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 Turkey must work with Syria's Kurds

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Turkey must work with Syria's Kurds  1.8.2012  
By Ranj Alaaldin - The Guardian







 
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. Photo: AFP
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While Turkey may be threatened by Kurdish gains in Syria, there's little it can do to prevent an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan

August 1
, 2012

Turkey's support for the uprising against Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has been challenged during the last week or so as Kurds in the north-east of Syria have taken control of several towns and cities.

The ploy, if it succeeds, will bring a further extension of Kurdish autonomy in the Middle East, complementing Iraq's booming Kurdistan region, where 5 million Kurds govern themselves as a federal entity within Iraq and with minimal interference from the central government in Baghdad.

The problem from Turkey's perspective is two-fold: firstly, a Syrian Kurdistan alongside Iraqi Kurdistan will encourage Turkey's own restive Kurdish population to demand greater political and human rights, as well as embolden their demands for autonomy from the rest of Turkey.

Turkey's Kurds, numbering more than 13 million, are a far more sizeable group than their fellow Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Iran. As in Syria, Turkey's Kurds have been targeted through oppressive measures that have suppressed their cultural, political and human rights.

The second problem for Turkey relates to the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), a guerilla movement that has fought the Turkish state over the past 40 years. Initially the PKK sought autonomy for Turkey's marginalised Kurds but later turned to demanding greater political and human rights, following the imprisonment of the organisation's leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and the movement's eventual decline.

A Syrian Kurdistan, however, would offer a lifeline to the PKK in the same way the uprising in Syria has provided an opportunity for other political movements to assert their presence. Further, the PKK is closely linked in Syria to the Democratic Union party (PYD) which controls most of the liberated areas as part of a broader coalition of Kurdish parties in Syria,www.ekurd.net known as the People's Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK). The other main Kurdish opposition bloc of parties is called the Kurdish National Council (KNC).

In other words, Turkey fears north-eastern Syria becoming a bastion for its long-time enemy the PKK (and its sister movement the PYD), fearing that this will supplement existing PKK strongholds in the rugged mountains of Iraq's Kurdistan region, which it has sought to eliminate – but without success – over the past 30 years through umpteen military incursions.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acknowledged these concerns last week, stating that Turkey would "not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey". However, there is little Turkey can do.

Politically, if and when Assad falls, Turkey may continue to encourage the Arab-led opposition to resist Kurdish political and territorial demands but that hinges on the leverage that those forces will have in Kurdish-held areas. So far, Kurdish opposition fighters have prevented the Free Syrian Army from entering Syrian Kurdish territory.

It will also depend on the extent to which Arabs can be unified and whether a smooth transitional process follows Assad's downfall. Both are unlikely. While the rest of Syria will probably be embroiled in post-conflict infighting and instability, the Syrian Kurds – like the Iraqi Kurds after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein – are more likely to be remedying internal divisions, organising themselves and stabilising their region to create a buffer between a far more stable Syrian Kurdistan and the rest of a tumultuous Syria.

Here, the Kurds would be aided by brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan, where President Masoud Barzani has been training Syrian Kurdish fighters, as well as possibly by Iran and Iraq, which will be looking for new partners in the post-Assad Syria.

Turkey may, therefore, look to its military to restrict Kurdish autonomy and the PYD's influence. However, that is easier said than done. Firstly, pursuing PYD targets before the Assad regime falls could provoke a response from Damascus and radically transform the uprising into a direct military confrontation between the two states. Secondly, the PYD cannot single-handedly control the whole of Syria's Kurdish region and must instead operate with other groupings, some of which Turkey will deem more acceptable.

Finally, Russia and Iran, who would also be looking to protect their own strategic interests and leverage in a new Syria, would fiercely reject any Turkish military advancement. They would be telling Turkey that it cannot on the one hand call for regime change and yet, on the other hand, prevent a pluralistic Syria from emerging. Iran would also be reminding Turkey of its decision to turn a blind eye to the sectarian Sunni Islamic fundamentalist presence in Syria, which Iran views as a direct threat.

As a consequence, Turkey's best hope is to work in co-operation with Syria's Kurds, accepting that this will be far more constructive and effective than trying to prevent the unpreventable: the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey's previous experience with the Iraqi Kurds shows that this approach works and that it is the only plausible option in a region that looks set to finally gift the Kurds with the opportunities that have eluded them for decades.
 

Ranj Alaaldin is a Middle East political and security risk analyst. He is a senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation and is doing a doctorate on the Shias of Iraq at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He visits the Middle East regularly and has conducted extensive fact-finding missions throughout the region.


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