Turkey, Wary About Kurdish Gains in Syria, Deploys Tanks

August 3, 2012 - 3:45 AM

Turkish tanks

Turkish Army in action. (Photo: Turkish Armed Forces website)

(Update: Adds comments from Amir Sharifi of the Kurdish American Education Society, and corrects caption)

(CNSNews.com) – Increasingly concerned that the emergence of Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern war-torn Syria will embolden its own large Kurdish minority, Turkey has deployed tanks along its nearby border and is looking to Iraqi Kurdish leaders for support.

A nightmare scenario for Ankara would be the establishment of a second autonomous Kurdish region, just across the border from its own Kurdish areas, breathing new life into a Turkish Kurd push for autonomy or independence.

The Obama administration has made it clear it does not support an autonomous Syrian Kurdish area, while cautioning Turkey against military operations across the border.

In recent weeks, a Syrian Kurdish group called the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken control of several parts of northern Syria, taking advantage of the Assad regime’s preoccupation with securing Damascus and other major cities against rebel forces.

Of particular concern to the Turkish government is the fact the PYD has close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group whose violent 28-year campaign for some form of autonomy in south-eastern Turkey has cost the lives of almost 40,000 people, three-quarters of them PKK members.

Ethnic Kurds are scattered across a huge swathe of territory, their current populations including some 15 million in Turkey, up to eight million in Iran, six million in Iraq and two million in Syria. Victims historically of British colonialism and Arab nationalism, together they comprise the largest people without a state – and with little support for one at the United Nations.

Turkey has at various times accused both Syria and Iraq of providing safe haven for PKK fighters (Syria in 1988 expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is now serving a life sentence in Turkey), and has periodically launched cross-border strikes against PKK camps in Iraq.

The prospect of a PKK-friendly autonomous Kurdish region emerging in Syria prompted Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to warn that Turkey would not tolerate developments there that would endanger its security.

On Wednesday, Turkish tanks and troops were deployed and held visible maneuvers along its border, directly across from Qamishli, the largest Syrian city now under PYD control.

The same day, Davutoglu visited the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region for more than three hours of talks with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has played a key role in trying to bring Syria’s Kurdish groups together.

Barzani last month hosted talks aimed at unifying Syrian Kurds against the Assad regime, succeeding in persuading the PYD – which had previously refused to cooperate with other Kurdish groups – to join a new body called the Supreme Kurdish Council.

In a joint statement after the Davutoglu-Barzani talks, the two agreed “that any attempt to exploit the power vacuum [in Syria] by any violent group or organization will be considered as a common threat, which should be jointly addressed.”

“The new Syria should be free of any terrorist and extremist group or organization,” the statement added, according to Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Davutoglu was diplomatic, but stressed that Turkey had made its expectations “very clear,” adding that the Barzani administration had “received our message.”

The PYD itself has tried to quell concerns about its intentions, issuing a statement Wednesday saying that the establishment of a “liberated Kurdish region” in northern Syria “should not be considered as a threat to the regional and global stability but as a constructive contribution to democracy, peace and stability in the region.”

“The [Syrian] Kurds are not separatist and have never had separatist intentions,” it added. “This is to declare that our goal is to democratically self-govern our regions within the geopolitical borders of the Syrian Republic.”

‘A slippery slope’

On Monday, the State Department’s point man for European and Eurasian affairs, Assistant Secretary Philip Gordon reiterated during a visit to Istanbul that the U.S. opposes autonomy for Syria’s Kurds.

“We don’t see for the future of Syria an autonomous Kurdish area or territory,” he said during a roundtable with Turkish journalists. “We want to see a Syria that remains united. We’ve been clear both with the Kurds of Syria and our counterparts in Turkey that we don’t support any movement towards autonomy or separatism, which we think would be a slippery slope.”

At the same time, after Turkey deployed tanks along the border the State Department urged caution.

“We are obviously in discussion with our Turkish ally constantly on Syria,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a briefing Wednesday when asked about the Turkish buildup.

“We continue to think that we don’t want to further militarize the situation,” he added. “We obviously understand that they have their national security interests as well, but we don’t think that further militarization right now is the way to go.”

Amir Sharifi, president of the Kurdish American Education Society and a lecturer at California State University, says the situation in northeast Syria holds both opportunity and risks for Syrian Kurds.

“The liberated areas offer a new possibility for emancipation and autonomy and yet they could also highlight the political peril that awaits Kurds in Syria,” he said in an analysis Thursday.

“While it is plainly understandable for Kurds to use the favorable circumstances to re-assert their legitimate historical rights, the regional and international response to proclaiming autonomy would appear to be ambivalent at best and hostile at worst.”

Sharifi argued that Western governments should be more aware and supportive of the Syrian Kurds’ plight.

“The Western world needs to be convinced that the Kurdish secular movement, to which it is oblivious, is far more progressive and liberal than the emerging retrograde forces in the region,” he said. “Western democracies cannot be insensitive to Kurdish universal rights and persuasive case.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned last week Turkey would act to prevent a PKK foothold in Syria.

“There can be no question of us permitting a terrorist organization to set up camp in northern Syria,” Anadolu quoted him as saying.

The PKK is designated as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law, and the Obama administration has stepped up its backing for the Erdogan government’s campaign against the group.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) in Istanbul in June that the U.S. “strongly” supports Turkey in its fight against the PKK.

The GCTF, a key Obama administration initiative launched last fall,  is co-chaired by the U.S. and Turkey.