The Middle East Channel

Syria's Kurdish challenge to Turkey

As international attention remains focused on the fighting in Syria, Turkey's military has been fighting lethal battles on its southern border with the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war against Turkey for almost three decades. Just last week, nine people were killed when a car packed with explosives blew up close to a police station in Gaziantep, a city around 30 miles from the Syrian border. In response, the National Security Council (MGK) convened yesterday to discuss the recent PKK attacks and issued a statement vowing to avert the risks to its national security emanating from the violence in Syria. While the government has come under increased criticism for its Kurdish policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placing the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara suspects the PKK is exploiting the chaos in Syria, and that Assad is supplying it with arms in retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition.

The spike in the PKK's terrorist activity in Turkey comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the PKK and its affiliates are gaining ground in Turkey's southern neighbor. Particularly alarming was the capture of several towns along the Turkish border by the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD). Turkey watched nervously as Kurdish groups took control of the towns after the withdrawal of Assad forces and hoisted the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings, along with posters of the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Alarmed by the developments on its southern border, Turkey held a security summit at which top bureaucrats and government officials discussed Turkey's policy on Syria, the surge in PKK activity, and the PYD's enhanced grip on power in northern Syria. In a carefully worded statement following the summit, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emphasized that Turkey opposes Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria as long as the Assad regime remains in power, but that it will accept it afterwards if such autonomy is enshrined in a new constitution approved by the Syrian people. Also, Turkey will continue to support the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Council (SNC) and will encourage them to contain the PKK. Lastly, Davutoglu stressed that Turkey will use military force if the PKK establishes itself in northern Syria.

These three points lead to one conclusion: Turkey will continue relying on Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG, and the SNC to keep Syrian Kurds' demands for autonomy and PKK activities in check. Of course Turkey has good reason to believe that both Barzani and the SNC will be willing to play their part.

Over the last year, Turkey has cultivated close rapport with Barzani. After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, relations between Erbil and Baghdad have sharply deteriorated over such issues as the status of oil-rich Kirkuk, the deployment of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the hydrocarbon law, and power-sharing. Turkey serves both as a conduit for the KRG's oil exports to the West and as a political ally in fights with the Iraqi central government. Adding to Barzani's strategic value for Turkey is his increasingly problematic relationship with the PKK. The PKK mounting attacks against Turkey and Iran from northern Iraq invites retaliation from these countries via cross-border operations, which violate the KRG's sovereignty and frighten away badly needed investors.

Just as important for Turkey's strategic calculation in Syria is the SNC, the umbrella group leading the fight against Assad. The SNC was established in Turkey and has since been using Turkey as an organizing hub. Turkey is confident that the SNC will block Kurdish demands for autonomy or any form of political decentralization given that the SNC has already refused to offer written guarantees for political decentralization and the right to self-determination for Syrian Kurds. The current president of the SNC, Abdulbaset Sieda, of Kurdish origin, is known for his deference to perceived Turkish wishes.

Without a doubt, Turkey has leverage over both Barzani and the SNC. And yet, there is still one major problem with Turkey's strategy of containing the PKK and Kurdish demands through these actors: the influence of Barzani and the SNC over Syrian Kurds is limited.

Barzani is an important figure in the Syrian Kurdish political movement. Most Kurdish parties in Syria have offices in Erbil, and Barzani exerts clout in their internal affairs. In 2008, for instance, Barzani appointed Abdulhakim Bashar as the new head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria. He is now leading the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Syrian opposition group that was formed in October 2011 and is sponsored by Barzani. Through the KNC, Barzani wants to expand his influence over Syrian Kurds. But after downgrading formal links to Syrian Kurdish parties in a gesture to Ankara, Barzani has only limited power over rural Kurds in Syria close to the Iraqi border. KNC's standing among Syria's Kurds is no better. It is a coalition group of more than a dozen organizations but they are small and divided with little influence, especially in the western part of the Syrian Kurdish enclave.

The PYD, on the other hand, has expanded its grip on power in northern Syria at the expense of Barzani and the KNC since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. As the most organized, best-armed, and single largest Kurdish party in Syria, the PYD is able to mobilize large crowds. Its strong standing poses a threat to Turkey's strategic interests in Syria. Formed in 2003 by former members of the PKK, the PYD has adopted Abdullah Ocalan's ideology and calls for Kurdish "self-determination." To the dismay of Turkey, as well as Barzani and the KNC, the PYD's influence is likely to grow if the SNC fails to address and incorporate Syrian Kurdish demands into its post-Assad vision of Syria.

So far, the SNC has failed in that regard. Although the Kurds were involved in attempts to unify the opposition into the Syrian National Council, there has always been tension between the Kurds and the Arab opposition within the SNC. Arabs have accused Kurds of not participating effectively in the uprising against the regime, while Kurds have accused Arabs of turning a blind eye to Kurdish national rights and inviting Turkish intervention in Syria. In one famous incident in July, Kurds walked out of the Syrian opposition conference in Turkey when Arab opposition members insisted on keeping the name "Syrian Arab Republic." Most recently, a meeting of the Syrian opposition in Cairo collapsed into chaos after a Syrian Kurdish group walked out of the meeting because "the conference rejected an item that says the Kurdish people must be recognized." Currently, the Kurdish opposition has little representation within the SNC.

Ultimately, Turkey's strategy of controlling Syrian Kurds through Barzani and the SNC might not yield any tangible results. Instead, Turkey should do three things to secure its interests in Syria. First, it should engage in direct relations with Syrian Kurds rather than working through Barzani or the SNC. Second, instead of pressuring the SNC to contain Kurdish demands, Turkey should use its leverage to pressure the SNC to recognize Kurdish rights and incorporate Kurds into the political process. The more Kurds are excluded from the democratic process, the more radicalized they will become, and the more the PKK will expand its influence. And last but certainly not least, Turkey has to permanently address its own Kurdish problem. The Syrian crisis has revealed that the Kurdish issue remains Turkey's soft underbelly. Assad's strategy of using the PKK as a trump card against Turkey attests to this simple fact: without tackling its own Kurdish problem, Turkey will continue to render itself vulnerable to the vicissitudes of its neighbors' Kurdish politics.

Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages

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