Turkey’s New Nightmare as Kurds Mobilize in Syria

With his grip over Syria apparently loosening, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has abandoned the border area between Syria and Turkey, allowing Kurdish militants to take control of several towns in northern Syria. The development heightens the possibility of involvement by Iraqi Kurds as well as by Turkey, introducing new tensions to the Syrian conflict.

“Syria is fragmenting, and for the first time in recent history Kurds are taking matters into their own hands,” said Hugh Pope, Turkey and Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group. Pope explained that it is still unclear whether Syrian Kurds will unite to push for full rights within the Syrian state or whether they will work toward an autonomous Syrian Kurdish solution. “Certainly, the most important trend line, as can be seen on Kurdish Twitter feeds, is the sense that Syrian Kurds, like the Iraqi Kurds before them, are at last breaking through to some self-rule and international sympathy.”

Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, said the developments potentially represent “the beginning of the redrawing of Middle Eastern boundaries.”

“The Kurds will drive a hard bargain and want a federal arrangement of some sort for themselves,” he added.

However, Michael Gunter, an expert on Kurds in Turkey and Iraq and professor of political science at Tennessee Tech University, said he thinks it is unlikely the Syrian Kurds will be able to create an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria.

“The Kurds in Syria are a relatively small minority compared to Turkey, and especially compared to Iraq and Iran,” he said. “Not only do they make up only 10 percent of the population, but they are also divided geographically and ideologically.”

Given these divisions, Pope said, it is possible the Syrian Kurds will “fragment themselves and fight among each other,” particularly since the Democratic Union Party of Syria (PYD), which is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has an ideology and perspective that sets it apart from other Syrian Kurds.

For now, Pope added, the Syrian Kurds have put many of their differences aside, working under the aegis of Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Barzani has supported Syrian Kurds in part by providing military training to Kurdish defectors from the Syrian military.

With Syria imploding, Gunter said, Barzani is “practically being handed” the key to the pan-Kurdish state so many Kurds desire.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently warned that he would not hesitate to intervene in response to any threat to Turkey from PKK-linked Kurdish groups in northern Syria. And today, Turkey announced that Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu would be heading to Irbil to express Ankara’s displeasure over Barzani’s decision to provide military training to Syrian Kurds.

“Many Syrian Kurds living near the border come from Turkey, and it is particularly upsetting to Turkey to know that right on their border there are Turkish exiles who are thinking of maybe coming home and reclaiming the homeland,” Gunter said. “But the most immediate problem is that this newfound Kurdish autonomy in Syria right on the Turkish border is an unwanted magnet for the Kurds living in Turkey who are so restless anyway.”

Pope said that despite its warnings, Turkey will likely stay on the sidelines “as long as the PKK sister party PYD remains in a front with the other Kurds, and does not threaten or attack Turkey.”

“Ankara, too, is focused on the major prize of how and when the Damascus regime will change,” he explained.

Indeed, according to Barkey, it would be a disaster for Turkey to get involved militarily, especially to contain Syrian Kurds. “It will unite many against Ankara, and Turks will be sucked in,” he added. “I think [the Turks] know it and are smart enough to avoid it. Sometimes, though, events have a way of getting ahead of you.”

It is unclear how the developments among Syrian Kurds could affect Assad’s prospects.

Gunter said it might be the final element that “pushes Assad off the edge,” whereas Pope emphasized that “events among the Kurds do not have critical resonance in the major cities of Syria, where the Assad regime’s fate will be decided.”

Either way, Barkey said, what is happening among Syria’s Kurds is indicative of a new and growing reality in the region.

“The world has changed, and the Arab world is at the beginning of its own transformation,” he said. “As difficult as it may seem for majority and minority populations to [get] along in the region, the Arab Spring will finally force the region to start dealing with it, and the Kurds are an integral part of this.”

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