How the Kurds Have Changed Turkey’s Calculations on Syria

Support for the anti-Assad rebellion has been complicated by Syria's Kurds moving to establish autonomy, raising Ankara's fears about implications for Turkey's domestic Kurdish challenge

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bulent Kilic / AFP / GettyImages

Syrian Kurds hold their rifles, as they flash the sign for victory, in the Kurdish town of Jinderes, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on July 22, 2012

For many years, the Kurdish tragedy was poignantly illustrated by the gifts and sweets stuffed through gaps in a barbed-wire fence, the babies held high and the news shared across the closed Syria-Turkey border. Every religious holiday saw thousands of people dressed in their finest line the border at dawn just to see their relatives on the other side of a boundary arbitrarily drawn by Britain and France after World War I. The nation states invented by the war’s victorious Western powers left the Kurds divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, each of which sought to deny and suppress Kurdish identity.

Almost a century later, however, the geopolitical earthquake that began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and continued through the Syrian uprising has challenged the foundations of the regional political order built by the French and the British, putting the future of the Middle East once again up for grabs. This time, the estimated 30 million-plus Kurds, whose numbers make them the world’s largest stateless people, are better organized. Buoyed by the oil-fueled prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan — first severed from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf War, and then formalized as a crypto-state after his fall — they are emerging as the region’s new wild card, nowhere more so than in the turmoil of Syria’s rebellion.

(MORE: By Ceding Northeastern Syria to the Kurds, Assad Puts Turkey in a Bind)

Syrian-Kurdish fighters two weeks ago took control of towns across northern Syria after Assad ceded them to shore up his forces in Damascus and Aleppo. Prior to that, on July 12, Iraqi-Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani brokered a deal between rival Syrian-Kurdish groups, forming a national council and vowing to suppress their differences in order to pursue common Kurdish interests. That development stunned Ankara. Mainstream Turkish commentator Mehmet Ali Birand notes that the creation of an autonomous Kurdish zone in northeast Syria, following the emergence of a similar entity in Iraq, could portend the realization of one of Turkey’s worst nightmares coming true — “a mega–Kurdish state” along the southeastern border where the largest section of its own, restive Kurdish population of some 14 million is concentrated. Even the word Kurdistan is taboo in Turkey, where a separatist insurgency and efforts to suppress it have claimed more than 30,000 lives over the past three decades.

“The Kurdish move in Syria is historic,” says Mustafa Gundogdu, of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. “They forged a third way. Instead of being squashed between the Assad regime or the opposition, they made a move based on establishing their own long-term interests. They work with the opposition forces, but they are also independent of them. They have established themselves not as a victim, but as a player in the game.”

In the months since the Syrian uprising first began, a Kurdish community leery of both the Assad regime and the Islamist-tinged Syrian opposition has been organizing to take advantage of what may be a historic opportunity. “They used [the] momentum [of the uprising] to set up community centers and hold public debates, all of which were unheard of under Assad,” says Seda Altug, a historian and expert on Syrian Kurds based at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. “They took part in the big demonstrations every Friday, but they always carried their own flags and chanted their own slogans too. Now they are reaping the fruits of that process.”

(MORE: 5 Ways Syria Can Get Even Worse)

Turkey’s chief concern is that the single most powerful organization among Syrian Kurds,  the PYD, has close ties to the PKK, a separatist group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, which has been fighting for self-rule in the country’s southeast since 1984. “We will never tolerate initiatives that would threaten Turkey’s security,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a national address on July 31. Turkey would “intervene” in Syria should the PKK set up camp there, Erdogan warned, and the Turkish military began diverting troops, tanks and antiaircraft missiles to that section of the border.

Shortly after northern Syria fell, the PKK launched an attack on Semdinli, a Turkish town near the Iraq-Iraq border. Though they usually stage hit-and-run attacks on military outposts, this time, rebels laid siege to the remote eastern town — apparently to make a point. Fighting has continued for nearly two weeks as PKK rebels are said to have entrenched themselves in positions around the town. The Turkish government has refused to give details and there is a virtual news blackout. The independent news website Bianet says hundreds of villagers have been forced to flee their homes due to heavy aerial bombardment.

But for all Erdogan’s bluster, a military intervention is unlikely for the simple reason that it could be disastrous. It would put paid to Ankara’s self-styled image as a champion of democracy in the post–Arab Spring Middle East. It would provoke hostilities with the Kurds, whether internally or in Iraq and Syria. And it would also antagonize the Syrian-Arab opposition, whose pleas for intervention to topple Assad have thus far been ignored.

“Turkey sees itself as much larger than it actually is. It can’t intervene unilaterally in Syria without the support of NATO, or the U.S.,” says Altug. “I think they are going to go the diplomatic route, to try and control developments in Syrian Kurdistan that way.” Indeed, despite similar fears about the emergence of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Ankara has built strong commercial ties with the Iraqi-Kurdish leadership in Arbil, which has acted to prevent the PKK operating freely from its territory. Last Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Barzani, presumably to ask him to restrain Syria’s Kurds. Arbil needs Turkey’s cooperation to create a route independent of Baghdad for exporting oil pumped on KRG territory.

(MORE: A Turkish War of Religion: Kurdish Activists Sense a Conspiracy)

Kurds on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border say they’re not seeking an independent Kurdistan, but instead to establish autonomous and fully recognized Kurdish regions along the lines of Iraq’s KRG, which remains under the sovereignty of a federal Iraq. These regions would nonetheless also share in some version of an open-border supra-Kurdish federation. That’s a perspective long espoused by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who believes that the nation state is an outdated model unsuited to the needs of the Kurds.

“Of course, whether or not a federation emerges depends on so many other determinants, like the international community, not to mention how events in Damascus turn out,” says Altug. “But this is a political coming of age for the Kurds. They are pursuing a pragmatic and politically astute strategy.”

Asked whether the region was ready for an independent Kurdistan, Barzani was fairly open. “It’s a natural right of the people. But when and how it will be ready is a different question,” he told al-Jazeera last week.

Turkey’s problem is that events in Syria could force its hand in dealing with its domestic Kurdish challenge — and not just militarily. Erdogan has seesawed between conceding more democratic and cultural rights to Turkey’s Kurds, and adopting a hawkish militarist stand — thousands of Kurdish politicians and activists are currently under arrest for allegedly belonging to a political offshoot of the PKK. “That’s the most essential question,” wrote Birand. “What effort are we making to solve our own Kurdish issue, to comfort our own citizens of Kurdish origin?” Regardless of the answer, that question is now increasingly central to shaping Turkey’s responses to the rebellion next door.

MORE: How Bashar Assad Has Come Between the Kurds of Turkey and Syria

19 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Istanbul1453
Istanbul1453

Kurds did not shed blood to own to own a country. it was turkish soldiers who shed their blood during the Great War to live independent in todays modern Turkey. If Kurds want to live independently they can move to Northern Iraq next to Barzani or they can shed their blood own a piece of land.

However Erdogan is such a great leader that he sees kurds as brothers and allowing them to live like every other Turks in the country. Turks and Kurds are brothers. It is the PKK who is our common enemy. it feels good to know that they're slowly getting knocked out by turkish armed forces as 250 PKK terrorists have been killed in the past 2 weeks.

Jerusalem Center
Jerusalem Center

http://jcpa.org/article/the-fu... Given

this geo-strategic situation, there have been rising military tensions

between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Northern Iraq and the

Iraqi central government in Baghdad. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister

Nouri al-Maliki, who is backed by Iran, decided to deploy Iraqi Army units

in the area connecting Iraqi Kurdistan to the Kurdish areas of Syria,

thereby giving Baghdad the ability to choke off KRG supplies to the Syrian

Kurdish revolt. KRG President Massoud Barzani protested against

al-Maliki's move and held this strategic area with his Kurdish Peshmerga

units instead.

mladenm
mladenm

This is not surprise at all. Plan B for Assad was always to keep towns on road Damascus - Alepo and let the eastern part of country to go where they wish. Since rebels are going for Scorched Earth approach and kill every Sunni with pro-government sympathies, that becomes inevitable. Obviously, Kurds don't want to accept domination of hardline Sunni Arabs and will instead go for independence (with quiet Western support).

Samian
Samian

What is that striped Yellow Red Green flag in the photo? I'm sure it's not the Kurdish national flag (that has the sun in the middle)

RobertSF
RobertSF

I honestly don't understand two things. One, why do national government suppress secession movements? I don't mean rebellions aimed at replacing their national governments. Obviously, national governments would suppress those. But if the Kurds want to make their own country, what's the big deal? If California wanted to be its own country, why would the answer be no?

Which brings me to the second thing. Why do people care? I mean, frankly, if I were a Kurd, I'd rather be part of a relatively strong country like Turkey than be part of an impoverished Kurdistan. Why do people want their own countries? I mean, who cares who the government is? If we suddenly became part of Canada, would you care? I certainly wouldn't. It doesn't affect our lives.

I don't get nationalist pride. It's just tribalism made a little bigger.

priestson
priestson

Probably they resent the fact that as Kurds, quite a distinct ethnic group   from the average Turk, are forced into being Turks,. Until recently it was a crime to speak or write in their own language. Contrast this with the situation of Quebec in Canada where the Frecnh Canadian majority  are allowed to keep their culture and language and  to make it predominant  in thier province (it is one of the two official languages of Federal Canada) and if  one day  a clear majority of Quebeckers vote to secede from the rest of  Canada, they will be allowed to do so  peacefully). Look at Slovakia which seceded without  fuss from  former Czechoslovakia. Independence movements  normally only become bloody and violent when they are suppressed by force.

some10
some10

It is not only Kurds who live in those so called Kurdish areas. There are places where Turks are the majority. How can the government explain to the Turkish people that they are giving them away? They can be stronger if they work together. No Kurd wants having to get a visa to go to Istanbul. These minorities are used to weaken states so that they do not prosper. They have enemies.

Kahraman Asker
Kahraman Asker

This is because Kurds are not known as Kurds. they are not allowed to learn their language and cultures. Even a Kurd can't give his/her children a kurdish name. Everything about Kurds is prohibitted.Kurdish. The only thing they want is to speak, to write, to read their own language, and freedom for their children,.

mladenm
mladenm

 National government have to prioritize, and Islamists who want control of whole country are certainly urgent matter. If Turkey accepts cultural equal right for Kurds, they could indeed grab whole Kurdistan. But that means complete change in approach toward Kurds.

SiDevilIam
SiDevilIam

If and when this internal/external war is over, we must thank God. For no reason at all. American press and some right wing politicians are blaming Barack Obama for not sending army troops to contain violence and deaths of innocent.

If somebody dies and somebody lives in foreign country, like Syria, how is that America's problem? Look close, we have major problems, killings the innocent in Wisconsin and Colorado, included.

...and I am Sid Harth@webworldismyoyster.com

ndree091
ndree091

So very wonderful!!!! The Kurds deserve to have a state of their own.  Assad played Erdogan really good. Erdo should have thought long and hard before fanning the flames that were threatening his neighbor's house....he should know that his own house could be caught in the fire. Being a member of NATO is one thing; encouraging armed rebellion and regime change is quite another.....and in the Middle East, all politics is regional. Following the diktat of Washington who delights in setting fire in every corner of the globe while they sleep in air-conditioned tranquility is sheer madness.

The turn of Saudia Arabia and Quatar should not be long in coming.

Frigging hose of cards....moving sands....everything interconnected!!!!

Michael
Michael

just as

Anita implied I am taken by surprise that a person can earn $5691 in a

few weeks on the internet. have you seen this web link

http://www.LazyCash49.com

Suleyman Tosun
Suleyman Tosun

Kurds have a home land Kurdestan which is  made of the old ottoman vilayet /Distirct Koordestan  ref.1855  the crimian war  map of ottoman empire.,After Crimean war the sultan gave the Island of Cyprus to Britain and it was on lease but that time ended and britain at that time did not hand  the island back to its original owners like they did to hong kong.and  left the Greek Cypriots attack and burn Turkish Cypriots houses.That is the Story of 1960-1968 of cyprus by Greek Cypriots, ~Similarly the other vilayets or districts was koordestan like syria ,iraq palestine bulgaria greece serbia macedonia,bosnia hertzegovina.now some countries in the west want turkey to be divde and ruled but one thing they dont know and when they divided the old Turkey so many Turks have been scattered between Iraq to bosnia. so so many districts in Syria are turkish kurdish arab Armenian and Maronite and Suriyanie eg christian arabs),Kurds sre the Zaza speakers the Kurmajee speakers which pkk is trying to mislead or guide are pople durinf 15 century ad imicrated from horasan Iran to Turkey as there was an uprising in iran and there are books on this issue.so kudish area of the country is mainly some areas of south east.If Syria has its new democratic govenrment that all be it otherwise caos is on syrias neighours door step,if west interferes that belittlement there will be bigger bloodshed in the region than ever and power struggle will be on some.but I think on the Wests Turkish Card is coming but it is in democracy and openness if not interfered by illiterate politicians from the west that some times makes a drastic decicion.

Viking.
Viking.

Turkey is an Islamic State and an enemy of everything non-Islamic. The Kurds have the right to become an independent nation, just as every other ethnic group should have it's own country.

priestson
priestson

Most Kurds are Islamic are they not? Otherwise I like your sentiment.

David1453
David1453

12 people need to learn that Turkey has always been Secular...

Turks over-threw the Islamic-Rule / Law, and created Turkey from Ottoman Empire...

Turkey is an "enemy of everything non-Islamic" is hilarious... you people need a History lesson from where you left off at the Crusades... hahaha

priestson
priestson

It is

inexplicable how Turkey invaded Cyprus 38 years ago and established  a rogues  state  without any historical justification for

Turkish Cypriots who then  constituted 18

percent of the island  population when  Greek Cypriots represented a clear majority

of  four fifths. The Kurds have  a solid 

claim to be an independent nation, much more so than the Turkish

Cypriots (many of whom  emigrated to the

UK and Australia after the invasion  to be replaced by non-Cypriot Turks from Anatolia).

Many  genuine Turkish Cypriots  still hold and renew  legitimate  Republic  of Cyprus passports. Nonetheless, Ankara  is still 

violently  opposed to the Kurds

carving a large part of their traditional homeland  from Turkey. 

The Kurds represent  18 to 20

percent of Turkey’s official population,  not much different from the Turkish Cypriots

share of the 1974 population of the Isle of Cyprus. The homeland  forcefully created  for ethnic Turks (Cypriot or otherwise)   in 43

percent  of Cyprus is okay by Ankara  but not a cubic millimetre of Turkey for the

Kurds.  Fair? No. Consistent?  Not at all.

David1453
David1453

Let me explain it to you... Bunch of Armed-Greek-Militia killing Turks resulted in --MONTHS-- of warnings...

People are mad at Turkey for protecting civilians from getting slaughtered? Uhhhh... okay...

priestson
priestson

My Dear

David,

you seem to be very ignorant of modern Cypriot history. Regrettably there were villains on both sides, my harmless unarmed uncle was ambushed on

a narrow mountain road near his village by a Turkish-Cypriot

"friend" of his on the pretext that the Turk's car had broken

down and he was immediately   butchered to death by axe-wielding

Turks in the summer of 1958 in full sight of disinterested British

occupation troops on patrol nearby. 

The Turkish occupation of 1974 was purely opportunistic. The Turkish

troops arrived just  as the coup against anti NATO President Makarios by the Athens junta (a dictatorship like the Chilean one beloved by the CIA,

Washington and Whitehall) and   a local right wing nut Nicos Sampson

was overcome. The crack Turkish troops, well-armed by NATO,  napalm bombed some unfortunate  Finnish  UN troops they mistook for Greeks,  

raped and massacred hundreds of Greek villagers in the North and looted

churches  (mosques in the Republic are carefully maintained by the

Greeks  in the event that the  real Turkish Cypriots from southern

Cyprus  may return  some day as hoped) . Turkey expanded its illegal

control of the island even beyond the ceasefire line  "demanded" by

the   toothless United Nations. 

Turkish troops can be just as ruthless and brutal with their own people if the occasion for suppression arises.  There is

a lot of hypocrisy in  excuse for wars. Globally

 there are very few wars or invasions

simply   inspired by response   to brutality, though it is a useful battle call

, like the myth of  Belgian nuns  used as church bell clangers by

German troops  that so enraged the British public in 1914.

The allies did

not war against Hitler to save the Jews or the Poles, only  to stop unwanted German expansion and

domination of Europe, nor did NATO drop bombs on Serbian civilians  because it wanted to save Moslems (including

Al Quaeda units). It was opportunistic  and commercially worthwhile to intervene in Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq  and Libya but  not so in Rwanda, Somalia or Syria where equal

or even worse human suffering was - and still is - in progress.

Claiming  that  Turkey really  invaded Cyprus to protect Turks

Cypriots  is just bunkum.  Most

Turks were already regrouped in well protected areas under effective Turkish control. Turkish  war jets bombed Kyrenia and Greek villages in

northern Cyprus in 1964, barely four years after independence  and ten years before the invasion. If the

Turks were so  nice to the local

Turkish Cypriots  under the occupation, implanting  rough peasants from

Anatolia,  why have so  many Turkish-Cypriots - most  of them 

blood related to  Greeks as English genetic experts have discovered -

 decided to emigrate  rather than

enjoy their new freedom? How is it  that so many genuine Turkish -Cypriots

have applied to offices in the Greek part of  Nicosia for Republic of

Cyprus passport and  have received them as a right provided they have  a birth certificate. if life is a bed of

roses in the occupied zone?

The aborted coup itself was as much a threat to Greek Cypriots as to their

Turkish compatriots. It was cheerfully  admitted by  a chuckling Ralf

Denktash, a Turkish Cyptiot leader, in a Granada TV documentary (more objective than

the BBC)  that the bombings against

Turkish shops in Nicosia in 1958  that began  the island's 

inter-communal troubles was started by Turkish agents provocateurs. The usually

devious British colonial rulers  were only too happy to let their divide

and rule strategy work. At that time  Britain still aspired to continue as

an Imperil power with East of Suez interests. The Gulf emirates were quasi

colonies  and  Cyprus was  an

unique sovereign military base in the middle east.  Any villainy was

possible and allowable to keep the status quo, especially after the 1956 Suez

fiasco.

If you have any doubts about the  imperial  policy of divide and

rule  ask any Pakistani or Indian who is old enough to recall what happen

there in the last days of the  British  Raj. More recently that old

and tried Roman imperial policy was applied by German and British leaders 

( Straw and Blair) in the NATO inspired dissolution of Yugoslavia.

So far  only two reader seem to like your  rash comments compared with 17 likes

for my piece. Moral:It pays to know what you are writing about  before you

pen  your comments.

Yours very Sincerely