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Turkey’s Syria Calculations: The Kurdish Dimension

This article originally appeared on the Fikra Forum (March 22, 2012)


In recent months, as uncertainty over Assad’s future continues, Turkey’s position with regard to its potential military or humanitarian intervention has been heavily debated. While Turkish leaders have condemned the Syrian government’s brutal suppression of dissent since February 2011 and warned several times that Turkey may intervene militarily, questions remain over how clearly that discourse will translate into concrete action. In addition to issues regarding the regional balance of power, a key concern limiting options in Turkey’s toolbox is the intertwined nature of the Kurdish issues in Turkey and Syria and the perception of political Islam as being a rival to Kurdish nationalist movements.

Ankara fears ramifications of the conflict inside Turkey; therefore, the Syria refugee problem is of critical importance. Turkey has not officially recognized displaced Syrians who fled from government forces as “refugees”; instead, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu chose to define them as Turkey’s “guests.” To that end, a refugee camp (officially called a “temporary compound”) and smaller “tent cities” were established in Hatay province on the Syrian border. Still, these camps host about 20,000 refugees, including the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which operates under Turkish military and intelligence cover. Furthermore, Turkey conducted a military exercise on the Syrian border in October 2011 and retains increased military presence there.

The most direct official declaration on the matter came recently, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at the possibility of establishing a humanitarian safe haven and an aid corridor into Syrian territory, building on his prior statement, which referred to the issue as “Turkey’s domestic problem.” Indeed, with a 560-mile shared border, the prospects of an escalating Syrian refugee crisis, coupled with the significant Alawite population at Turkey’s Syrian border and in the refugee camps, render Syria a domestic concern for Turkey and create many incentives for a Turkish intervention.

Yet, as time passes, Turkey discovers the limits of its involvement in Syria. From a foreign policy standpoint, a dual Russo-Iranian support for Assad makes a unilateral Turkish intervention in Syria costly. Such an action cannot occur without openly confronting the strategic goals of both powers. The other limit, though less explicit, is the equally critical domestic policy concern of how Turkey’s own Kurdish opposition will respond to Turkish support for the Syrian opposition and those Kurdish groups that aligned with the opposition forces.

With the recent October 2011 killing of Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo by Syrian government operatives and the subsequent incident in which government forces opened fire on funeral attendees, more Syrian Kurds have taken part in the anti-government demonstrations. While the fragmented nature of the Syrian Kurdish opposition makes it difficult for Syria’s Kurds to mount a unified front against Assad’s forces, prospects of a Turkish military intervention in Syria fracture them even further.

The Kurdish National Council, a coalition of ten Kurdish political parties, officially supports the removal of the Assad government, the establishment of a federal system in Syria, and limited foreign involvement, though the coalition has remained independent from pan-Syrian opposition forums, such as the Syrian National Council (SNC). However, other influential Kurdish groups—the most important being the left-wing Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close links to the main militant Kurdish group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—remain outside this coalition and strongly oppose foreign intervention, including any Turkish involvement. The core of this opposition perceives Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be pushing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, thus opposing Kurdish nationalism, in an eventual post-Assad political settlement via its support for and influence over the FSA.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on the Syrian opposition not only distances the PYD from the Kurdish National Council, but also renders the FSA, which receives arms from the Brotherhood, a natural opponent to secular Kurdish nationalism. Salih Muhammad, the leader of the PYD, claimed: “Foreign intervention in Syria will open the door for Turkey and that is only in the best interest of Muslim Brotherhood […] We won’t work with anyone who supports Turkish intervention in Syria.”

The rise of political Islam as a rival to Kurdish nationalism is seen as an existential threat by secular Kurdish activists in both Syria and Turkey. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political extensions—the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) and the Freedom and Democracy Party (BDP)—all see the Muslim conservative ideology put forward by Turkey’s AKP government as a challenge to secular Kurdish nationalism. This perception was reinforced by the AKP’s appeal to the Kurdish electorate; while the Kurdish party emerged victorious in 13 Kurdish majority cities in the 2002 general elections, the AKP managed to win in 7 of those cities in 2007. Renewed Kurdish activism managed to take back 2 of those cities in the 2011 elections, but the electoral battle between the AKP and the Kurdish nationalist parties remain heated in southeast Turkey. In other words, while Turkish military and intelligence battles militant Kurdish nationalism, the AKP battles its political extensions.

Turkey’s Syria Calculations: The Kurdish Dimension

Turkish police blocks a recent pro-Assad, pro-Ocalan Kurdish demonstration in Hatay

Recently, Turkey’s judicial branch opened up a third front against Kurdish nationalism by initiating a court case against the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a quasi-state structure that was created in 2005 by the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, which operates like an executive branch with its own legislative, judicial, and security organs. The so-called “KCK-case” was initiated in 2009 and more than 1,800 people have been detained on charges of being members of the KCK structure.

As Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish nationalism continues, the extent to which it can shape the Kurdish opposition in Syria is dubious. It is obvious that Turkey has decided to focus most of its support on the activities of the Free Syrian Army and considers the group integral to its plans for a post-Assad settlement. While numerous Kurdish groups within the Kurdish National Council are either supportive or neutral to the idea of a Turkish intervention or Muslim Brotherhood influence, both prospects are fiercely rejected by the PYD. Though Turkey may rally the Kurdish National Council to act with the FSA, under Turkish influence, parts of the Kurdish nationalist opposition will inevitably be marginalized and excluded from the process.

The PYD’s rejection of Turkish involvement is related to the group’s links to the PKK. A high-ranking PYD member, Aldar Xelil, recently admitted to the PKK’s activity in Syria through its influence over the PYD. He did not deny the allegations that PKK members man checkpoints and conduct random ID checks. According to Xelil, the PKK also supports the Assad government and is actively exerting pressure on groups that take arms against the regime, including the FSA. Other Kurdish parties that are unaffiliated with the PKK have issued strong condemnations of the joint PKK-PYD support for the Assad government. The Kurdistan Future Party, founded by the assassinated Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo, recently issued a statement condemning the PYD for its authoritarian attitude towards the Kurds. Though the PYD maintains that the majority of the Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, the Kurdistan Future Party argues that anti-Assad sentiments unite all Syrian Kurds.

Therefore, the PYD’s marginalization has the potential to produce two main scenarios: First, with the cooperation of the PKK, the PYD can militarily challenge the FSA by acting as Assad’s militia on the Turkish-Syrian border. This could include a wide range of asymmetrical acts such as infiltration of the Hatay refugee camps, assassinations, kidnappings, ambush and espionage with the goal of disrupting the activities of the FSA. Recently, Turkish intelligence prevented a Syrian Mukhabarat kidnapping operation directed against an FSA leader in the Hatay camp.

In an alternative scenario, the PKK may dissolve its offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK)—which has operated against Iran since 2003—as a gesture of goodwill to Iran and subsequently offer the services of its other regional arbiter, the PYD, to Iranian interests in Syria. This could result in the ‘Hizballah-ization’ of the PKK in Syria and render the PYD a militant proxy of Iran: first as a Basij-like structure that performs police duties in the Kurdish parts of Syria, and second as a secular Kurdish nationalist version of Hizballah in Lebanon, engaging in militant warfare. If this second scenario proves to be accurate, in the case of Assad’s removal, the PYD will then assume a third character in Syria, engaging in grassroots political activities in order to increase their influence in the post-conflict legislature, while simultaneously focusing on social services to build grassroots support.

Both prospects explain the daunting nature of Turkey’s political calculations and sum up one of the most important factors as to why Turkey still hasn’t intervened decisively in Syria.



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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