Kurdish Battles in Syria Raise Turkish Fears

Kurdistan Workers Party Members
A Kurdish woman waves a flag picturing PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan during a peace demonstration in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul on Sept. 1, 2013. Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Seyfettin Ibek, a Turkish Kurd living on the border with Syria, is daring to dream again.

The 50-year-old is hoping the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad will help add to the gains his people have made in recent years. Kurds, among the largest ethnic groups without a state, control energy-rich northern Iraq while in Turkey they’re in talks with the government to widen rights and end fighting by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

“From the depths of my heart, I see the light of a Western Kurdistan in Syria,” said Ibek, sitting in the courtyard of his house in Turkey facing Ras al-Ain, the Syrian town Kurds fought to control in July. “There is no way to reverse this. All Kurds will eventually win autonomy, including in Turkey.”

As the U.S. considers strikes against the Syrian government and decides which anti-regime forces to back, an escalation in the 2 ½ year conflict is putting Turkey on alert over its biggest ethnic minority. The government is concerned that power gains in Syria is fueling aspirations of its own Kurds for self-rule that goes beyond what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ready to offer under the PKK peace process.

“I don’t think we have reached a place where Syria is likely to be a divided entity,” Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London, said by e-mail. “But Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is increasingly likely.”

Fighting Militants

Kurds number about 30 million in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, based on population statistics in the CIA World Factbook. The figures show about half of them live in Turkey, where a three-decade war by Kurdish militants striving for autonomy killed tens of thousands of people.

Erdogan also is concerned about hard-line Islamist groups that are fighting the Kurds in Syria, according to Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp., a policy institute based in Santa Monica, California.

Militias belonging to the biggest Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, have clashed with groups attached to the radical al-Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda, in Ras al-Ain. Four Turks were killed and dozens injured in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, where Ibek lives, since mid-July by stray bullets from the fighting.

Clashes flared in Ras al-Ain yesterday, near Ceylanpinar, and a six-year-old girl was injured by a stray bullet, Zaman newspaper said. Stray bullets and shrapnel smashed windows of the local governor’s office and some houses in Ceylanpinar today, while authorities used loudspeakers to warn people to avoid the border area, state-run Anatolia news agency said.

Turkey’s Choice

In northern Syria, “Turkey has the choice between an autonomous entity governed by the PYD or an entity that will be taken over by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups,” Larrabee said by telephone from Munich, Germany, on Aug. 27. “They began to realize the real problem is the al-Nusra Front and other affiliated groups.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Aug. 2 that it was not realistic to expect the north of Syria to separate from the rest of the country because no single ethnic group has dominance over others in the area. He said Turkey wouldn’t tolerate any move by any group, including Kurds or Arabs, that “poses a threat to Turkey’s security.”

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, the semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq formed in 1991 after the first Gulf War, vowed on Aug. 10 to defend Kurds in Syria. Barzani is scheduled to host a regional Kurdish conference in the Iraqi city of Erbil on Sept. 15-17 to discuss how to advance Kurdish autonomy.

Winning Respect

Kurdish gains in Syria include the creation of their own security forces, municipalities and courts, and the introduction of Kurdish language classes in schools across most of a region known by them as Western Kurdistan. Kurds control oil fields and get revenue from border crossings.

Turkey hosted PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohamed in recent months as it seeks to control the situation across the border and encourage Kurds to join the opposition fighting Assad. Al-Nusra is also part of the wide spectrum of groups battling to oust the Syrian leader.

After developing trade ties with the Kurdish region in Iraq in recent years, Turkey may have to rethink its policy to see if it can negotiate similar ties with Syrian Kurds, said Larrabee.

PYD chief Mohamed said in a May lecture at the London School of Economics that self-rule “does not entail the formation of a separate Kurdish state.” The group only wants a free, democratic Syria in which minorities are recognized and respected, he said.

Meanwhile fighting continued and uneasy residents said they are helpless in the face of flying bullets and shrapnel.

Dodging Bullets

Majid Abdulaziz Taha, an Arab teenager, said he fled Ras al-Ain on Aug. 13 after Kurdish fighters killed a relative, an Arab fighter with al-Nusra.

“Syrian fighters and snipers from the PKK have arrived in Ras al-Ain with their rifles,” said Ibrahim Ince, 49, a Turkish Arab from Ceylanpinar. “Arab fighters are now gathering in Tal Halaf,” a town close to Ras al-Ain.

Many non-Kurds say they’re concerned by the prospect that the group will gain the upper hand in the region.

Murat Karahan, an ethnic Turkmen resident of Ceylanpinar, left his kebab stand in the street to discuss such a sensitive subject inside his small restaurant. “Unfortunately, I see that a Kurdish autonomy is possible on the other side,” Karahan said. “That would be a disaster for us.”

For Ibek, the Kurd sitting in his courtyard, the violence on his doorstep only makes him more convinced now is the time to push for more power for his people in Turkey.

A ricocheting bullet from Syria injured his 19-year-old son Emrullah on the night of Aug. 10 as he rested on a rug in the courtyard of his house. It traced through his chest, chin and left cheek, leaving behind an encrusted scar.

“Even if our house is destroyed to the ground, we will not leave our land,” said Ibek. “ Western Kurdistan is being formed in front of my eyes. Today is the day of the Kurds.”

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