What Does the PYD Want From Turkey?

Wladimir van Wilgenburg ORSAM Middle East Advisor, Journalist

Since the Democratic Union Party (PYD) took over most the Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria since July 19th 2012, there have been worries in Turkey over a de-facto Kurdish autonomy in Syria and fears this could threat the territorial integrity of Turkey. On 12 July, the pro-Kurdish Hawar News Agency (ANHA) reported for the first time, that the PYD had plans to form an interim government, constitution and parliament.

Despite of this, most people seem to forget that a Kurdish autonomy in Syria would be difficult to achieve, since the Kurdish areas are fragmented into three Kurdish regions Afrin (Efrîn), Ayn al-Arab (Kobanê), and the Hasakah (Hesîçe) province. [1] Therefore, a small minority of Syrian Kurds think it’s easier to have three Kurdish ‘autonomous’ small regions in Syria.

Turkey would be less worried if a Kurdish party close to Kurdistan’s Regional President Massoud Barzani would have taken over these areas, due to good political and economical ties between Turkey and Barzani. But the fact is that the PYD is more close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and this probably played a role in convincing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to re-engage the PKK in ‘peace talks’ over the withdrawal of its combatants from Turkey.

The shock in Turkey over the two-days surprise visit of PYD-leader Salih Muslim on Thursday evening surprised both Turks and Kurds alike. Even PYD-supporters didn’t know about this visit nor were informed about this visit. Although there have been contacts between the PYD and Turkey before. Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Moaz al-Khatib mediated talks between Turkey and the PYD, after meeting Salih Muslim in Cairo [2]. And on during the SNC meeting in Istanbul in May, PYD member Sherwan Ibrahim was an observer and most likely also met with Turkish officials on behalf of the PYD.[3] Therefore, the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu admitted Turkey already met with the PYD twice [4].

Both Kurds and Turks were surprised by this visit due to the hostility of the PYD towards Turkey and accusations by the PYD that Turkey supported groups affiliated to Al Qaida and the Free Syrian Army against the Kurds. Turkey has denied these claims, but even Kurdish rivals of the PYD supported by Barzani think Turkey indirectly support some of these groups.

Currently, most fighting between the People’s Defence Units (YPG) affiliated to the PYD and mostly al Qaida affiliated groups is taking place in the governorates of Raqqah and Hassakah (Hesîçe) over the control of the border crossings, the mixed town of Tel Ebyad (Girê Spî) that the PYD needs for access to Ayn al-Arab (Kobanê), and oil and gas resources.

The fighting started on 16 July in Ras al-Ain (Serê Kaniyê) and spread to other areas in Raqqah and Hassakah. Moreover, there were clashes in the Kurdish city of Afrin (A between 25 May and 22 June after which a fragile ceasefire was imposed. That almost broke down on 9 July after a small clash. Despite FSA-YPG ceasefire, a blockade from both Turkey and the armed groups control of ‘Arab areas’ surrounding Afrin continues.


This makes humanitarian aid very difficult to reach Afrin (Efrîn) and this has increased the local problems. This has not only lead to calls from help from the international community by the PYD but also other Kurdish groups. But despite of complaints by Kurdish groups to European countries and the UN, Turkey is responsible for its own borders and other countries cannot do much. This explains the recent border cross-over from Kurdish villagers close to the Turkish border, who demanded from Turkey to open the border. Officials from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have tried to negotiate with local Turkish governors and bureaucrats, but it seems this didn’t have a lot of success.

PYD Demands

So, what is it what the PYD exactly wants from Turkey?

1. Ending support for Islamist groups against Kurds

According to the PYD and the PKK, Turkey is supporting radical Islamist groups against the PYD in Syria and they want Turkey to stop alleged support for radical groups. After the YPG captured offices of Al Qaida in Ras al-Ain (Serêkanî), pro-PYD sites have published the passports of several Jihadists whose passports showed they traveled through Turkey to enter Syria. However, Turkey claims they do not support radical forces in Syria. Nevertheless, the PYD doesn’t believe this and then at least wants Turkey to block Jihadi’s from going to Kurdish dominated areas in Syria. The PYD doesn’t have a problem if FSA or Jihadist fighters fight against the government of Bashar al-Assad in the rest of Syria, but it does oppose it when they try to enter PYD-controlled areas.


2. Opening borders


Although the PYD controls most of the Kurdish areas apart from the city of Assad-controlled Qamishli (Qamişlo), the PYD has problems with governing the Kurdish areas due to a lack of fresh water, food, medical supplies, electricity and fuel. Moreover, there is a lack of jobs and the economical situation is worsening. Due to the relative stability and lack of fighting in the PYD-dominated areas, a lot of Arabic internally displaced persons (IDPs) came to the PYD-controlled areas and found shelter there, which increased pressure on the scarce supplies. As a result of the bad economical situation, a lot of Syrian Kurds have fled to either Turkey, or to refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Campaigns by the PYD to stop Syrian Kurds to leave the areas have not worked. And the PYD argues this is one of the reasons they not to form an interim government to solve these problems.

The PYD claims the Turkish government has closed down most of it’s Syrian borders, even for international aid organizations, which creates problems for the civilian population. Moreover, Barzani also closed the border crossing he controls near Faysh Khabour on 18 May, after PYD arrested 74 members of a Barzani’s trained Kurdish fighters [5] Therefore, the PYD is locked in between Turkey and Barzani, and needs Turkey loosening up the borders in order to get aid and supplies. Especially in the district of Afrin which is completely surrounded by Arabs and the Turkish border and unreachable for the PYD from other Kurdish areas. Even if Barzani would support the PYD to help out Efrin, this would be difficult to achieve since cities near Afrin (Efrîn) are dominated by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups in Azzaz, and Jarabulus.

3. Turkish support for self-governance

Another thing, the PYD wants is Turkish support for their ‘future’ transitional government and autonomy. The PYD wants to establish economical relations with Turkey since it’s landlocked between Barzani and Turkey. If Turkey would give support, the PYD wouldn’t be dependent on Damascus for the continued payment of salaries of those who still work for the government bureaucracy and could establish good relations with Turkey as the Iraqi Kurds do. Moreover, with support of Turkey, Western support for this autonomous area would be more easier and this would create more legitimacy and access to international support and would most likely stop accusations that the PYD is working with the government of Bashar al-Assad. The US has so-far opposed Kurdish autonomy in Syria [6] Getting Turkish support would however be difficult for Turkey to accept without having a successful conclusion of the ‘peace talks’ between the PKK and the Turkish government.


Some Turkish analysts seem to think that the formation of a Kurdish administration in Syria would also benefit Turkey, as it did in Iraq, but many are not convinced [7]. They base this on the fact, that Öcalan, talked about Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds and Arabs who have been left ‘wrongly out from the borders of the National Pact’, and the ‘fraternity and solidarity’ under the flag of Islam of Kurds and Turks on 21 March[8]. Some interpreted this as a call for the restoration of the National Pact borders (Missak-i Milli) of 1920 of Turkey’s parliament, that included large parts of Northern Iraq and Northern Syria that are now controlled by Kurds. The Lausanne Treaty signed in 1923 revised this map and set Turkey’s current official borders.


The PYD-leader’s visit came unexpected for most observers, Kurds, and Turks alike due to accusations by the PYD that Turkey supports Jihadis. Nevertheless, there have been attempts by the PYD before to talk with Turkey since they are dependent on the Turkish-controlled border for the arrival of humanitarian aid and supplies. Moreover, since the Kurdish areas in Syria are divided into three enclaves, a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria is more difficult than in Iraq, and cooperation with Turkey would make this less troublesome and give Syrian Kurds the ability to surpass the Arab-controlled areas through Turkey.

The PYD has three main demands: 1. Turkey ending support for Jihadi groups; 2 support for it’s autonomous area, and 3. the opening of it’s borders. According to the PYD Turkey supports Jihadi groups and Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups that try to ‘infiltrate’ Kurdish areas and imposed a siege on the Kurdish district of Efrin. Moreover, the PYD wants Turkey to open it’s borders for humanitarian aid since the PYD-controlled regions have been suffering from a lack of food supplies, medical supplies, water, fuel, jobs, an increase in internal displaced persons, and electricity.

Although the PYD controls the three Kurdish enclaves, the border is both blocked from Turkey and from the KDP-controlled border crossing between the Kurdish dominated areas of Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the PYD wants Turkish support for it’s Kurdish interim government and to have similar economic relations Turkey has with the Iraqi Kurds which could also bestow more international legitimacy to their control. Furthermore, improvement of ties with Turkey would end complications with Barzani. It remains to be seen if these demands are accepted by Turkey since this depends on the outcome of the peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK rebels.


1. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Misconceptions over Kurdish geography in Syria”, Today’s Zaman, 16 June, 2013, URL: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-318366-misconceptions-over-kurdish-geography-in-syria.html

2. Sevil Küçükkoşum Erkuş, “Rebels ‘mediate’ talks between Turkey, PYD”, Hürriyet Daily news, 22 March, 2013: URL:http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/rebels-mediate-talks-between-turkey-pyd.aspx?pageID=238&nid=43408

3. Fehim Taştekin, “Turkey’s Kurdish Policies Complicate Ties With Iran, Iraq”, Al Monitor, 30 May, 2013, URL: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/turkey-kurdish-policies-complicate-iran-iraq.html#ixzz2aBUR16H4

4.”Radicals tarnishing Syria revolt, says FM Davutoğlu”, Hürriyet Daily News, July 26, URL:http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/radicals-tarnishing-syria-revolt-says-fm-davutoglu.aspx?pageID=238&nID=51432&NewsCatID=352

5. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Border Arrests Reveal Disunity, Conflict Among Syrian Kurds,” Al Monitor, May 21, URL: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/pyd-arrests-syrian-kurds.html

6. Fikret Bila, “Ankara Must Make Strategic Choice In Northern Syria”, Milliyet (Translated by Al Monitor), 23 July

7. “Öcalan: “Our Armed Forces Should Withdraw Beyond Border”, BIAnet, 21 March 2013, URL: http://bianet.org/english/politics/145278-ocalan-calls-for-ceasefire-promotes-politics

8. “Turkish military steps up measures on Syria border”, Today’s Zaman, 23 July, URL: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-321680-turkish-military-steps-up-measures-on-syria-border.html