Assessing the Threat to Turkey from Syrian-Based Kurdish Militants / German Photograph Benjamin Hiller in West Kurdistan
Publication: Volume: 10 Issue: 16 – Jamestown Foundation August 9, By: Wladimir van Wilgenburg
Kurdish militias recently took control of several towns in northern Syria, raising fears in Turkey that in addition to their camps in the mountainous border areas in Iraq, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) could also now operate against Turkey from Syria. It is however, unlikely, that the PKK could operate from Syria against Turkey. Even when former Syrian president Hafez Assad supported them before 1998, the PKK carried out few operations in areas near the Syrian border.
The Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-affiliated Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD -Democratic Union Party), signed an agreement in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil to shelve their political differences and prevent an armed dispute (Rudaw.net, July 17). This agreement resulted in the establishment of a Supreme Kurdish Council, and the sharing of power between the two signatories in the Kurdish cities of Syria until elections can be carried out (Rudaw.net, July 25).
After this agreement, the armed wing of the PYD, the People’s Defense Corps (consisting of 2,000 armed militia members) took control of some Kurdish areas without much resistance from Syrian security forces (Taz.de, July 26; IRIN, August 2). Syrian president Bashar Assad admitted that the PKK could move more freely, due to a “neighbouring area being in chaos” (Syrian Arab News Agency, July 7). Still he denied that he supports the PKK, and emphasized that the PKK does not need Syria to fight against Turkey.
It is clear that the PYD now controls (to some degree) Kobani, Efrin, the Kurdish dominated neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiye in the city of Aleppo and parts of the border areas but not the strategic city of Qamishli (Firat News Agency, August 2). Sources such as the defected Syrian Brigadier Fayiz Amr, the KNC’s head of Foreign Relations and a member of a Kurdish Youth Group suggest Syrian security forces are still present in the region, and even control most vital locations in Kurdish areas (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 28; Rudaw.net, August 1; Kurdwatch.org, August 5).  Assad might want to prevent a clash with the Kurds, but does not want to give them too much control over Kurdish areas because in some cases they have already worked together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The PYD says it does not want to fight with Assad or the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and wants to prevent the war from coming to Kurdish areas while Assad does not want to fight the Kurds in order to focus on the FSA. The PYD is waiting till the Ba’ath-regime grows weaker and hopes it can take over Kurdish areas if Syrian security forces withdraw from parts of northern Syria to protect Damascus and Aleppo. 
However, after the PYD took over some Kurdish areas, alarm bells went off in the Turkish media about a PKK-state in “Syrian Kurdistan.” Turkish analyst Nihat Ali Özcan wrote that the worst result would be if the PKK were to obtain surface-to-air missile and chemical weapons, but this seems to be unlikely (Hürriyet, July 26). So far, the PKK only has AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavier, vehicle mounted weapons taken over from Syrian security forces, such as 106 mm recoilless rifles (Egypt Independent, July 28).
Some critics have blamed the Turkish government for being responsible for the PKK taking over areas of Syria due to Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition, support which has weakened Assad and opened the door for the PKK. Yalçin Akdogan, chief advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared that more PKK bases would not be permitted by Turkey and other AKP officials indicated Turkey could intervene if the PKK used Syria as a base for operations against Turkey (Star Gazete [Istanbul], July 27) Reuters, August 8). Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu headed to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq on August 1 to talk with Syrian Kurdish parties and the Kurdistan Region’s president Massoud Barzani about the PYD’s activities.
The acting PKK leader Murat Karayilan claimed the PKK does not need rebel camps in Syria and that Kurds would fight Turkey if they invaded “Syrian Kurdistan” (northern Syria) (Firat News Agency, August 2). PYD chief Salih Muslim and KNC head Ismail Hama both oppose Turkish intervention and, in a reference to Turkey, emphasize that Syrian Kurds would not pose a threat to neighbouring countries,  According to a leading KNC member, Abd al-Hakim Bashar:
We will be the guarantee of Turkey’s interests in Syria. Turkey’s interests have always conflicted with its neighbors. In this region, it is necessary to find friends for Turkey. The Kurds are the best candidate for this friendship… We will never allow a threat that would be directed toward Turkey in Syrian Kurdistan. We have issued a statement that the PYD also signed. This is a statement confirming that no threat will be directed toward neighboring countries from the Kurdish regions of Syria (Hurriyet, August 3).
At the same time, Syria is of limited military value for the PKK due to unfavorable geography.  Unlike the rugged Turkish-KRG border in the Botan-Behdidan area, the Turkish-Syrian border is mostly flat and easy to control. Even during the zenith of the PKK insurgency in the early 1990s, PKK activities remained limited near the Syrian border.  Without mountainous terrain or support from a super-power, the PKK is very vulnerable to Turkish incursions and this is one of the reasons why the PYD is heavily opposed to foreign intervention in Syria and seeks Russian support to prevent it.  Moreover, the Adana agreement signed in 1998 after Syria stopped its support for the PKK gives Turkey the right to pursue the PKK inside Syrian territory (Egypt Daily News, July 26).
According to the PYD, the PKK is not militarily active in Syria nor can it use the non-mountainous Syrian Kurdish areas against Turkey.  The only mountainous region in Syria occupied by the Kurds is the Kurd Mountain (Kurd-Dagh) near Alawite-dominated Latakia. Moreover, it is impossible for the PKK to move within the border areas due to precautions taken by the Turkish state.  The border region is heavily fortified with military outposts, minefields, barbwire, cameras and night-time illumination. Furthermore, Turkey has moved tanks and more troops near the Syrian border close to PYD-strongholds (Reuters, August 1).
The PKK will therefore continue to use its camps in northern Iraq and only the FSA can operate in areas near the Turkish border. It seems that Turkish concerns over a PKK state are exaggerated; the PKK cannot use the Syrian Kurdish areas as a launching pad against Turkey and only controls limited areas where Syrian security forces are still present to some degree. The PKK may aim to gain more legitimacy by playing a role in Syria, but not to use their presence there against Turkey militarily.
1. Author’s interview with Bedir Mustafa of the Kurdish Youth Movement (Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd – TCK), August 2, 2012.
2. Author’s interview with the PYD’s Foreign Representative Alan Semo, July 31, 2012.
4. Author’s interview with Kawa Rashid, Foreign Spokesperson of the Movement of Syrian Kurdistan, July 31, 2012.
5. Author’s e-mail exchange with Associate Professor of Political Science Gunes Murat Tezcur, Loyola University, Chicago, August 2, 2012.
7. Author’s interview with PYD Foreign Representative Alan Semo, July 31, 2012.
8. Author’s interview with German photojournalist Benjamin Hiller, August 2, 2012.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.