Behind the Lines: Turks fear ‘Kurdish Spring’
Ankara facing the possibility of sharing long-term borders with two semi-sovereign Kurdish entities.
Kurds pose behind Kurdish flag Photo: Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters
Turkish forces have launched a major offensive in recent days against positions
held by the PKK rebel movement in the area of the Turkish-Iraqi border. Up to
2,000 troops are taking part in the operation, according to Turkish media
Turkey’s Interior Minister, Idris Naim Sahin, claimed that 115
Kurdish rebels had been killed by the Turkish security forces – an assertion
dismissed by the PKK, which itself claims to have killed up to 49 Turkish
The fighting has been going on since July 24, when the Turkish
army responded in force to a PKK attempt to seize control of the road between
the towns of Semdinli and Gerdiya. The authorities have closed off the area,
making it difficult to attain an accurate picture of events on the
A PKK media statement described the Semdinli area as an “area of
war,” involving “thousands of enemy soldiers and hundreds of guerrillas,” in
which Turkey is using “tanks, warplanes, helicopters and other military
Semdinli’s mayor, Sedat Tore, who is affiliated with the
Kurdish BDP party, told The Economist magazine that Semdinli’s residents are
currently surrounded by a “circle of fire.”
From the point of view of the
government in Ankara, however, the circle of fire is a Kurdish one, directed
against Turkey and currently increasing in its dimensions.
move comes at a time when Ankara is deeply concerned at the notable improvement
in the strategic position of the Kurds as a result of a series of regional
developments. Currently unable to influence events in Syria and Iraq, Ankara
appears to be trying to draw a line in the sand at its own border. Turkey is
seeking to scotch any attempt to foment unrest among Kurds in Turkey who might
feel emboldened as a result of the improving Kurdish position in Syria and
Turkey’s concerns, from its point of view, are easy to grasp.
Contrary to endless media reports that the situation in Syria has entered its
“endgame,” the civil war now under way in that country shows no signs of nearing
conclusion. Rather, the various sides are entrenching themselves in their
sectarian strongholds and preparing for a long and drawn-out
Central government in Syria no longer exists in a meaningful
sense. The Kurds of Syria’s northeast have taken advantage of the regime’s
desire to entrench and consolidate its forces. The Syrian Kurds are natural
opponents of the Arab nationalist Assad regime.
But there is also deep
suspicion of the Turkish-backed, Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syrian National
There is a strong desire in the Kurdish northeast of Syria to
stay out of the fight. Kurdish paramilitaries in that area have sought to
prevent the rebels of the Free Syrian Army from activity that could bring down
The regime is now seeking to concentrate its forces
in the most volatile and vulnerable areas and is pouring troops into the battle
for Aleppo. To free up personnel from its limited pool, it has carried out a
withdrawal from the main parts of Kurdish-dominated Hasakah
This area is now under the de facto control of a coalition of
Kurdish forces. These forces, in turn, are dominated by the PYD (Democratic
This is the franchise of the PKK among the Syrian Kurds.
The area now controlled by the coalition led by the PYD includes a long swathe
of the 900-kilometer border between Turkey and Syria. This raises the
possibility of a new front, directed by the PKK and its allies, from an area of
The PKK currently maintains its main stronghold in the
Qandil mountains between Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
Ankara is now dealing with the possibility of this situation being duplicated on
another of its borders.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan has
made clear that Turkey sees intervention against rebel bases in northern Syria
as its “most natural right.”
Turkish forces and missile batteries were
moved to positions adjacent to the Kurdish enclave in Syria in recent
Ankara maintains good relations with the Kurdish Regional
Government of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq. But Turkey was further concerned
by Barzani’s brokering in his capital, Erbil, of the agreement between the PYD
and the non-PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish factions of the KNC (Kurdish National
Council), which has made possible joint Kurdish control of the areas abandoned
Turkey’s political strategy appears to involve deepening relations with Barzani
and the KRG, while seeking to marginalize the PYD.
The PYD, for its part,
has sought to stress that Turkish concerns regarding the Syrian Kurds are
groundless and that its focus is on ensuring the security of its own community,
rather than seeking a base for military action against Turkey.
limited, military perspective, this is probably true. The land between northeast
Syria and Turkey is less suited for guerrilla actions than is the Qandil
mountain area. And Turkey’s track record suggests that it would not hesitate to
respond in force to any such actions.
But from a longer-term strategic
perspective, Turkey does indeed have grounds for concern. A series of events in
the Arab world over the last decade have for the first time put the borders in
place since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 seriously into question.
The Kurds, who were the central losers from those borders, are the main
beneficiaries of this.
The US invasion of Iraq allowed a semi-sovereign
Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq to come into existence.
while seeking normal relations with Turkey, also permits the use of its
territory by rebels engaged in an insurgency on behalf of Turkey’s large Kurdish
As a result of the outbreak of civil war in Syria, another
Kurdish enclave has emerged in Syria. This enclave is dominated by the sister
party to the PKK. But the Iraqi Kurds also exert influence there.
borders and the integrity of Arab states look more shaky than they have at any
time in living memory, Turkey faces the possibility of sharing long-term borders
with two semi-sovereign Kurdish entities.
The specter of eventual Kurdish
sovereignty and Turkish fear of this are also discernible in the
From this point of view, it becomes easy to understand why a move by
the PKK in the Semdinli area received such a furious response from the Turkish
state army. Ankara is utterly determined to prevent the extension of any Kurdish
Spring to its own 25-percent Kurdish minority, and will evidently employ
whatever measures and means it deems necessary to ensure this.