Turkey, Syria and the Kurds: A Third Party Joins the Fray

24.11.2012 – The Economist – THE bloodshed in Syria has taken a nasty turn, as Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar Assad’s regime clash with their Kurdish compatriots. Worries of an ethnic war between Syria’s Arabs and its 2m-odd Kurds have increased. Kurds on both sides of the border are pointing the finger of blame at the government of Turkey.

The trouble began on November 8th when Syrian rebels attacked a small group of Syrian soldiers loyal to Mr Assad in Ras al-Ayn, a town close to the border with Turkey. Despite being bombed by the Syrian air force, the rebels took the town, which lies just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. Syria’s best armed and most powerful Kurdish group, the Syrian Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish initials, PYD), which controls the Kurdish districts of Ras al-Ayn, says it feared retaliation from the Assad forces if it was seen to connive at their expulsion, so it asked the Syrian rebels, who are said to have been Salafists, to leave. When they refused, the ensuing battle left at least five Kurds and 18 rebels dead. Thousands of angry Kurds are said to be heading for Ras al-Ayn to offer support to their kinsfolk. The PYD has been tightening its grip on a string of Kurdish towns in Syria’s hitherto calm north-east ever since Syrian government forces withdrew from them five months ago in order to fight the rebels elsewhere. It is no secret that the PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the rebel guerrilla force which has been fighting against Turkish government forces since 1984 in a bid for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.

The PYD’s leadership and ideology–an odd mix of socialism, ethnic nationalism, and feminism, capped by a devotion to the leader–closely copy the PKK’s, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been in prison since 1999. Yet the PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, denies any connection to the PKK and has repeatedly called on Turkey to negotiate with it.

Turkey remains hostile to both Kurdish parties, which say that it helped plan the Syrian rebels’ attack on the PYD in Ras al-Ayn. Barzan Iso, an independent Kurdish Syrian journalist, says the Syrian rebels used Turkey as a base from which to bash the PYD on November 8th. “The operation wasn’t about kicking out Assad’s forces,” he says. “It was to dislodge the PYD.” A Turkish foreign ministry spokesman disagreed: “There is now a pattern of Free Syrian Army forces liberating towns [in Syria], doing the job, and the Kurds then trying to move in and take over.”

Turkey has been allowing free passage and a flow of weapons to the FSA, which has commanders based along the Turkish border. But the main aim of Turkey’s government may be shifting from regime change in Damascus to preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria. Many Syrian rebels evidently share that view.