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The Kurdish Spring in Turkey’s Backyard

photo: ~ Magne

The blowback of Turkey’s covert operations aimed at destabilizing the Syrian regime has begun surging. The spectre of an independent Kurdish entity on its Syrian border has come to haunt Turkey.

The challenge posed by the “Kurdish Spring” in northern Syria is of an existential character, but, ironically, the powers from far and near who encouraged Turkey to destabilize Syria are nowhere to be seen – incapable or unwilling to get involved in what could turn out to be a regional maelstrom.

An even bigger irony is that Turkey’s best allies in the region in the struggle against Kurdish separatism have traditionally been – and still could be – Iran, Iraq and Syria – but Ankara is no longer on friendly terms with any of them and the prospects of reconciliation seem a remote possibility at the moment.

Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt has found Turkey badly isolated in its region. The regional axis involving Turkey, Qatar and Egypt has overnight disintegrated and key Arab states view with disfavor the Turkish leadership’s affinities with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arab Spring mutates

After days of clashes with militant Islamists the town of Ras al-Ain in northeast Syria fell into the hands of Syrian Kurdish party known as the Democratic Union Party [PYD] last Tuesday. Ras al-Ain is situated bang on the Syrian border with Turkey. Two rocket-propelled grenades fired from the Syrian side in fact hit a border post on the Turkish side while “stray bullets” from Syria struck the police headquarters and several homes in the adjacent Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. Turkish security forces have returned the fire and Ankara has reinforced the deployment on the border region.

By the weekend, PYD leadership announced its intention to set up an independent council to run the Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria, which are under their control. Simply put, yet another Kurdish entity is taking shape alongside the Iraqi Kurdistan – this time on Turkey’s border region with Syria. The PYD has a well-armed and effective militia and is linked to the separatist Kurdish militant group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]. It is believed that the PKK leadership is dominated by Syrian Kurds. Unsurprisingly, Ankara dubs the PYD also as a “separatist terrorist organization”.

Curiously, the PYD’s main opponent in northeast Syria is the Arab Islamist group Nusra Front, affiliated with the al-Qaeda, which is opposed to Kurdish autonomy. Thus, arguably, Turkey’s security interest lies in the al-Qaeda group regaining the upper hand. To be sure, PKK has alleged that Ankara is “directly behind” the Nusra and its allies operating in northeast Syria.

Wars make strange bedfellows but the security situation in northeast Syria nonetheless brings starkly to the fore the contradiction that Ankara may have to look with hope at an al-Qaeda group as the only credible bulwark against the rising tide of Kurdish nationalism in that strategic region bordering Turkey’s Kurdish homelands. But then, Ankara is also responsible for unleashing the turmoil within Syria through the past two-year period. From a historical perspective, this is precisely the sort of entanglement with the Muslim Middle East that Turkey’s founding father Kemal Ataturk wanted his country to avoid at all costs.

The latest clashes between the PYD and Nusra becomes yet another reminder that the genie of Islamism is out of the bottle in Syria and no one is going to be able to put it back. Turkey is supportive of the Syrian Coalition and the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] but the Nusra has edged out the FSA from the battle zone in northeast Syria. The FSA, in fact, denounces the clashes between the Islamists and the Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria to avoid being “dragged into side battles that will definitely hinder the Syrian people from achieving their legitimate goals of obtaining freedom and building a new Syria for all Syrians”. But no one listens to the FSA in that part of Syria.

Meanwhile, there is also the regional subplot of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia playing out. The two countries fostered respective proxy groups among the Islamist groups operating in Syria. Qatar patronized the Nusra’s associates at one time and given the close partnership between Qatar and Turkey in destabilizing Syria, Turkish intelligence would have kept contacts with the extremist groups linked to Doha. This brings us back to the PKK’s allegation regarding Turkey’s links with the al-Qaeda affiliates in northeast Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has gone on record that Ankara cannot accept the latest developments in northeast Syria. He said cryptically, “Any such attempts – de facto or fait accompli – within Syria would increase the existing fragility in the country and cause more intense fighting… Turkey will respond instantly to any kind of possible threats, no matter where they come from”. But it is not a matter of security alone. In terms of Turkish domestic politics, too, Erdogan who is already under pressure from popular protests faces a serous crisis, since PYD’s power garb in Syria will only strengthen the hands of the PKK and in turn create complications for him at home. The point is, Erdogan has been pushing an incipient peace process with the Turkish Kurds, which also involved the established Kurdish parties as stakeholders in his agenda to draft a new constitution for Turkey under which he would get elevated as president in the 2014 poll. Erdogan was heavily banking on the support of the established Kurdish parties to lend him support to advance his game plan in the downstream of his reform package for addressing the longstanding Kurdish grievances of state discrimination and persecution.

Final warning

Without doubt, PKK gains “strategic depth” inside Syria thanks to this week’s developments, and it will now hope to negotiate with Erdogan’s government from a position of strength. Aside the psychological effect, PKK’s financial clout will also increase, as northeast Syria happens to be an oil-rich region. At any rate, an emboldened PKK issued a “final warning” to Erdogan’s government on Friday accusing it of “failing to take concrete steps” and to start implementing the reforms mutually agreed to end their 30-year conflict.

Under the planned reforms the PKK has already begun withdrawing its fighters from Turkey. As part of Erdogan’s peace efforts, Turkey is expected to abolish an anti-terrorism law (which provides for large-scale detention of PKK suspects) and allow Turkish children to be educated in their mother tongue. A wider democratization process on a parallel track demands a lowering of the electoral threshold so that Kurdish parties can be represented in the Turkish parliament under their banner rather than contest as independent candidates as has been the case so far. The PKK statement warned, “If concrete steps are not taken in the shortest time, on the subjects set out by our people and the public, the process will not advance and the AKP [Turkey’s ruling party] government will be responsible”.

To be sure, Ankara demands a full PKK withdrawal from Turkish territory as a precondition to move on to a democratization process that would ultimately include the release of all Kurdish political prisoners. Now, the mother of all ironies is going to be that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has snatched the initiative from Erdogan regarding the Kurdish problem that bedevils both countries. Although out of the political compulsion stemming from the ground that a large part of Syria is no longer under control of the government in Damascus, Assad is nonetheless setting a tough precedent (which Erdogan will find it hard to emulate) by showing the willingness to grant autonomy to Kurds in northern Syria. An announcement by Assad in this direction has been expected. The Turkish reported that Assad might agree to Kurdish autonomy in an area comprising seven districts including Haseki, Ras alAin, Afrin, Darbasiyya, Ain al-Arab and Kamishli and that the PYD flag will be raised along with the Syrian national flag in these regions on August 15.

If this happens, Kurds’ longstanding search for national identity will have taken a big step forward and Turkey would come under pressure to match the appreciable level of autonomy for Kurds that exists in Iraq and Syria. It is a disconcerting sight already for the Turks across the border to see the PYD flags fluttering at its offices just 50 meters away inside Syria from across the Turkish town of Ceylanlinar in Sanliurfa province. The fall of Ras al-Ain to Kurdish militants brought hundreds of elated Kurds onto the streets in Turkey’s own southeastern province of Cizre. Trouble duly followed and police had to respond with water cannon as protesters pelted armored vehicles with firecrackers and petrol bombs. Clearly, the PYD’s ascendancy in northern Syria has electrified the political atmosphere in Turkey’s Kurdish regions as well.

Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.

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