Turkey warns Syrian PYD against seeking autonomy

20 July 2013 /TODAY’S ZAMAN, ANKARA – Turkey’s top diplomat warned the Democratic Union Party (PYD) on Friday to give up efforts to form an autonomous administration in the northern part of civil war-torn Syria.

The PYD is a political offshoot in Syria of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which the Turkish government launched negotiations at the end of last year to settle the country’s decades-old Kurdish issue.

“Before a parliament is elected [in Syria], everybody should keep away from such fait accompli, de facto situations. The risk of such a move is too great,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said at a press conference he held with his Greek counterpart in Ankara.Syria’s embattled President al-Bashar Assad agreed at a meeting held last week with representatives of the PYD to grant autonomy to Kurds in northern Syria, the Yeni Şafak daily maintained on Friday. The declaration of an autonomous Kurdish region will reportedly be made by Assad on Friday.

The PYD, which presently has control of a large portion of Syria’s northern territory, which borders Turkey, has been in clashes with the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in that region. The PKK’s Syrian offshoot recently captured the town of Ras al-Ain on the border. Turkey is following the fighting against the al-Nusra Front.

At the meeting last week, Assad reportedly agreed to recognize the autonomy of Kurds in an area covering seven districts in the region, including Haseki, Ras al-Ain, Afrin, Darbasiyya, Ain al-Arab and Kamishli, the daily maintained. As per the agreement between the two sides, the PYD flag will be raised, along with that of Syria, in these six regions on Aug. 15. The Kurds will reportedly accept the autonomy granted by the Syrian regime as long as it is constitutionally guaranteed.

Davutoğlu interpreted the capture of Ras al-Ain by the PYD as an ill-intentioned initiative aimed at exploiting the power vacuum in the northern part of the country at a time when clashes between opposition and regime forces in and around the city of Homs are becoming more intense. Noting that the situation in Syria is already highly fragile, Davutoğlu warned that “any fait accompli [in Syria] would just serve to further deepen the fragility there and would result in negative consequences.”

Analysts agree that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria would pose a major security threat for Turkey. “The PYD’s control of the region with 2,000 terrorists may be perceived as a clear terrorist threat against Turkey. This is a border security issue for Turkey,” Kamer Kasım, vice president of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), has told Today’s Zaman. Kasım believes that border security is now a more urgent problem for Turkey than terrorism. In a region under PYD control, the PKK would have the ability to establish a strong foothold, which would mean undesirable consequences should the settlement process fail.

As clashes between the PYD and opposition forces in Syria continued for a third day, the PYD raised its flag at its office, situated only 50 meters away from the Turkish border, near the Turkish town of Ceylanpınar in the province Şanlıurfa, early in the morning on Friday. Should Assad make an announcement on autonomy for Kurds, the PYD will reportedly move to establish its autonomous region within 15 days. The Kurds plan to hold elections on Sept. 6 to select the administration for this region. In order to avoid appearing provocative against Turkey at Syria’s customs gates before the autonomous region is established, the PYD has given over its positions on the Turkish border to representatives of a “people’s committee” composed of Arabs, Kurds and Christians.

In his warning addressed to the PYD, Davutoğlu said: “The regime [in Syria] may be taking some steps to pit Arabs against Kurds or various ethnic groups against each other. Nobody should fall for such a ploy.” He added that in Syria, ethnic or sectarian-based posturing will just cause greater problems.

According to Ali Nihat Özcan, an expert on terrorism, the new position the PYD has obtained in Syria will make things more difficult for Turkey, not only in its Syria policy but also in the settlement process with the PKK. “This is not good news for Turkey,” Özcan told Today’s Zaman. Özcan is concerned that by fighting against the al-Nusra Front, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Western countries, the PKK could be granted — behind closed doors — considerable legitimacy and prestige by Western powers.

The seizure of the town of Ras al-Ain by the PYD has heightened Ankara’s fears that the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could embolden homegrown militants of the PKK, which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey. Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, announced on Friday that the PYD is aiming to set up an independent council to govern the Kurdish region in Syria. “This is not a call for a separation. It’s just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and people have needs. They want some kind of administration to run their issues,” he told Reuters. 

Turkey, which has emerged as one of al-Assad’s most vocal critics and biggest backers of the rebels fighting to overthrow him, previously lashed out at the UN Security Council for failing to adopt a united stance on Syria. At the press conference on Friday, the Turkish foreign minister also drew attention to the fact that the crisis in Syria has had a great impact on security globally and in Turkey, with two Turkish citizens having lost their lives by bullets coming from Syrian territory during recent clashes between the PYD and rebel groups. Noting that Turkey has closely been watching the crisis in Syria with great concern, Davutoğlu stressed, “All precautions against threats, no matter from where they come, will be taken at [Turkey’s] borders.”

In a previous statement about the recent firings from Syrian territory into Turkish territory, Davutoğlu once again called on the UN Security Council to intervene in the crisis in Syria. “If the UN Security Council is to do the job it is required to do, then the moment is now,” he stated on Wednesday.

But Davutoğlu’s remarks have drawn criticism from the main opposition party. In a written statement on Friday, CHP Deputy Chairman Faruk Loğoğlu said, “The AKP [an abbreviation adopted by opposition parties for the ruling Justice and Development Party] is still after a foreign intervention in Syria and is trying, by any means, to create a de facto situation to that end.” He accused the government of pursuing an unrealistic foreign policy and acting in a partisan way in the Syrian crisis and said, “The AKP government must end the support of radical groups [fighting the Syrian regime].”

Although in the past Ankara stressed that it would never tolerate Kurdish dominance in northern Syrian, no major steps to prevent it have yet been taken by the government. Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, is reluctant to act unilaterally in Syria, although it scrambled war planes along the border as gunfire and shelling hit its soil in recent clashes. It also returned fire at posts from where shooting was believed to have hit Turkish territory.In a meeting al-Assad held with leaders of the PYD last year, the Syrian president had signaled that he was ready to offer autonomy to Kurds, while the Kurds had agreed to give support to the regime in exchange. Turkey is concerned about a Kurdish autonomous region because it fears such a move on the Syrian side may not only adversely affect the settlement process — launched for the resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey — but also encourage Kurds to establish an independent Kurdish state in the region. According to the Yeni Şafak daily, Iran, Greek Cyprus, Greece and France, together with four Arab countries, are ready to recognize an autonomous Kurdish region.