulled out of swaths of territory in the north and northeast. This has created a historic moment for Syria’s Kurds, long oppressed by Arab nationalist governments in Damascus, as they create facts on the ground with an eye toward autonomy in a post-Assad era.

Facing its own Kurdish problem, the Syrian Kurds’ advances have complicated Turkey's Syria policy. Ankara is concerned the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which fights in the name of Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population, is gaining a foothold in Syria through its Syria offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the most well-armed and influential Kurdish party in Syria. Nearly one third of the PKK’s fighting force is composed of Syrian Kurds, including its hardline commander, Bahoz Erdal, who hails from Kobane.

Already facing a low-level insurgency emanating from PKK bases in the mountainous redoubts of northern Iraq [Iraqi Kurdistan], Ankara is worried that the PKK/PYD will open up a second front along its southern border. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened military action if the “terrorist element” in Syria strikes inside Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey has reinforced the border amid reports of tank maneuvers opposite areas controlled by the PYD/PKK.

The Kurds and Turkey’s Syria Policy

In the 1980s and 1990s, Syria was the PKK’s most important patron, going so far as to harbor Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish party's leader. However, Syria ended its support for the PKK in 1998 following Turkish threats of military intervention and the subsequent capture and imprisonment of the PKK leader.


Syrian-Turkish economic and political relations blossomed, particularly after the 2002 electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which launched its much vaunted “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. The two countries signed nearly 60 agreements, implemented visa-free travel and held joint cabinet meetings. Erdoğan even went on vacation with “brother” Bashar al-Assad and his family.

Ankara anticipated that closer ties to Damascus would allow it to midwife a transition to democracy and a free-market economy in Syria. But with the uprising and the subsequent harsh crackdown, these fond hopes faded. Turkey became one of Assad’s harshest critics, leading international and region diplomatic efforts to isolate and topple the regime in Damascus. The Syrian National Council, the main external opposition group, is based in Istanbul.

But the Syrian Kurds have not joined the SNC. The multiple Kurdish parties -- particularly the PYD -- view the Council as overly influenced by Turkey and dominated by Islamists and Arab nationalists who will not accede to their political and cultural demands. They are equally wary of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose collection of army defectors and local militias that is the other face of the rebellion. Syrian Kurdish fighters have said they will not allow Kurdish territory to pass into FSA hands.

In effect, the Kurdish gains serve to create a buffer zone controlled by forces hostile to both Turkish and FSA intervention. While this might not have an impact on solidly Kurdish areas in Syria, it could lead to conflict between the FSA and Syrian Kurds in mixed areas around Afrin -- and potentially Aleppo -- where there both are active and there is an ethnically mixed population.

Events in Syria have necessarily complicated Turkey's policy towards the Iraqi Kurds. Ankara was initially fearful of the rise of the Kurdistan Regional Government in post-Saddam Iraq out of concern Kurdish autonomy next door would fuel similar desires among the Kurds of Turkey. From 2008 onward, however, Ankara has developed intimate economic and political relations with Erbil in order to curb its aspirations to full independence and enlist its support against the PKK. But as a Kurdish nationalist leader, the President of the Kurdistan Region Government Massoud Barzani ultimately has little influence over the PKK and it is questionable whether he will ever be able to moderate or bring the PKK down from the mountains.

From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Turkey encouraged Barzani to unite the Syrian Kurds --but excluding the PYD -- and bring them under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council. Much to ire of Turkey, after a number of false starts, in mid-July Barzani managed to broker an agreement in Erbil between representatives of the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), composed of 11 other political parties. The two pillars of this accord are the formation of a Supreme Kurdish Council and the establishment of “popular defense forces,” split on a 50-50 basis between the PYD and the KNC, to jointly control “liberated” territory in Syrian Kurdistan. But the agreement could ultimately unravel as a split between the PYD and other Kurdish parties remains boiling under the surface. The prospect of an intra-Kurdish conflict is still a real possibility.

The PYD is the only party with real military power on the ground. In practice, the “popular defense forces” are a PYD adjunct. Prior to the Erbil agreement, there were reports of the PYD attacking, intimidating and kidnapping KNC supporters. Speculation was rife that the PYD had formed a tactical alliance with Damascus, which sought to splinter the Kurds and jab at Turkey for hosting the opposition. According to Jordi Tejel, author of Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society, “This background can hardly be forgotten.”

"There is an unbalanced power relationship between the two camps of which both sides are aware of," Tejel says.

Consider Kobane, where the PYD raised its own flag and organized demonstrations featuring placards of Abdullah Öcalan. “At the very beginning, when the news first came from Kobane, everybody was happy,” explains Sirwan Kajjo, a co-founder and columnist of the Kurdish Review newspaper . “But then people started to realize that what happened was not ‘liberation.’ In fact, it was a transfer of power from Assad to the PYD. The KNC was lost in between.”

Whatever its previous relationship with Damascus, the PYD has now assumed an anti-regime stance. Qamishli, the largest Syrian Kurdish city lying just across the border from Nusaybin in Turkey, is the key. If and when it falls, the Syrian Kurds, with the PYD at the helm, will have taken a huge step toward controlling the Kurdish populated areas of Syria.

On July 23 Barzani confirmed that Iraqi Kurds are training Syrian Kurdish fighters in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan “to provide security to their own people and fill the vacuum.” While it is uncertain which faction these fighters belong to, in all likelihood they are followers of the KNC as the PYD already has a strong fighting force.


The complex balance of distrust and recent cooperation between Barzani opens up the question of just how much influence he can exert on the PYD. The PYD -- like its PKK counterpart -- is divided into radical and moderate wings.

Tejel says that one camp pushes for a “Syrian stance,” while the other is suborned to the PKK.

Kajjo explains the divide in detail: “The PYD itself has been divided into two wings. One is led by Salih Muhammad Muslim, who is close to PKK leader

Murat Karayilan. The other is led by unknown people close to the PKK’s hardcore commander Bahoz Erdal. Karayilan is evidently close to Barzani. He listens to Barzani and takes his advice. Barzani, in turn, wants to bring this wing closer to his side for obvious reasons -- to add them to his list of allies in Syrian Kurdistan.”

For the PKK, the crisis in Syria presents two competing visions for the future. How it will react is unclear, but in large measure will depend on developments in Syria, how Turkey reacts and what steps the country takes to resolve its domestic Kurdish problem.

"The PKK has two choices," says Tejel. "It may oppose the SNC, Turkey and the West and pursue an agenda to enhance its power in Northern Syria, or it may choose to be part of the [Syrian] revolution and demonstrate that it is willing to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey."

"If it chooses the latter, for the first time, the PYD/PKK would at once serve Syria's Kurds interests and Turkey's Kurds claims for rights," he says.

Turkey's Kurdish problem

All this points to the need for Turkey to renew efforts to resolve the domestic Kurdish issue so that it can play a constructive role in what is looking to be a difficult transition in post-Assad Syria.

The problem for Turkey is that the Syrian Kurds, like their brethren in Turkey, demand language rights, constitutional recognition of the Kurds as an ethnic group and, for some, autonomy. Having experienced the most restrictions on their political and cultural rights in an Arab nationalist state that denies their identity, Syrian Kurds are looking to rectify their position as second-class citizens.

From Turkey's perspective, such a development could have a knock-on effect on its own Kurdish population, many of whom support or sympathize with the PKK. Over the past decade Turkey has taken necessary but not sufficient steps to address its domestic Kurdish issue. But the current situation in northern Syria comes at a particularly difficult juncture in Turkey’s own Kurdish problem.

Turkey, with the second largest army in NATO, has been unable to defeat the PKK in 28 years of conflict. The conflict between the state and the PKK has cost the lives of nearly 40,000 people and created a huge gap between Turks and Kurds that needs strong political will to be resolved.

First announced in 2009, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “Kurdish Opening” – which aimed to deemphasize the security focus of the state’s Kurdish policy in favor of the expansion of Kurdish political and cultural rights — has come to a standstill. The process ran parallel to secret negotiations between the PKK and government in Oslo that fell apart in 2011 following a PKK attack that killed 13 soldiers.

Since 2009, thousands of Kurds have been arrested in the scope of the ongoing Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials, alleged to be a parallel state structure established by the PKK that includes the PYD.

Among the detainees are hundreds of members of the Peace and Democracy Party, the premier Kurdish party in Turkey, including five members of Parliament, 36 mayors and 13 deputy mayors, human rights activists, journalists, academics and trade union leaders. Many have been in jail for nearly three years, awaiting trial on evidence that is circumstantial at best.

The mass arrests have bolstered the position of PKK hardliners while alienating and radicalizing Kurdish nationalists. They have also reduced the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Kurdish problem. “It’s clear that the government is not sincere when it talks about peace or sends messages to the PKK calling on them to put a brake on the guns,” Sırrı Sakık, a Peace and Democracy deputy, says. “The government keeps arresting our party members every day for no reason. Is that how they’re going to solve the problem?”

Moving Forward

Turkey has good reason to worry about the PYD/PKK's position in Syria, but it does not follow that a military solution would solve the problem. Rather what is needed is new momentum to resolve the domestic Kurdish problem -- including renewed negotiations with the PKK -- coupled with regional and international diplomacy to integrate the Syrian Kurds into the Syrian opposition with assurances the Kurd's interests and status will be protected in a post-Assad regime, including the possibility of some sort of autonomy or local government.

If anything, Turkey should try to assume the role of the Syrian Kurds’ guarantor as it has with the Iraqi Kurds through economic and political engagement that would serve the interests of all sides.


Concerns about an independent Syrian Kurdistan are overstated and used by the Turkish opposition to criticize the government's Syrian policy by stoking paranoia in Turkish nationalist circles. While it may be a dream for the Kurds, such a noncontiguous rump state would not be economically or politically viable, and, just as the case with the Iraqi Kurds, would fail to win international support. It is also questionable whether that's the Syrian Kurds' ultimate objective.

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party, says Turkey has ignored the Syrian Kurds up until now and the current situation is "unavoidable."

"The people are setting up self-government and Turkey should show respect. With the people's will the Kurds are taking their own land they have lived in for hundreds of years," he says. "Turkey's Kurds are happy about these developments. We have told the government that developing good relations with Turkey's Kurds would be to Turkey's benefit."

Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, argues that Turkey should regard the Kurds in Syria as a bridge and not a threat, pointing out that "unless Turkey resolves its own Kurdish question it cannot have self-confidence to welcome political gains of Kurds across its borders."

"Moreover, the widespread talks in Turkey that describe the Syrian Kurds as threat in fact alienates Turkey's Kurds who follow the developments in Syria with great interest," he says.

A Turkish conflict with the PYD in Syria would derail any chance of domestic peace in Turkey and further alienate Turkey's Kurds, making the prospects of domestic reform difficult. The hardliners with PYD/PKK would gain the upper-hand with a corresponding rise in violence within Turkey's borders.

Intervention in the Kurdish areas would also complicate Ankara’s argument that it is on the side of the Syrian people against the regime.

The threat of an internal civil war following the collapse the regime is a serious threat not only to Turkey, but to the entire region. But to control the situation Turkey needs to coax the Syrian Kurds into the Syrian opposition and avoid a conflict between Kurds and Arabs that would create even greater problems for the country.

Chase Winter, a journalist, he holds a BA in international studies and MA in Middle East studies from the University of Washington. He is a regular contributing writer for

Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved 


  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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