The high-stakes game plan for Turkey to control the fast-paced developments in northern Syria using the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq as a proxy force without getting directly involved in Syria — at least for the time being — may be a double-edged sword for Turks. Ankara may win big with considerable progress in tackling its own Kurdish problem, but it may very well face substantial losses if things turn out to be something other than originally pondered in the Turkish capital. Though Ankara has naturally taken some precautions to prevent any unintended results that may complicate its fight against Kurdish terrorism waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates in the Middle East, news from the ground in Syria continues to spell more woes for Ankara, creating uneasiness across Turkey.
Just to recap on what has happened in the Kurdish issue in Syria so far: The Turkish government has been working closely with KRG leader Massoud Barzani for over a year now for him to take the lead in uniting Kurds in Syria as well as in Iraq, so that the PKK will be marginalized and isolated amid a broader Kurdish coalition that will be careful not to invite the wrath of regional powerhouse Turkey. Turks have lent their support to the KRG government in its efforts to consolidate Kurdish politics and even allowed Barzani to cozy up with the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) to some degree.
For example, Turkey welcomed Barzani’s efforts to bring various Kurdish groups under a unified position against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It did not react to the meeting held in Arbil during which Barzani brought Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, and Kurdish National Assembly (SKUM) President Ismail Heme in June to formulate a common position against the Assad regime. The meeting ended with a joint statement, termed the Arbil Statement, which may foil the Assad regime’s divide-and-rule tactics against Kurdish groups to prevent them joining the opposition.
Ankara has silently pushed the Syrian National Council (SNC) to elect an independent Kurd, Abdulbaset Sieda, in June as a compromise leader to head the SNC, an umbrella organization encompassing various opposition groups in Syria, as a safeguard measure for Turkey to exert influence over some 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, which have largely stayed on the sidelines of the 17-month uprising in Syria until recently. In a sense, this was a response to the policies of embattled Syrian President Assad, who resorted to using the PKK card in this game, despite a warning from Turkey, and ceded control of some northern towns to the PKK and its affiliate, the PYD, especially after Syrian forces were moved to Damascus and other more central areas to fight opposition forces.
The raising of PKK flags flying in some government buildings in these towns has prompted wide media coverage in Turkey, putting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government under immense public pressure to act. The opposition parties in Turkey were quick to play on fears of Kurdish independence in Syria as a means to bash the government. Though Turkish officials discounted the flag-raising incidents as isolated ones, it cost the government some political capital and most likely invited deeper public relations problems for the future. Whether Barzani wins over the PYD to soothe Turkish concerns or Assad’s game plan holds up to aggravate Kurdish terrorism in Turkey will determine what further steps Ankara will take to address emerging Kurdish challenges. The crucial question is who will exert control over the Kurdish regions in northern Syria with the fate of the country’s biggest Kurdish city, Qamishli, becoming a turning point in developments.
Syrian opposition figures have long accused the PYD of acting as enforcers for Assad, putting down demonstrations in Kurdish areas and assassinating anti-Assad activists, most notably Mashaal Tammo, a charismatic Kurdish leader. He was killed last year as he organized an anti-Assad political coalition. As Assad’s departure seems imminent, most Kurds in Syria have shifted from a neutral position to the anti-Assad camp, though differences remain between the SNC and SKUM, an umbrella organization encompassing 16 Kurdish parties, over the prospective status of Kurds in post-Assad era. Today even the PYD tries to distance itself from Assad and denies any link to the PKK.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, whose governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) attracted the largest votes from Turkey’s own Kurds in the national elections last year, hopes that he can position Turkey to have some kind of protectorate power over all Kurds in the region. The KRG’s problems with the central government in Baghdad and difficulties with Persian nationalists in Tehran have pushed Barzani to cooperate closely with Turkey to the extent that lucrative energy and non-energy government tenders were given to Turkish companies in northern Iraq. Ankara has also succeeded in enlisting the support of the Americans in this scenario with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who was commander of all US forces in Iraq before the withdrawal last year, acting as US President Barack Obama’s pointman in sorting out issues between Turkey and the KRG with the common aim of rooting out Kurdish terror.
Just in case Barzani changes his mind and decides to ally himself with some other powers in the region to the detriment of Turkish national security, Turkey can hold up two cards to play against Barzani as a safety measure. One is to provide full support to the majority Syrian Arab opposition to quash minority Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria and to take a stronger position against the KRG in the differences between the KRG and Baghdad. Erdoğan’s AK Party has already cultivated close ties with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a significant bloc in the opposition which has decided to set up a political party to play a more active role in the transitional government after the fall of the Assad regime. It can use the MB to hammer the Kurds in Syria.
Coupled with that, Turkey also reserves its right to intervene militarily in Syria to suppress Kurdish aspirations for independence and overarching autonomous demands while breaking the long line of Kurdish enclaves along northern Syria into bits and pieces. The existing agreements between Turkey and Syria already give Ankara a strong legal base for such an intervention. The Turkish prime minister’s remarks on national TV on Wednesday night, indicating that Turkey would not tolerate any “irritant” along its southern border with a clear emphasis on supporting the Syrian National Council’s (SNC) position against Kurds and raising the intervention as “Turkey’s most natural right” in case PKK terror finds a safe haven there, should be read as a firing shot across the KRG government and Syrian Kurds.
The arrival of Kurdish fighters in Syria from Northern Iraq this week, numbering around some 2,000, raised eyebrows in the Turkish capital. Though Barzani claimed these are Syrian Kurds trained and equipped by the KRG government, intelligence indicated that these are actually PKK terrorists of Syrian origin who were sent to control the area from Iraq to the northern towns in Syria in the name of the PKK with the full knowledge and backing of Barzani. Unless some kind of assurances are made to the extent that this move should be interpreted as the dissolution of a PKK fighting force and the focus is now more on Syria rather than Turkey, this may complicate recent overtures between Ankara and Barzani. Turkish intelligence analysis discussed this week at a security meeting in Ankara raised the specter of PKK-dominated areas expanding further along border areas with Turkey, prompting Erdoğan to issue a warning to both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. Erdoğan’s open criticism of Barzani on Thursday before his departure for London was a stern message to the KRG government not to double-cross Turkey on this very sensitive issue.
Last but not least, Turkey should also watch out for lingering concerns in the wider Arab audience over the close collaboration of Turkey with Kurds in both Syria and Iraq at the expense of Arabs. In the Middle East, where Arab nationalism is still one of the key determinants in choosing alliances, Turkey faces an explosive minefield, cross-cutting sectarian identities. Currently, Arabs face three non-Arab powers in the region, which include Israel, Iran and Turkey. They see Iran as an arch-foe, despise Israeli aggression and expansion of settlements, while welcoming the Turkish role with some reservations. The establishment of a highly autonomous Kurdish region in Syria in addition to the one in Iraq raises the specter of creating a fourth, non-Arab Kurdish state in the midst of the Arab World. From an Arab point of view, this is simply not acceptable. Turkey may be forced to settle with a less desirable solution in Syria to protect its long-term national interests in the wider Middle East region.