The Middle East Channel

The Kurdish dimension to Turkey’s Syria policy

As escalating numbers of Syrians flee across the Turkish border to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality, Turkey is stepping up diplomatic efforts to exert increased international pressure on the regime. While the international community is inclined to give Assad more time to implement Kofi Annan’s peace plan, Turkey feels that the urgency of the situation ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As escalating numbers of Syrians flee across the Turkish border to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality, Turkey is stepping up diplomatic efforts to exert increased international pressure on the regime. While the international community is inclined to give Assad more time to implement Kofi Annan’s peace plan, Turkey feels that the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have further escalated after shots fired across the border wounded four people in Turkey’s Kilis refugee camp and Syrian forces and Free Syrian Army fighters clashed over control of a nearby border gate. On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey would enact measures against the Assad regime if Damascus fails to abide by an April 10 deadline to cease violence. He did not outline what specific steps his government would take, but the likely scenario being floated by the press includes setting up a buffer zone along the border to protect refugees. No matter how Turkey responds to the Syrian crisis, however, it will not easily extract itself from the ongoing turmoil that the country is likely to experience in the months and years ahead. Syria’s geopolitical proximity, its Kurdish minority, and the economic, cultural, and strategic cooperation between the two countries raise the stakes for Turkey in finding a swift and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis.  

Syria occupies a central place in Turkey’s regional and domestic calculations for several reasons. Regionally, Syria has been a key component of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Domestically, engagement with the Syrian regime ensured Syrian cooperation on Turkey’s three-decade fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Assad’s brutal crackdown on his own people, however, forced Turkey to cut ties with its one-time ally and altered Turkey’s strategic calculations. Deteriorating security conditions in Syria, coupled with suspicions of Assad’s support for the PKK, have made the Kurdish issue the focal point in Turkey’s Syria policy. Nervous about spillover effects of the Syrian crisis, Turkish strategists lost no time in gaming out possible scenarios for Syria and how each might impact Turkey and its Kurdish question.

There are several scenarios for how the Syrian crisis might unfold. If Assad does not fall soon and somehow reasserts his control, Turkey might face several challenges. The most critical challenge would be posed by a strengthened PKK-Syria alliance. The deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations has already reawakened the mutual interest of Damascus and the PKK in using each other against Ankara. The Assad regime has granted several concessions to the PKK since Ankara cut ties with Assad. Saleh Muslim, the head of the PKK in Syria who lived for years in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, was allowed to return to Syria, marking the beginning of a new era in PKK-Syria relations, which had been suspended for 13 years since PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s expulsion from Syria in 1998. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, was allowed to operate freely, recruit new fighters for its campaign against Turkey, and undertake a pseudo-governmental role in Kurdish regions of Syria. In return, the PYD used its influence on Syrian Kurds to prevent their participation in the uprising. On several instances, the PYD harshly criticized the opposition Syrian National Council, called Kurds who joined the opposition "collaborators," and even attacked anti-regime demonstrators in Efrin and Aleppo. If the Assad regime survives, at least for a while, Damascus will continue to tolerate the PKK presence in Syria, which will make Turkey’s fight against the PKK more arduous.

Assad’s continued rule also carries the risk of the "PKK-ization" of the Kurdish opposition in Syria. Currently, Syria’s Kurds are fragmented over their stance on joining the anti-Assad opposition and their status in the post-Assad era. This fragmentation weakens moderate Kurdish groups’ hand and prevents their proactive participation in the uprising. If they continue to limit themselves to being mere spectators to the unfolding crisis, they may find themselves deprived of any long-term political gains in a post-Assad Syria, a development that will strengthen the PKK/PYD faction within Syria’s Kurds. This matters for Turkey for several reasons. There are significant cultural, linguistic, and historical ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey, as well as ideological affinities. Over one third of the PKK members, for instance, are of Syrian origin. The lengthy PKK presence in Syria under Hafez al Assad allowed organizational networks to emerge between the PKK and Syrian Kurdish parties. Therefore, radicalization within Syria’s Kurdish political movement might have a similar impact on Turkey’s Kurds.

Another challenge posed by continued Assad rule would be the increasing number of Syrian refugees on Turkey’s southern border. There are already more than 25,000 Syrian refugees living on the Turkish border, and Assad’s sustained grip on power will only exacerbate the refugee onslaught. Turkey fears that the refugee influx might contain PKK members and sympathizers settling in Kurdish cities along the Turkish border, and therefore radicalize the Kurdish political movement within Turkey. In an attempt to prevent PKK infiltration through Syrian refugees, Turkey stepped up the border patrols, increased the number of security personnel on the border, and issued ID cards for refugees.

If and when Assad leaves, however, Turkey will have more leverage over the new Syrian government. No matter who comes to power, Turkey-Syria cooperation against the PKK will be strengthened due to several factors. First, Turkey hosted the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and over 20,000 Syrian refugees who fled Assad’s violent crackdown and has been at the forefront of international efforts to pressure Assad to leave power. Second, considering the poor economic state of Syria due to a sharp drop in consumption, capital outflow, cancelled investments, and massive cash withdrawals, the Syrian economy will be desperate for investment from Turkey, a country with which Syria enjoyed close trade relations before the Arab spring. This dependency will force the new Syrian government to cooperate with Turkey in its fight against the PKK.

Additionally, a Muslim Brotherhood government in post-Assad Syria will be particularly sympathetic to the AKP. Ali al-Bayanouni, the head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2010, and the current leader Muhammed Riad al Shaqfa declared their willingness to adopt the "AKP model" recently. The Turkish government’s relatively early engagement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood reinforced the possibility of future collaboration between the two. As early as April 2011, long before Turkey asked Assad to step down, a press conference condemning the Assad regime was held in Istanbul by important Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Gazi Misirli, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader who has been living in Turkey and who has Turkish citizenship. A Muslim Brotherhood government would work closely with Turkey against the PKK.

The Syrian crisis poses a challenge to Turkey economically, strategically, and politically, but the main issue for Turkey in Syria remains the status of the Kurds. Any unrest among Syria’s Kurdish population or the prospect of autonomy is Turkey’s worst nightmare. The PYD in Syria calls for autonomy of the Kurdish regions, but Syrian Kurds’ reluctance to join the anti-Assad movement is likely to prevent any political gains for them once Assad is gone. The Syrian National Council has given some assurances to Kurds, but Burhan Ghalioun, the chairman of the SNC, made it clear that full-fledged federalism would not be accepted. Discontent from the Syrian Kurdish community in the post-Assad era remains a possible scenario, however, if the new Syrian government maintains a grudge against the Kurds for not supporting the revolution.

Turkey cannot afford a protracted civil war in Syria. Given the prospect of an enhanced PKK threat and a mass influx of Syrian refugees across its border, the stakes for Turkey in resolving the Syrian conflict are extremely high. Given the international community’s demonstrated lack of consensus on diplomatic intervention and lack of appetite for military involvement, Turkey may be forced to direct the effort toward curbing the Assad regime. That includes the prospect of sending Turkish troops to the border, something it has been reluctant to consider. The crisis in Syria will put Ankara’s much-touted regional influence to the test. How it responds to this test remains to be seen.

Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

Gonul Tol is the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies.

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