A Kurdish spillover: Violence in Turkey

The Syrian turmoil is causing great concerns for Turkey and relations with its Kurdish community.

Kurdish, Syria Protest (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurdish, Syria Protest (R370)
(photo credit: 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.”
Ankara indicated 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 integration policies.
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 period.
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 activity.
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 outposts.
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 practice.
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 again.
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.