A Kurdish spillover: Violence in Turkey
The Syrian turmoil is causing great concerns for Turkey and relations with its Kurdish community.
Kurdish and Syrian opposition flags Photo: REUTERS
On July 30, the Turkish Armed Forces began sending armored units and missile
batteries to the Syrian border, reinforcing defenses against the ongoing
violence taking place there. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK)
violent activity against Turkey has reached a point where the terrorist
organization continues attacks in one of Turkey’s southeastern districts,
continually over the course of about a week.
Furthermore the PKK has
managed to create de facto political control over some Kurdish-populated
provinces of Syria by even raising its so-called “flag.”
that it will not refrain from taking action should the Kurds stage attacks
against Turkey from there.
On August 1, the Turkish Foreign Minister
visited Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern
Iraq, to ask for help to limit the PKK’s presence in Syria, and the Syrian
Kurds’ autonomy demands. However, it might be impossible to put the genie back
into the bottle.
Under Turkish Foreign Minister Prof. Davutoglu’s
Stratejik Derinlik (strategic depth) paradigm in Turkish foreign policy, Syria
appeared as a source of great expectations and ambitious ideals. First, Ankara
tried to restore its imperial influence in its neighbor through neo-Ottomanist
Then, as the Arab Spring threatened Bahrain’s Sunni
Monarchy and the Allawite dominated Baathist regime of Damascus, this
conjuncture triggered sectarian fault lines in the Middle East, and forced
Turkey to take a Sunni-centric position.
This time, Davutoglu’s strategic
vision shifted to take advantage of the Gulf States’ threat perceptions
resulting from Iran’s rising political-military influence in the region and the
emergence of a sort of the Shiite crescent, stretching from Tehran to Lebanon
via Syria. Thereby, Turkey aimed to topple Tehran’s closest ally which would
turn Syria into the backyard of Ankara and declare the Turkish government as the
undisputed source of leadership of the Sunni block.
However, the rise of
the Kurds, especially the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD), the third
round of the Syrian dilemma is now about to become a nightmare for Turkey’s
national security. The rise of the PKK threat and the spillover of Kurdish
separatism is a sophisticated, complex factor. The Kurdish terrorist
organization has succeeded in surviving and adaptng to completely different
status quos in the Middle East. It prevailed, despite dramatic shifts such as
the end of the Cold War, the first and the second Gulf Wars, and the post 9/11
It is not a monolithic entity, and there are many wings which are
under the influence and control of several actors.
The PKK militants are
of Syrian-Kurdish origin, and there is a strong Syrian influence in the armed
wing of PKK, known as the HPG.
Like Syria, Iran also has leverages in PKK
through its Qud’s Force. For decades the cunning leadership of the separatist
organization has managed to operate against Turkey, an important NATO power, and
got along when negotiating with dangerous regimes such as Saddam’s and Assad’s
tyrannies. Now, through dominating the Turkish border areas of north Syria, PKK
is setting a trap for Turkey.
Since Ankara has boosted its support to the
Syrian opposition, there has been a meaningful uptick in PKK
Furthermore, at the outset of the uprising the PKK helped Assad
in suppressing Kurdish opposition and controlling the north of the country. In
return, Assad broke the 1998 Adana Agreement between Ankara and Damascus, which
states that “Syria will not allow the supply of weapons, logistical material and
financial support to and the propaganda activities of the PKK on its territory,”
and supported the terrorist organization as a leverage and deterrence factor
against the Turkish leadership.
In June, Turkish strategists woke up from
the dream of neo-imperial hegemony when they saw PKK flags and posters of
Abdullah Ocalan (its currently imprisoned terrorist leader), raised over the
Kurdish-populated border towns of Syria.
Furthermore, last month, the
PKKaffiliated PYD pragmatically came to an agreement with pro-Barzani elements
of the Syrian-Kurdish opposition and took control of some towns near the Turkish
border. Considering the tense situation, KRG is sober for avoiding Turkey’s
outrage, but on the other hand, when it comes to protecting the Syrian Kurdish
fait accompli, it seemed quite determined to risk an armed clash with Iraqi
Security Forces when Baghdad tried to seize control of the Iraqi border with
Syria’s Kurdish-dominated provinces last week.
Meanwhile, PKK violence
has shown an unusual increase for about a week in Turkey’s southeastern
provinces. Particularly in Shemdinli, the terrorist organization seems to have
adopted a different concept which seeks to claim control over border districts
instead of waging classic hit-and-run tactics against the Turkish Military’s
By embracing such a course of action, it is argued, the Kurdish
organization intends to integrate its efforts with the Kurdish takeover in
Syria’s northern provinces as well as the consolidation of KRG’s power vis-a-vis
Baghdad. Thus, it aims to dictate a “Kurdish Spring” to Turkey in parallel with
Arab uprisings in the region.
The trajectory of events in Syria point to
two probable outcomes in a near future. First, the Baathist dictatorship will
not be able to survive for long; and second, Syria’s unity will be largely
questionable after Assad’s demise.
If the PKK successfully takes
advantage of the power vacuum upon the collapse of the Baathist regime, it may
gain a significant upper hand in its separatist campaign. First, the terrorist
organization might create another Northern Iraq style zone, and this is an
indispensable geo-strategic parameter in the lowintensity conflicts’ theory and
Second, political control over Syrian Kurdish provinces via PYD
might provide legitimacy to the terrorists to some extent, which they would
enjoy in relation to Turkey if Ankara and PKK resume negotiations
Finally – and most importantly – Kurdish autonomy with a border
with Iraqi Kurdistan would inevitably create momentum and may trigger a
spillover effect towards Turkey.
In a possible Lebanonization of Syria,
Davutoglu’s foreign-policy paradigm would face a harder mission than restoring
the empire, but keeping Turkey’s national unity.
The writer, who served
as a post-doctoral fellow for the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at
Bar-Ilan University, holds a Ph from the Turkish War College, and a master’s
degree from the Turkish Military Academy.