Special Reports






The Turkish government has taken a clear position against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, despite the fact that bilateral relations had been very close before the eruption of the Syrian revolt in March 2011. The Turkish stance against Syria has important regional implications as the tension has reached such a degree that there is growing concern of an escalation of direct Turkish involvement into what has, so far, been a Syrian civil war.

Nevertheless, fears of Turkish interventionism against Damascus, should be tempered by a resurgence of Kurdish attacks within Turkey and the fact that this phenomenon is linked to the Syrian situation. Indeed, the Syrian civil war has had the effect of highlighting the Kurdish Question itself, because the Kurds have a strong stake in the outcome of the conflict. The Kurds, an Indo-European ethnic group, are the largest of the stateless peoples in the world; there are 30 million of them, divided between four neighbouring countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are victims of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after WW1 and whilst claiming sovereignty, they have never achieved statehood. The Kurds have always faced discrimination by these respective governments but they are starting to gain ground. Despite the differences that exist between the various factions, based on political orientation and region of provenance, they are witnessing the most significant opportunity to materialize their national aspirations in modern history. In post-Ottoman Turkey, President Ataturk strengthened the idea of loyalty to the State to make up for the humiliations related to the loss of the empire. The side effect of this policy was a determination to crush any idea or group that could potentially weaken or compromise that loyalty. This evidently translated to a hatred of the cultural and ethnic pluralism that previously characterized the Ottoman Empire, in favor of total – and forced – assimilation, prompting Kurdish resistance and the rise of the armed struggle that has continued against the Turkish State, since 1984.

The ‘Arab Awakening’ has had repercussions insofar as the Kurdish national conscience is concerned. Encouraged by masses of normal citizens challenging seemingly impenetrable security forces, the Kurds have also been sensing the opportunity for change, or in their case, the materialization of their nationalistic aspirations. The dismantling of dictatorships – though it is not yet clear what the final outcome will be – in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya; the American triggered collapse of the Baath party in Iraq and the struggle in Syria, has rekindled the hopes for freedom - or freedom as nationalism.

The authoritarian regimes of the recent Middle Eastern past, had suppressed rights and ethnic identities in their effort to foster unity in what were essentially states (with arbitrarily assigned borders by the western powers), that carved up the post-Ottoman countries. Certainly, should the ‘awakening’ reach Iran, the Kurdish question will become all the more urgent as it would imply a significant geopolitical overhaul, ripe with the historic opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past, ultimately securing the recognition of their right to self determination.

Iraqi Kurds have been the first to claim autonomy- and to receive a measure of this, as the greatest beneficiaries of the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime; Syrian Kurds, still working within the limits of an existing dictatorial State, have looked to federalism; whilst those in Turkey demand full autonomy within a loose federal association. Iranian Kurds meanwhile, were the first to ever proclaim an independent Kurdish State, the Mahabad Republic, in 1946, only for this to be crushed by the Iranian army less than a year afterwards.

Their dispersion in different neighbouring states has helped to generate a 'divide and rule' reality, which has translated to a failure to agree to a single political program or approach for autonomy. They all dream of a united Kurdish state, but they disagree on the method. It might be said that the Israeli strategy vis-ŕ-vis the Palestinians has been rather similar and achieved the political discord that will only end up working against unity.

Nevertheless, the dream of self-determination has come alive and the cards in the region are reshuffling in such a way as to give the Kurds unprecedented leverage, to pursue nationhood. The Kurds are betting on different horses. In Iraq, they are hoping to woo Turkey into developing closer ties to Erbil than with Baghdad, using crude oil as the lubricant. The Syrian Kurds are playing off the various warring parties, currently drawing benefits from the regime, which uses them as bait to ward off Turkish (and NATO) plans to intervene in its civil war on the side of the rebels. The Iranian Kurds, meanwhile, are quietly observing what is happening around them, in the expectation that the ‘awakening’ or ‘spring’ will soon be coming to them - rather than the other way around.

The Syrian crisis is very important to Turkey’s national interest because of the implications that it has for ‘their’ Kurds. The Asad regime has secured closer ties to one of the most active Kurdish separatist groups, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has coincidentally stepped up attacks against police and military targets in south-eastern Turkey. The Syrian crisis could materialize Turkey’s worst nightmare, which is to give birth to a wider Kurdish State within Syria to expand along Turkey’s southeastern border, where 12 million of Turkey’s ethnic Kurd citizens live. The Syrian’s use of a ‘Kurdish card’ and the de-facto political autonomy of the Kurds in Iraq, together with Iran’s encouragement of Kurds against Turkey along the northwestern Iran frontier are converging to bring the ‘nightmare’ closer to reality.

The last time relations between Syria and Turkey reached the danger of a direct military confrontation, was in 1998. The president was Hafez al-Asad and the ‘casus belli’, was Syria’s then support for the (Kurdish) PKK. Damascus and Ankara would eventually defuse the situation, with Turkey withdrawing the troops it had massed along the Turco-Syrian border - this after Damascus stopped backing the PKK in exchange for a full normalization of relations with Ankara. Syria used that accord to climb its way back into a re-integration within the ‘international community’, a process, that apart from the 2005-2006 events related to the murder of (Lebanese) Rafiq al-Hariri; and the Israeli-Hezbollah war of August 2006, had reached a peak in the months preceding the start of the revolt in Dara’a. If Turkey has not intervened in Syria, yet – and will likely not do so – it is because of the Kurdish minorities living within and just beyond its borders. Starting in August, the Syrian army has withdrawn from the northern border leaving its control to the Kurds, a two million strong minority in Syria, organized under the Democratic Union Party, founded in 2003 by Kurdish nationalists and linked to the PKK. The almost total lack of skirmishes between the Kurds and the Syrian army should indicate the existence of a tacit, if not formal, accord, indicating an actual strategy in Damascus in its ongoing chess match with Turkey. The Asad regime also granted Syrian citizenship to over 200,000 Kurds in the first months of the revolt in 2011; this was the first such event since the 1963 census.

The American invasion of Iraq and the religious civil strife it sparked, also had repercussions for Turkey, which boosted the number of troops along the Turco-Iraqi border, threatening to invade the increasingly autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. Whilst Turkey has secured a diplomatic understanding with Iraqi Kurdistan, the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria raises a significant threat to Ankara. The risk is that the Syrian Kurds could gain support from the regional Iraqi Kurdish government, to establish a similar enclave within Syria. The fact that the Kurds have been rather reluctant to join the anti-Asad struggle suggests that the Syrian regime has been able to manipulate this minority to ward off the Turkish threat. This process has already become plausible; some Kurdish militias have already been allowed to take full control of northwestern parts of Syria and in the eventuality of a collapse of the Baathist government in Damascus, the Kurds would formalize their autonomy from Syria. This is as good a definition of Turkey’s nightmare as any - a double-whammy, because the Turkish Kurds would be encouraged to stage a more determined struggle against Turkey in the hopes of either securing their own autonomy, or reaching the even more ambitious goal of achieving an independent and united Kurdish State.( Apart from Turkey, Israel would also consider this a risk, as it would encourage Palestinians to be more determined in their own struggle for independence).

“The Kurdish Question” has become the Asad regime’s safety net. The Kurds are certainly one of the main reasons why the West remains so reluctant to get involved in Syria; the implications of the regime’s collapse for Kurdish independence are unpalatable to both regional and international powers. In order to trump the Asad regime’s Kurdish game, Turkey would have to offer the PKK concessions that are politically impossible in the short term. The PKK has engaged in too much violence for too long –some 27 years- to allow Ankara to suddenly be clement, or to promise collaboration; it would be politically untenable and fuel dissent in the military ranks.

Ironically, Iraqi Kurdistan has flourished thanks to Turkish investment, which is the most significant in the region. The Kurds, in turn, need Turkey’s goodwill because they ship their main resource, crude oil, through pipelines that link Turkey’s and Kurdistan’s fates. Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) needs Ankara and vice-versa. Nevertheless, there is no evidence or reason to trust that Turkish investment in Iraqi Kurdistan has detracted the Iraqi Kurds from giving up on the wider Kurdish independence project. The PKK, led by the jailed Abdullah Ocalan, is further encouraged by the fact that the ‘autonomy’ formula is as, or more acceptable now, than the sovereign State one.

October 2012            Alessandro Bruno - MENA contributor to Newnations