Turkey Playing with Fire in Syria

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent

Following recent heavy clashes between Kurdish militants known as the “People's Protection Units” and the terrorist elements of the Al-Nusra Front in the city of Ras Al-Ayn in northern Syria close to the Arab country’s common border with Turkey, Al-Nusra militants have been forced to withdraw from some of their positions. Subsequently, it was announced in Turkey that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, which is an offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has gained control of the region and seeks to establish an autonomous government there. As a result, the Turkish army was put on high alert and deployed its forces to the border area with Syria. Ankara has announced that it considers the announcement of autonomy by the Syrian Kurds along its southern border as a threat to Turkey’s national interests. Later on, Turkey’s fighter jets flied across the border region while military and political leaders of the country convened a special meeting to discuss the developments in Ras Al-Ayn. Given the situation in Syria and in view of the power vacuum in certain parts of the Arab country, including some Kurdish ethnic regions in Syria, the aforesaid developments may seem to be quite normal. In reality, however, this issue is by no means as simple as it looks on the surface. The announcement of autonomy in Ras Al-Ayn can be discussed from a number of viewpoints:

1. A Kurdish approach to the issue of autonomy;
2. A Syrian approach to the issue of autonomy; and
3. A Turkish approach to the issue of autonomy.

It goes without saying that every one of the above approaches follows a specific set of goals and this is why this issue has already aroused so much sensitivity. Judged by the recent remarks of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – who has warned against the announcement of autonomy by Syrian Kurds and has described it unacceptable – one may ask what is the real approach of Turkey to developments in the Kurdish areas of Syria? In an impartial assessment away from prejudgment, one may claim that Kurdish People's Protection Units and its military moves are considered by Ankara as a cover for the Democratic Union Party, which is affiliated to the PKK. In better words, Turkey believes that the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has used those units as a cover-up for its operations against the militants fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, especially Al-Nusra Front. Otherwise, in reality, there are no such popular units of Syrian Kurds which would move in line with the interests of Assad’s government.

Turkey strongly believes that the announcement of autonomy by Kurds in Syria has been done in full coordination with the government of Bashar Al-Assad in order to strengthen the central government in Syria. At the same time, the measure aims to remind Turkey that it is playing with fire in Syria and if the foreign-backed Syrian opposition, the Arab world as well as the Western countries tried to put more pressure on the Syrian government, Damascus would be able to use this leverage against the government of Turkey. Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria can, in fact, be part of this plan which aims to intensify rivalries between Syria and Turkey, especially taking into account that there is no doubt about the cooperation between Syrian Kurd’s Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey. Of course, all Kurdish groups in Syria are not unanimous about all issues and, at least, one faction of Kurds exists which believes that regardless of the final turn of the ongoing developments in Syria, it would not be possible to build a new centralized power structure at the end of the crisis. Therefore, they argue that the Kurds in Syria should get ready for a new power structure similar to what has been created in the neighboring Iraq following the ouster of the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, which led to the establishment of Kurdistan Regional Government.

Therefore, if the recent political and military developments in Ras Al-Ayn are taken into account from a Kurdish viewpoint, it would be clear that the Democratic Union Party thinks the time is ripe to exercise what will await it in the future. As a result, it would not be unrealistic to assume that the recent clashes between this party and Al-Nusra Front as well as other radical Islamic groups which are fighting against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, have their roots in the group’s interests, which in this specific case are common with the interests of the central government. Of course, this does not mean that the group is being supported in its move by the Syrian government. This is the main reason behind Turkey’s extreme concern because Ankara believes that if Kurds take full control of Ras Al-Ayn and expel the Al-Nusra forces, it would finally have a negative effect on Turkey’s national security. On the other hand, since the peace negotiations between the PKK and the government of Justice and Development Party in Turkey have actually hit a dead end, if PKK manages to secure a firm base in northern Syria, it would be able to appear more recalcitrant in subsequent talks with Ankara. It will also increase the risk of the overflow of the Syria crisis and the issue of Kurds into Turkey. Such possible risks are potent enough to cause the ongoing civil war in Syria to spread into Turkey though the issue of Kurds. In that case, the government of Bashar Al-Assad will benefit from such state of events, at least, in the short run.

It is exactly as a result of such considerations that Syria’s approach to the developments in Ras Al-Ayn and declaration of autonomy by Syrian Kurds can be correctly understood. The government of Bashar Al-Assad can easily use the Kurds as a factor to cause problems for Turkey and force it to modify its positions on Syria. At the same time, because Kurds are Sunnis, Syria is trying to give limited, and controllable, concessions to its Kurdish population in order to refute allegations about the sectarian nature of the war in Syria. Turkey and some Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have been alleging that the ongoing war in Syria is a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. By doing so, the Syrian government will be able to foil such claims and depict the war as a conflict between a legitimate government and the armed opposition groups that are receiving weapons and financial aid from other countries. Of course, such a plan may intentionally ignore the ethnic dimension of the war or prevent its importance from being understood correctly. However, under the current conditions which the government of Bashar Al-Assad is facing, the ethnic factor of Kurds is more controllable than the risk of depicting the situation as an all-out sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis. Therefore, Turkey’s concern is not totally unfounded because it is conceivable that some sort of coordination may exist between the goals of the Democratic Union Party of the Syrian Kurds and the central government of Bashar Al-Assad.

At any rate, there is also a more realistic approach to this issue which goes beyond the limited viewpoints of the Syrian Kurds, the government of Syria, as well as the Turkish government. In this approach, the issue of declaration of autonomy by the Syrian Kurds in Ras Al-Ayn is considered from a wider angle compared to the past. As a result, regardless of what happens in Syria – whether the central government will finally subdue its armed opposition, or the opposition will have the upper hand over the government, or a regional and international solutions is finally found to the crisis – the reality on the ground is that Syria will never go back to the situation it was before the crisis. Subsequently, the Syrian Kurds will no longer be considered unrecognized nationals of this country. Therefore, Turkey or any other country in the region which is faced with the issue of ethnic and religious minorities will sooner or later face problems if it fails to understand or underestimate the realities as they are and in the way that they are playing their part. Since Turkey was one of the parties fanning the flames of crisis in Syria, it will most probably have to deal with the spillover of that crisis onto its territory much sooner than its leaders may expect. This is especially true if Ankara is tempted to use the military power to prevent the autonomy of the Syrian Kurds in which case, there should be no doubt that Turkey would find itself entangled in a serious crisis.

Key Words: Turkey, Syria, Ras Al-Ayn, Al-Nusra Front, Democratic Union Party, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Mollazehi

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