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

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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