By Dorian Jones
In a display of muscle-flexing, Turkish tanks this week carried out military exercises on the Syrian border, just a few kilometers away from towns that Syrian Kurds had seized from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The seizure of the Kurdish towns sent alarm bells ringing in the Turkish capital. “It took a lot of people by surprise in Ankara. It is one of the toughest and serious issues in the last period of Turkish history,” said Metehan Demir, a military expert and columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet.
“The capture of Kurdish towns in Syria is perceived by Kurdish groups in Turkey as the signal for [a] future autonomous Kurdish region on Turkey’s border, which is seen as the start of [a] wider Kurdish state, including Iran, Iraq and Turkey,” Demir added.
Turkey has a restive Kurdish minority, accounting for around 20 percent of its population of 73.6 million. Since 1984 Ankara has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is fighting for greater Kurdish rights. Many of its fighters are drawn from Syria’s Kurdish minority. Adding to Ankara’s angst, the PKK flag was raised in one of the seized Syrian towns.
“We will not allow the formation of a terrorist structure near our border,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told a Turkish television channel on July 29. “We reserve every right . . . No matter if it is al-Qaeda or the PKK. We would consider it a matter of national security and take every measure.”
The tough words are seen as a government attempt to assuage anger, bordering on panic in sections of the country’s often-nationalist media.
“This is because Ankara had not prepared the Turkish public for this event. I cannot believe Ankara was surprised,” said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “Syrian Kurds are going to look after their own self-determination. They will seek to achieve at least autonomy. We had this coming for a long, long time.”
Since the seizure of the Syrian towns, Turkish armed forces with armor have been sent to Turkey’s border with the Syrian Kurdish region. “Turkey will see and understand whether this territory is a matter of right of the Kurds, or a base of the PKK,” warned Hürriyet’s Demir. “Depending on this situation, Turkey might actually carry out an operation.”
Any military action by Turkey, Ozel believes, would be counterproductive. “I think that would be close to a suicidal move as I can imagine,” he said. “Because I am not quite sure that the Turkish military is ready to take on yet another enemy . . . Turkey would be fighting a war on two, or even three fronts, if the Iraqi Kurds were involved.”
For now, Ankara appears to be looking to diplomacy rather than force. The semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan regional government shares a border with Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish region. In the past few years, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party has developed close ties with the region and with Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.
“There is now a very close dialogue between Ankara and Barzani,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based EDAM research institute. “However, in Syria we see two rival Kurdish entities; one dominated by the Kurdish National Council, but the other one is an offshoot of the PKK. There, Barzani does not really have leverage.”
Questions over Barzani’s influence over developments in Syria are increasingly being raised in Ankara. Before Syrian Kurds’ gains in northern Syria, Turkish media broadcast pictures of hundreds of Syrian Kurdish fighters being escorted by Barzani’s forces back into Syria.
Adding to Ankara’s concern is that Barzani brokered a deal between rival Syrian Kurdish factions, including the National Democratic Party, which is linked to the PKK. It remains a point of controversy whether Ankara was aware of this deal, although a regional diplomatic source claims Turkish officials knew about the pact.
On July 26, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned the Iraqi Kurdish leadership that “we are no longer responsible” for what might happen.
But tensions were markedly reduced after the Turkish foreign minister met with Barzani on August 1 in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. A joint statement was issued promising to work together on Syria. Ankara’s anger could be tempered by the increasing trade relationship with the Iraqi Kurds. Iraq is now Turkey’s second largest trading partner, of which the lion’s share of commerce is taken by Iraqi Kurds.
Analyst Ulgen said that if Ankara takes steps to resolve its own Kurdish conflict, it will have no reason to worry about Kurds setting up a state across the Turkish border. But he warns that events in Syria threaten to drive up the price for Ankara of any domestic deal. “It will make it more difficult for Turkey to negotiate with its own Kurds, to the extent [that] each type of development across the border has tended [to make] the Turkish Kurds to raise their expectations as to what they can accomplish,” Ulgen said.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.