Turkey and Syria: The Kurdish dilemma

The insur­gency against the Syr­i­an regime has sparked moves to cre­ate an autonomous Kur­dish region in Syr­ia, raised fears of the PKK using that region as a spring­board for attacks against Turkey, and revived debate about long-stand­ing Turk­ish rejec­tion of Kur­dish nationalism.long Turk­ish rejec­tion dish nation­al­ism.


As the civ­il war in Syr­ia con­tin­ues to spread Turkey is faced with a new dimen­sion to its long-stand­ing Kur­dish prob­lem. For decades, mod­ern Turkey has been bat­tling a bloody insur­gency in south­east­ern Turkey, led by the Kur­dish Work­ers Par­ty (PKK) that has left some 40,000 peo­ple dead on both sides. 

After hav­ing vir­tu­al­ly squashed the insur­gency in a 16-year long war, how­ev­er, Turkey found the real­i­ty on the ground change fun­da­men­tal­ly with the emer­gence of a Kur­dish state-in-wait­ing in north­ern Iraq, fol­low­ing the impo­si­tion of a US-led no fly zone there in 1991 and the top­pling of Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003. 

Turkey embraced that new fact by forg­ing close ties with the Iraqi Kur­dish lead­er­ship and invest­ing heav­i­ly in the autonomous Iraqi Kur­dish region in a bid to pre­vent it from fos­ter­ing Turk­ish Kur­dish demands for greater auton­o­my or mov­ing towards full inde­pen­dence. The takeover of Syr­i­an Kur­dish towns along the bor­der with Turkey by armed Kurds of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union Par­ty (PYD), the Syr­i­an wing of the PKK, con­fronts Turkey with a sim­i­lar dilem­ma for which, unlike in Iraq, it has no ready answers. 

Syr­i­an Kur­dish assertive­ness rais­es the ques­tion whether Turkey can sus­tain its oppo­si­tion to the aspi­ra­tions of the Kurds on its bor­ders, or whether it would be bet­ter served by embrac­ing a pro-active Kur­dish pol­i­cy that would turn Kur­dish nation­al­ism across West Asia to its advan­tage, as it did in North­ern Iraq? Turk­ish oppo­si­tion to Kur­dish aspi­ra­tions, more­over, despite its sup­port for the Sun­ni Mus­lim oppo­si­tion in Syr­ia, risks putting Turkey along­side Chi­na and Rus­sia in the camp of those opposed to the emer­gence of a post-Assad Syr­ia that is more demo­c­ra­t­ic and pluralistic. 

Risk­ing mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion

Turk­ish lead­ers have so far giv­en no indi­ca­tion that they are read­ing the writ­ing on the wall despite debate in the media about the need to bite the Kur­dish bul­let. That would involve grant­i­ng Turk­ish Kurds full demo­c­ra­t­ic rights of polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al expres­sion that would bring the PKK into the fold and extend­ing its approach in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan to Kur­dish com­mu­ni­ties in Syr­ia and even­tu­al­ly in Iran. Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan how­ev­er has warned: ”We will not allow a ter­ror­ist group to estab­lish camps in north­ern Syr­ia and threat­en Turkey. If there is a step which needs to be tak­en against the ter­ror­ist group, we will def­i­nite­ly take this step.” 

For­eign Min­is­ter Ahmet Davi­toglu has urged the oppo­si­tion Syr­i­an Nation­al Coun­cil (SNC) to ensure that a post-Assad Syr­ia remains unit­ed. In a rare joint dec­la­ra­tion Turkey and Iraqi Kur­dis­tan warned that they would con­front any threat from a vio­lent group or orga­ni­za­tion that exploits the pow­er vac­u­um in Syr­ia. The warn­ing addressed to the PKK with­out iden­ti­fy­ing it by name came as Turkey launched a mil­i­tary exer­cise just across the bor­der from Kur­dish-con­trolled Syr­i­an towns. 

These moves may per­suade the PKK to refrain for now from attack­ing Turkey from Syr­i­an ter­ri­to­ry but are unlike­ly to resolve the increas­ing chal­lenge Kurds pose to Turk­ish pol­i­cy at home and in the region. For the PKK, attacks against Turkey from Syr­ia would be a dou­ble-edged sword. Turk­ish mil­i­tary retal­i­a­tion against Syr­i­an Kur­dish tar­gets in Syr­ia would con­sti­tute for­eign inter­ven­tion in the country’s civ­il war; it could accel­er­ate Assad’s down­fall but would strength­en the hand of PKK’s neme­sis, Turkey. 

Turk­ish fears of Syr­i­an Kur­dish areas devel­op­ing into a spring­board for attacks on Turkey have also revived dis­cus­sion of cre­at­ing a buffer zone on the Turk­ish-Syr­i­an bor­der to counter Syr­i­an Kur­dish moves. For now Syr­i­an Kurds are hedg­ing their bets. Their takeover of Syr­i­an Kur­dish towns while remain­ing on the side lines of the effort to top­ple Assad, gives them lever­age irre­spec­tive of who emerges vic­to­ri­ous from the bat­tle for the future of Syria. 

So far Turk­ish warn­ings have only a lim­it­ed impact. The PDY is one of two alliances of Syr­i­an Kur­dish groups, the People’s Coun­cil for West­ern Kur­dis­tan (PCWK), that are backed by Iraqi Kur­dish lead­ers and have refused to become part of the SNC because of its rejec­tion of Kur­dish aspi­ra­tions, its align­ment with Turkey and the role of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in the coun­cil. Syr­i­an Kur­dish fight­ers have so far suc­cess­ful­ly rebuffed attempts by the rebel Free Syr­i­an Army to enter Syr­i­an Kur­dish areas. 

The Turk­ish mil­i­tary and Iraqi Kur­dish lead­ers more­over have been unable to dis­lodge PKK bases estab­lished in the remote Kandil moun­tains in north­ern Iraq. The lead­ers have long coun­seled their Syr­i­an Kur­dish brethren, who account for some 12 per cent of the Syr­i­an pop­u­la­tion, to remain on the side lines of the con­flict in Syr­ia until either the oppo­si­tion rec­og­nizes Kur­dish rights or facts on the ground that war­rant a Kur­dish move. 

The Kurds’ time has come

That time appears to have come. In a post-Assad Syr­ia that will prob­a­bly remain volatile and unsta­ble with eth­nic and reli­gious groups fight­ing one anoth­er, Syr­i­an Kurds are like­ly to learn from the suc­cess of Iraqi Kurds in carv­ing out a rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble enclave of their own while the rest of Iraq tore itself apart. In prepa­ra­tion, Iraqi Kur­dish forces have already start­ed train­ing Syr­i­an Kur­dish fight­ers. With Syr­i­an Kurds push­ing for greater rights and self-rule rather than inde­pen­dence, Turkey is like­ly to sit on the side lines as long as it is not attacked from Syr­i­an territory. 

The emer­gence of a sec­ond autonomous Kur­dish region along its bor­der not only calls into ques­tion Turkey’s fun­da­men­tal pol­i­cy towards the Kurds, it makes more nec­es­sary than ever a revi­sion of pol­i­cy that would put Turkey at the fore­front of devel­op­ments in the region and cement its role as a leader at a time of geopo­lit­i­cal change. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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