Autonomy for Syria’s Kurds Failure of Turkish Policy

By supporting the war against Bashar Assad, Turkey has inadvertently exacerbated an internal security threat.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, February 10, 2012
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, February 10, 2012 (CSIS)

Syrian Kurds’ de facto independence further calls into question Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for the country’s rebels. Two years into what is now a civil war, his attempts at influencing the outcome of the conflict in the regime’s disfavor have had little effect except possibly bolstering a Kurdish insurgency that threatens the integrity of the Turkish state.

The Qatari news organization Al Jazeera reported on Saturday that since Syrian government bureaucrats and forces abandoned the north, the Kurds there have been able to rule themselves. They are preparing elections for a legislative body — to the chagrin of other rebels, especially Islamists, who hope to establish a religious state in Syria that is controlled by the Sunni majority.

Clashes between Kurdish and Islamist fighters “are bringing rare unity to the fractious Kurds,” Al Jazeera reported.

The Democratic Union Party, previously just one of seventeen Kurdish groups but the only one with an armed wing, has emerged as the dominant political force in the region, administering the cities of Ayn al-Arab, close to the Turkish border, and Afrin, north of Aleppo. The party’s leader insists that it has no separatist ambitions. “Autonomy was always our project and is now accepted by our people,” he said. “After the war, we will reach an agreement with all the parties in Syria for the future of our territory.”

Islamist opposition groups, who have been the most effective in battling the forces of President Bashar Assad, and neighboring Turkey may be less optimistic. The former should worry that if the Kurds secede, other minorities in Syria, particularly Assad’s Alawites who live mainly in the northwest, will follow. Turkey is afraid that autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, following autonomy for the Kurds in northern Iraq, will embolden separatists within its own borders.

Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hinted at as much this week when he argued that the formation of “a de facto region and its ensuing isolation from other regions, even before a Syrian parliament is elected and the political system has been established, would be unacceptable to not only Turkey but also other groups in Syria.” But it’s unclear what Turkey can do about it.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned last year that if Kurdish separatists in Syria and Turkey joined forces, it would not be “possible for us to look on with tolerance.” Yet they did join forces without Turkish reprisals.

The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, also admitted that Syrian Kurds had received military training in his province — something neither Turkey nor the central government in Baghdad could prevent.

Turkey has backed the Syrian rebels and championed the Arab revolutionary cause, which previously toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as part of a strategy to reassert itself as the dominant power in the Middle East. But it has had the adverse effect of exacerbating an internal security threat.

In the absence of Syrian government forces, Kurdish separatists aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its NATO allies, and were able to stage attacks on Turkish border posts. The Turks suspect that the regime in Damascus intentionally left the Kurds to their own devices for fear of aligning them against it.

If Turkey deepens its involvement in Syria’s civil war to suppress the Kurdish insurgency, it risks not only losing the trust of other Syrian opposition fighters but alienating the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq as well from which it buys oil and which it uses to put pressure on the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki whom most Sunni powers in the region see as a stooge for their nemesis Iran.

Some two million Kurds live in Syria, less than in neighboring Iraq or Turkey, but many do share a hope of one day forming a nation state.

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