Turkish Offensive Against Kurds Carries Political Risks

Turkey risks antagonizing the Kurds in Iraq and Syria with its campaign on the border.

Turkish soldiers this week killed 26 Kurdish rebels in an offensive that began Wednesday night and involved more than 2,000 troops as well as F-16 fighter planes operating on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border.

This summer has been one of the bloodiest in Turkey since Kurdish separatists took up arms against the government in 1984. In the fifteen months to August, some eight hundred people were killed, including about five hundred Kurdish fighters and more than twee hundred security personnel, according to estimates by the International Crisis Group think tank.

The situation represents a dilemma for the Turks who must suppress the Kurdish insurgency in their borders while supporting the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria which is, in part, Kurdish.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned in July that if Kurdish separatists in Syria and Turkey joined forces, “it is not possible for us to look on with tolerance.” Yet that is what has happened. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, admitted a month later that Syrian Kurds received military training in the autonomous province. “We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained,” he told the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, adding that the fighters had not join been repatriated.

Syria has entered its seventeenth month of uprising which increasingly appears to break down along sectarian lines. Whereas the opposition is largely Sunni, minorities in Syria, including the Kurds, have been reluctant to take up arms against Assad, even if a Kurd chairs the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group that sits in Istanbul.

Turkey has backed the Syrian rebels and championed the Arab revolutionary movement, which previously toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as part of a strategy to reassert itself as the dominant power in the Middle East.

In the absence of Syrian security forces, separatists aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its NATO allies, have been able to stage attacks on Turkish border posts and take over entire Syrian towns. The Turks suspect that the regime in Damascus has intentionally left the Kurds in the country to their own devices for fear of aligning them against the embattled Syrian government.

Policymakers in Ankara also fear that northern Syria, which appears largely under rebel control, becomes a safe haven for Kurdish insurgents from where to stage raids into southern Turkey, as they have done in previous years from northern Iraq. If Turkey expands its campaign, it not only risks losing the trust of Syrian opposition fighters; it could alienate the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq with which it has deepened commercial relations this year, particularly to buy oil.

Less than two million Kurds live in Syria, far fewer than do in neighboring Iraq and Turkey. They do share the hope of one day establishing an independent Kurdish state.


  1. I am Kurdish (if some people wonder) and I have one note: We are not “less than two millions” in Syrian Kurdistan, somewhere between 2 and a half and three millions. Yes, it is still small compared to other parts of Kurdistan. and we are not minority, Kurds in turkish Kurdistan and iraqi Kurdistan are our people!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I took my information from the US State Department which estimates Syria’s Kurdish population at 9 percent. There’s twenty-two million people in Syria, so that would correspond with roughly two million Kurdish citizens. Quite possible, the State Department information is outdated so if you have a better source, please let me know!

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