What drives Turkey's new Syria stance? A
fear of two Kurdistans
By Soner Cagaptay , Special to CNN
May 24, 2012
When the Syrian uprising began last spring,
Turkey initially stayed behind Washington. It shied
away from criticizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad,
instead asking al-Assad to reform.
When Damascus refused, however, Ankara moved ahead
of Washington, taking an aggressive posture against
al-Assad and suggesting it was ready to take action
to force him to step down.
Recently, though, Ankara has backpedaled, abandoning
its aggression and sliding back toward Washington’s
position. With this, Turkey has entered the third
phase of its Syrian policy, falling nearly in line
with Washington’s policy of “wait and see and hope
for an orderly transition — for now.”
What could explain Turkey’s new posture? Many
factors come to mind, from the fear of getting
bogged down in a war with a neighboring country to
being left alone to fight al-Assad. But one key
factor is its fear of two Kurdistans.
Syria’s restless and well-organized Kurdish
minority, for the most part, does not trust Turkey.
Instead, the Syrian Kurds are looking to their
counterparts in Iraq’s Kurdish region, the Middle
East’s first autonomous Kurdish political entity.
Some Syrian Kurdish leaders aspire to gain what the
Iraqi Kurds have: their own Kurdistan.
Turkey can deal with one Kurdistan, but two might be
In recent years, Ankara’s policy with the Iraqi
Kurds has evolved from open hostility in 2003, when
the Iraqi Kurds built their Kurdistan, to open
In this regard, the Iraqi Kurds have helped Turkey
by embracing a crucial strategy: Since 2003, the
Iraqi Kurds have gradually abandoned their policy of
turning a blind eye to the presence of the Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish terror group
that fights Turkey inside northern Iraq.
As far as Turkey is concerned, anyone who hosts the
PKK is an enemy. Seeing this plain fact, the Iraqi
Kurds sacrificed the PKK to ally with Turkey against
Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian central government
As soon as the Iraqi Kurds showed good will on the
PKK issue, Ankara reciprocated, building good ties
with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in
Erbil. Today, Turkey has a diplomatic mission in
Erbil, and Turkish Airlines, the country’s national
flag carrier, flies direct from Erbil not only to
Istanbul but also to Antalya,www.ekurd.net
carrying Kurdish vacationers to the Turkish Riviera.
And trade between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds has
boomed to such an extent that if Iraqi Kurdistan
were an independent country today, Turkey would be
its largest trading partner.
So far, so good. But what if there were two
Kurdistans, with a second to emerge in Syria after
al-Assad’s potential fall? Could Turkey deal with
the second one with the same ease it has learned to
deal with the first?
Maybe, if the Syrian Kurds also denied the PKK safe
haven. One could then envision commercial ties
cementing the relationship between Turkey and the
Syrian Kurdistan, similar to Turkey and the Iraqi
This could be a tall order, though. While the PKK
has had negligible support among the Iraqi Kurds,
this has not been the case among the Syrian Kurds.
Granted, the Syrian Kurdish umbrella group, the
Kurdistan National Council, has excluded the PKK
from its membership. But still, some intelligence
analysts suggest that the PKK has grassroots appeal
Then there is the Syrian regime’s complicity on the
PKK issue. Damascus harbored the PKK for years, only
stopping in the past decade to improve relations
with Turkey. Since the beginning of the Syrian
uprising, however, al-Assad has once again allowed
the PKK to have an armed presence inside Syria in
retaliation for Turkey’s support to the Syrian
The prospect of a second Kurdistan, one with a
menacing PKK presence in it, now looms on Turkey’s
radar screen. The al-Assad regime has caught on to
that fear, allowing the PKK ample room to operate
inside Syria, speaking to that primal Turkish
strategic anxiety and sending a message to Ankara:
“Help my opposition, and you might as well help the
PKK and build a second Kurdistan in your backyard.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those
of Soner Cagaptay.
Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS
contributor. The views expressed in this article are
solely those of Soner Cagaptay.
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