In November 2011, President Abdullah Gül warned Syria not to use the outlawed terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey, indicating that he hopes the neighboring country does not make the same mistake it did in the past by hosting PKK terrorists. “I would strongly suggest and expect that they will not get into such a dangerous game. Even though I do not think they would do that, we are still closely following the matter,” he said in an interview with Britain’s Financial Times.
A month later, speaking to the semi-official Anatolia news agency, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu dismissed the prospect of Syria housing members of the PKK. Davutoğlu said he doesn’t believe that the Assad government has the “courage” to harbor the PKK. His message was that Syria wouldn’t dare harbor PKK terrorists. These warnings came as a response to Bashar al-Assad’s veiled threats in October that “should [Turkey] attempt to exploit our problems, then its own problems will become much bigger. Their hostility will backfire on them.” He stated that “Turkey could fall into a state similar to ours.”
Well, Assad’s regime dared Turkey by moving to make good on its promise of exacting a toll on Turkey’s national security in what they see as a tit-for-tat policy for Turkey hosting Syrian opposition groups. It has offered a free hand to PKK operatives in the northern part of the country bordering with Turkey. October’s assassination of a leading Kurdish figure, Mishaal al-Tammo, by Syrian intelligence officers after he allied himself with the Syrian opposition was in fact a shot across the bow for Turkey. Al-Tammo was known to be strongly opposed to the PKK taking a stronghold among Syrian Kurds and thereby hijacking the legitimate demands of Kurds there. By taking him out of the picture, the Syrian regime gave spacious breathing room for the PKK to aggressively work for the support of PKK goals.
Assad thinks that the PKK and affiliated Kurdish groups in northern Syria may act as a buffer force when Turkey decides to intervene in Syria either alone or acting under the mandate of a regional organization or a UN Security Council resolution. The PKK has already signaled it is ready and eager to assume such a role. In a recent interview, Cemil Bayık, number two in the PKK, warned that if Turkey were ever to intervene against Assad, the PKK would fight on Syria’s side. To mobilize Kurdish support for the ailing regime in Syria, Assad quickly moved to offer citizenship rights to some 350,000 stateless Kurds so that they can travel, own property, enroll in universities and get employment in Syria. The PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, though officially illegal, was also allowed to start networking with other Kurdish parties established in the Syrian Kurdish region.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one senior Turkish official told me that there are credible intelligence reports indicating that Assad has been supplying arms and munitions to some Kurdish groups in areas close to the Turkish border. Syrian opposition figures even speculate that Assad has gone as far as promising autonomy to Kurds in exchange for support to his regime and loyalty. What is more, using the PKK trump card, Damascus also seems to have succeeded in creating a split among Kurdish groups in Syria, preventing them from supporting the opposition.
Compounding matters are fears and long existent suspicions within Kurds against Syrian Arabs, an issue that Assad surely exploited for his own advantage. The fact that Turkey offers sanctuary to the İstanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC) further fuels suspicions of Kurds toward the opposition in Syria, driving a larger wedge between Kurds and Arabs on the future shape of Syria. On the other side of the coin, Arabs in the opposition do not want to be seen as courting the Kurds out of fear of the political liability Kurds may bring to the table. For the opposition to get in bed with the Kurds may risk triggering a backlash among majority Arabs who have grown leery of Kurdish intentions for the future.
The game plan of Turkey appears to have focused on two tracks. Turkey has pushed the SNC to establish strong ties with restive Kurdish groups in Syria, offering them a clear vision for the post-Assad era to quell fears of Arab reprisal against Kurds. At the same time, with the exception of the PKK and related groups, Ankara urged Kurds in Syria to openly denounce separatism and to support the territorial integrity of the country. Secondly, Turkish officials have held talks with both Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani to sway Syrian Kurds to their side. Barzani has closely aligned with the Kurdish Democratic Front, the largest coalition of Kurdish parties in Syria, while Talabani has close contacts with the coalition called the Kurdish Democratic Alliance.
The noticeable restraint used by Syrian security services in the face of protests against the Assad regime in Kurdish areas may be another indication that the regime is counting on Kurds’ support for the coming days and weeks. This new approach is quite a contrast to the March 12, 2004 Kurdish riots in Qamishli, the capital of Hassekah province, as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus during which the regime responded violently to crack down on Kurdish protest movements. While there have been clashes between protesters and Syrian security forces mainly in Sunni Arab towns during the 10-month-long uprising, Kurdish areas have remained relatively calm.
Many believe it would not be difficult for the Syrian regime to mobilize the PKK against Turkey considering that it was Syria, which let PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is now in a Turkish prison on the island of İmralı, take shelter, set up main camps and direct the terrorist organization from within its borders for nearly two decades until 1998, the year when Syria had to expel Öcalan because of pressure from Turkey. It is estimated that the Syrian Kurds are believed to make up as much as one-third of the PKK’s membership, or about 2,000 militants from Syria, and its leadership has close ties to Syrian intelligence. Two top PKK commanders, Nurettin Sofi and Bahoz Erdal, are from Syria.
There are many reports claiming that the PKK struck a deal with the Assad regime but openly deny the existence of such a deal out of fear of a backlash from Kurds for supporting a repressive regime. Iran may have helped nudge the terrorist group to agree to this deal. This is not a claim that can be easily discarded as a conspiracy theory considering the PKK had negotiated similar deals with oppressive regimes in the region against Turkey. If you add the recent clampdown on the PKK and its affiliate organizations in Turkey, the PKK would be more than willing to seek allies wherever it can find them, be it in Damascus or Tehran.
All in all, some 2 million Kurds among Syrian’s 23 million people, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, may be decisive in determining the fate of Assad in the coming months. A meeting planned by the end of this month in Arbil among Syrian Kurdish groups may be a harbinger of what will happen next in Syria. Turkey should tread carefully in addressing concerns of Kurds in Syria while trying to foil Assad’s attempt to win over mainstream Kurds. Ankara should put the minds of Arabs at ease without alienating Kurds in Syria while picking a fight with the PKK and its political extensions there. It is certainly a difficult balancing act but future peace and stability in Syria may very well hinge on that balance.