Turkey’s Syrian Gamble: Enter the Kurds


by Amberin Zaman – August 24, 2012 – The Economist


The car bomb explosion that rocked the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep on August 20, killing nine people including three children, has sharpened debate as to whether Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels is boomeranging in the form of greater separatist violence at home. Members of the ruling Justice and development Party (AKP) swiftly blamed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for the terrorist attack that hit a newly thriving province, which borders Syria and whose rise symbolizes the empowerment of overtly pious Anatolian entrepreneurs under nearly a decade of AKP rule.

Samil Tayyar, an AKP lawmaker from Gaziantep, declared that the attack was “revenge for the [July 18] explosion in Damascus that killed four of Assad’s top aides,” and claimed that it had been “orchestrated by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syria’s national intelligence.”

Tayyar’s talk of revenge appeared to vindicate the Syrian regime’s earlier claims that Turkey was involved in the assassinations (Turkey denies any role). At the same time, it was a reaffirmation of Ankara’s narrative that Syria is using the PKK to destabilize Turkey. This narrative is fraught with risk. It not only distracts from Turkey’s stance against Assad — that he must go because he is murdering his own people — but will also complicate Turkey’s efforts to solve its own festering Kurdish problem and could also strain relations with Washington.

After protracted efforts to persuade Assad along the path of reform, Turkey

is now firmly committed to regime

change in Syria. Leaders of Syrian

rebels operating under the banner

of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are

based in Turkey. And it is an open

secret that Turkey has become one of

the main transit hubs for the flow of

rebel weapons into Syria. Wounded

FSA fighters are treated in Turkey,

and the rebels move freely across the

Turkish border. There are reports that

Al-Qaeda affiliated radical militants

are among them.

Critics of Turkish policy, including the

main opposition Republican People’s

Party (CHP), say the Turkish approach

has backfired and some are calling

for Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet

Davutoğlu, to resign. They charge that

Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s

“zero problems with neighbors” policy,

has brought Turkey to the brink of war

to no apparent gain.

Fully a year after Turkey formally pulled the plug on Assad,

he remains in power, albeit badly weakened. For all of

Turkey’s efforts, the Syrian opposition remains as fragmented

as ever. Despite electing a secular Kurd as its leader,

the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council continues to be

dogged by allegations that it is under the Muslim Brotherhood’s

thumb. To Turkey’s chagrin, Washington appears to

be distancing itself from the group. Arguably, the biggest

blowback came last month when Assad ceded control of a

string of mainly Kurdish towns along the Turkish border

to an outfit called the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the

PKK’s Syrian arm that was established in 2003. Massoud

Barzani, leader of semi-independent Kurdish northern

Iraq, brokered a power-sharing deal between the PYD and

its far weaker rivals who are grouped under the umbrella

of the Kurdish National Council. Barzani’s initiative was

aimed at tempering the PYD’s influence, but there are few

signs that the PYD is willing to abide by its terms. This new

Kurdish zone of influence has deepened Turkish fears of an

independent Kurdistan that might eventually encompass

Turkey’s own restive Kurds. Barzani is now hailed among

Ankara’s chief regional allies,1 yet suspicions linger over his

true motives, not least because of his dogged resistance to

Turkish demands that he take military action against PKK

leaders based in his territory.

And though FSA fighters have seized control of substantial

chunks of territory along the Turkish border, the ejection

of Assad’s forces on the ground has not prevented his air

force from continuing to bomb towns within a stone’s throw

from Turkey. The most recent example is the town of Azaz,

which lies some seven kilometers south of the Turkish city

of Kilis. On August 15, Syrian fighter jets bombed Azaz,

which the FSA had supposedly liberated a month earlier.

At least 40 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the

attack, which prompted hundreds to flee to Turkey. At the

last count, some 70,000 Syrians were sheltering in Turkish


The assault on Azaz put another big hole in Turkey’s credibility.

Prime Minister Erdoğan had warned that any Syrian

jets flying within proximity of the Turkish border would be

considered legitimate targets after Syria downed a Turkish

F-4 jet on June 22. But in this event, Turkey chose not to


1 see Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds: From Red Lines to Red Carpets, May 14, 2010

Just as well, most Turks would say, for even the AKP’s

staunchest supporters are queasy about going to war against

Syria. Taking on Syria means taking on Assad’s staunchest

ally, Iran (and, some would argue, Russia), and relations

with the Islamic Republic have already taken a nose-dive.

This was in evidence when Iran’s chief of general staff,

Hassan Firouzabadi, blamed Turkey along with Qatar and

Saudi Arabia for the bloodshed in Syria, warning that “It

will be Turkey’s turn if it continues to help advance its

current policy in Syria.”

It may have been no coincidence that even as the general

delivered his threats, PKK militants were battling Turkish

forces in a sliver of land wedged between Iran and Iraq. The

battle on the edge of the southeastern town of Semdinli in

Hakkari province raged for two weeks, marking the first

time in its 28-year separatist campaign that the militants

held their ground for so long. On August 10, the Turkish

army declared victory, but the PKK continued to strike as

far west as the Aegean coastal resort of Foca, killing two

soldiers on August 9. In a further brazen act, the PKK

kidnapped CHP lawmaker Huseyin Aygun on August 12

and held him for two days. The PKK has denied responsibility

for the car bomb attack in Gaziantep, claiming it had

called off its fight during the Ramadan holidays. Yet on the

day of the Gaziantep carnage, a landmine thought to have

been planted by the rebels in Hakkari killed two soldiers. At

least 10 more Turkish soldiers have been killed in separate

PKK attacks since August 22.

Lots of Risk — Little Return

Should PKK violence further escalate, public pressure will

mount on the government to retaliate. Trapped by its own

rhetoric, Turkey might feel compelled to attack Syria, most

likely by carrying out airstrikes against regime targets. This

could prompt Iran to weigh in on Assad’s side, perhaps

by allowing the PKK to operate freely from its territory,

restricting access to Turkish trucks, and interrupting the

flow of natural gas to Turkey.

Alternately (or concurrently), Turkey might move against

the Syrian Kurds by setting up a buffer zone along the

border areas where they are concentrated. It doesn’t seem

to matter that PYD leader Salih Mohammed has said he

wants dialogue with the Turks and is not seeking independence, or that the flat topography of the areas inhabited

by Syria’s Kurds make it an unlikely haven for guerrillas.

(There is no evidence to date that the PYD has engaged in

hostile activity against Turkey). Turkish troops on Syrian

soil would become a target, opening up a new front against

the PKK and the PYD, which has vowed to resist Turkish

intervention. At this point, Ankara would likely pile pressure

on Barzani to take its side, which he is unlikely to do

because of an inevitable backlash from his own people. The

alliance between Turkey and Barzani would unravel. And

what if Turkey were tempted to provide the FSA with the

kinds of weapons — shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles for

instance — meant to accelerate Assad’s fall? Would the FSA

then have to prove its gratitude by taking on the PYD?

Ankara will undoubtedly also renew its calls for decisive

action by the Obama administration. In the likely event that

Washington continues to shy away from direct intervention

in Syria, the widely held conspiracy theories that this

is because 1) it wants Turkey “to do its dirty work for it” 2)

the real target is Iran, 3) the goal is to pit the Shias against

the Sunnis iv) the other is to establish an independent

Kurdistan, and 4) the biggest winner is Israel, might infect

the AKP leadership too. (Never mind that U.S. intervention

would have prompted the exact same thinking.)

Getting Out of the Hole

For all its bluster, Turkey has wisely steered away from military

confrontation with Syria. It is not likely to act without

U.S. backing. It is too early to predict whether Turkey’s

embrace of the armed opposition will pay off, or if Ankara

will have a decisive say in Syria’s future when Assad falls.

A protracted civil/sectarian war looks increasingly likely. If

Turkey is to remain immune, it must desist from conflating

its Kurdish problem with the war next door and take up the

PYD’s offer for dialogue, if only behind closed doors.

Turkey’s Kurdish problem was manufactured neither by

Syria nor by the United States. It is homegrown. By the

AKP’s own admission, a military solution has proved to

be no solution at all. Yet over the past year, the AKP has

severed secret talks with the PKK in favor of a securitybased

approach. The mass arrests of Kurdish activists

accused of PKK membership has continued unabated. The

evidence against many is patchy. The sole means to defeat

the rebels is to rob them of public support. This can best

be achieved by rewriting Turkey’s constitution in ways that

satisfy the Kurds’ long running demands for greater cultural

and political rights. Erdoğan continues to command the

kind of popularity that makes this saleable. At the same

time, the government will need to hold its nose and resume

talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. If

Ocalan were to call on the PKK to lay down its arms, the

majority of the rebels would obey, because they continue to

trade on his name, and hardline terrorists would be marginalized.

Such steps might blunt Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions, but they would also pull the country back from the abyss that Turkey seems to be rapidly approaching.

About the Author Amberin Zaman is the Istanbul-based Turkey correspondent of the U.K. weekly The Economist. Zaman, who is Turkish, also writes a column twice a week for the mass circulation Turkish daily Haberturk.