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Turkey's Syria policy backfires

As Syria's crisis deepens, Turkey is greatly concerned about a PKK-controlled Kurdish state in Turkey's immediate neighborhood. Ankara's fear is not a Greater Kurdistan, but a PKK-controlled semi-state, analysts say.

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Ankara's support for a regime change in Syria has started to backfire, threatening Turkey's own national security, with Syrian Kurdish groups forming a de facto state in the north of Syria.

Turkish media reported last week that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with its alleged Syrian branch the Democratic Union Party (PYD), took control of several provinces on Turkey's border. Several reports published photos of Kurdish flags and posters of the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan flying from buildings in northern Syria towns.

"We will not allow the formation of a terrorist structuring near our border," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish media on Sunday. "We reserve every right.... No matter if it is al-Qaeda or PKK we would consider it a matter of national security and take every measure," said Davutoglu.

Alarm bells ringing

The PKK's growing influence in Syria border has alarmed Turkey, prompting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convene a security summit with senior government and security officials. Following the meeting, he accused the Syrian regime of allowing the PKK a free hand in the north of the country and warned that Ankara would not hesitate to strike.

"Recent developments have come as an unpleasant surprise to Turkish officials," Deniz Zeyrek, foreign policy columnist of the liberal left daily newspaper Radikal, told DW. "When Syrian Kurdish groups distanced themselves from the Assad regime, Turkey welcomed this development. But Ankara did not expect these Kurdish groups would soon unite around the PKK-affiliated political groups," he said.

Turkey has been fighting against the PKK since 1984, and the conflict has so far claimed some 45,000 lives. The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Ankara and by much of the international community, enjoyed the support of Damascus during the 80's and 90's. Since early 2000, the PKK has been effectively using its bases in the mountainous region of northern Iraq. With its growing influence and strength in Syria's Kurdish populated regions, the PKK is now seen working toward an autonomous administration, or even an independent "Western Kurdistan" in Syrian territories.

Helal Kurdistany, a member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, warms herself by the fire at their camp in the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border with northern Iraq

Turkey is concerned about the PKK's growing influence

Autonomy in Turkey

The recent developments have also sparked stronger demands by Turkish Kurds from Ankara and further increased tension in Turkey's southeast region.

Diyarbakir Major Osman Baydemir, an influential Kurdish politician in Turkey, recently called for a new political and administrative status for Kurd. "The only way ahead is the creation of autonomous Kurdistan regions in Turkey, in Syria and in Iran, just as the one in Iraq," Baydemir said. "For sure there will soon be an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria," he stressed, suggesting the abolition of borders among these entities, the creation of a customs union, and a new political partnership with the regional countries, including Turkey.

Syria is home to some 2 million Kurds. In Iraq, the Kurdish population is around 5 million and in Iran, 5.5 million. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population, estimated to be around 15 million.

For years, Turkey's Kurds were deprived of their basic political and cultural rights. In the course of its EU membership process, particularly in the last decade, Turkey has expanded political and cultural rights for its Kurdish citizens. But Ankara strictly opposes demands for Kurdish autonomy. Turkish public opinion is highly suspicious of Kurdish movements in the region and see them as a threat to Turkey's territorial integrity.

Deployment on the border

As concerns grow in Turkey about a PKK-controlled Kurdish state in Syria, the Turkish military has stepped up its deployment on the border.

Despite Turkey's moves, analysts do not foresee an immediate military cross-border operation which would further complicate the crisis. Ankara's first option is to use all diplomatic and political channels to isolate the PKK and the affiliated PYD group in Syria.

A Turkish military truck transports a mobile missile launcher to the Syrian border, near Kilis, Turkey

Turkey is stepping up its military deployment along the border with Syria

According to some Turkish analysts, the growing concern of Turkish officials is not so much the prospect of a Greater Kurdistan, which they see as unlikely, but the PKK's increasing role and strength in Syria.

"Turkish officials are saying that they will not remain silent about a Kurdish administration in Syria under the control of the PKK," columnist Zeyrek said. "But they say that Turkey will establish a dialogue with a possible new Kurdish entity in Syria, resembling the regional government in Iraq."

For years Turkey has feared the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and has tried to prevent Kurdish groups there from forming an autonomous regional government. But soon after the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was established and gained international acknowledgement after it democratically adopted the Iraqi constitution, the Turkish government changed its policy.

Today, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Massud Barzani, is an important political ally for Turkey, not only with his efforts to eliminate the threat by the PKK but also on the Syria crisis.

'Dead-end street'

A Free Syrian Army soldier waves Syrian opposition flag at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing to Turkey

Turkey is fighting several fronts at the same time

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will visit Erbil on Wednesday and meet Barzani, where he is expected to ask the Iraqi Kurdish leader to use his influence on Syrian Kurds and persuade them not to cooperate with the PKK.

According to Cengiz Candar, a senior foreign policy analyst, Turkey's efforts are like "a journey in a dead-end street."

"Turkey is trying to solve its own Kurdish problem, as well the Syrian Kurdish problem, with the help of Massud Barzani. This is mission impossible," Candar wrote in his column in Turkey's Hurriyet daily. "The Turkish state is deceiving itself and public opinion."

According to Candar, Kurds will have a "new status" with the formation of a new state in the post-Assad era and there are suggestions that Barzani will come to an implicit agreement with the PKK in order to maintain his influence in the region.

"This process of change in Syria is inevitable," Candar said. "And if the Turkish government wants to turn this change into an advantage for itself, it should first take genuine steps to solving its own Kurdish problem."

Author: Ayhan Simsek
Editor: Rob Mudge

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