Possible fragmentation of Syria would be risky for Turkey, analysts say

Possible fragmentation of Syria would be risky for Turkey, analysts say


July 29, 2012, Sunday/ 11:44:00/ GÖZDE NUR DONAT

A fragmented Syria -- one of the most-discussed scenarios for a post-Bashar al-Assad period -- would be of great concern for Turkey both politically and in terms of security, political analysts have said.

 The worst-case scenario for Turkey would be if groups affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were to take permanent control in the largely Kurdish populated northeastern region of Syria, according to political analysts who shared their opinions with Sunday’s Zaman. 

Over the past two weeks, and with the death of the defense minister and two other senior officials of the Syrian administration in a major attack in Damascus on July 18, the Assad regime has withdrawn from three major Kurdish cities -- Kobani, Amuda and Afrin -- and militants aligned with the PYD have been clashing with regime forces for control of Qamishli, the largest Kurdish city in Syria, which borders the Nusaybin district of Turkey’s Mardin province. Syrian forces have been moved to Damascus and other more central areas to fight back opposition forces, and Kurdish groups have been taking control of towns near the Turkish border.

The KNC, a loose coalition of over a dozen Kurdish parties brought together by President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani, currently controls the cities that have been taken by Kurdish groups and has created its own defense militia. The KNC has also agreed to unite with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- an offshoot of the PKK in Syria -- to form the Supreme Kurdish Council. Omar Hossino, co-author of a report on Syria’s Kurds for the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman that this militia has so far refused to allow the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter these Kurdish towns, saying the Kurds there can administer their own territory.

Hossino explained that the rapprochement between Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could create a diplomatic channel through which Turkey could attempt to assert its interests on Syria’s Kurds, considering Barzani’s close ties to them. He added that if Kurds form a state in Syria, this could have negative repercussions for Turkey.

“The PKK presence in northern Syria could create problems for Turkey in its fight against the PKK. … At the same time, it is not in Turkey’s best interest for Kurds in Syria to be given statehood as this would put pressure on [the Turkish] government to grant greater rights to its Kurdish population across the border [in Turkey],” he added.

Gökhan Bacık, a lecturer at the international relations department of Gaziantep’s Zirve University, agreed that if a PKK-affiliated Kurdish administration were to be established in northern Syria, it would hurt Turkey in its struggle against terrorism. “Turkey already lacks sufficient capability to cope with the Kurdish question. The Turkish government, which already cannot negotiate with the terrorists itself, would not be able to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds in such a scenario,” Bacık explained to Sunday’s Zaman. He also maintained that a PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish administration would likely cause the terrorism problem to spread along the Turkish-Syrian border, including to the Turkish provinces of Kilis and Mardin, which have well-established, functioning economies.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared last week that “the terrorist PKK organization’s cooperation with the PYD is something we cannot look favorably upon,” claiming that Turkey will not hesitate to respond militarily to any threat emanating from northern Syria.

Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman last week, Syrian National Council (SNC) member Khaled Khoja said he believes Turkey would not remain silent should Syria head towards fragmentation. “Neither Turkey nor the Syrian people would allow such a scenario. Turkey has always stood together with the Syrian people and would support them [in keeping Syria united],” Khoja maintained.

Khoja also denied claims that Kurdish groups have dominance over Syrian Kurdish cities, however, saying that Assad’s forces have not completely withdrawn from these regions and are only temporarily leaving control in the hands of Kurdish groups.

Even the KNC and PYD of the new Supreme Kurdish Council do not share the same vision of a potential Syrian Kurdish administration. While the KNC seeks a federalist or political decentralization but united Syria, the PYD seeks as its end-goal a confederation with Iraqi Kurdistan. While the two groups represent Syrian Kurds, they have not joined the SNC, the main umbrella opposition group that claims to include all groups in Syria -- including the Kurds -- who oppose the Assad regime. The Turkish government, in recognizing the SNC as such, sees it as the sole legitimate representative of Syrian Kurdish interests, choosing to disregard the troubled ties between Syrian Kurds and the SNC.

Tariq al-Ahmed, spokesman for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, has said, according to Turkish media, that the Assad regime is no longer taking measures against the PKK because the Turkish government fully supports the FSA, indicating cooperation between the regime and PKK-affiliated groups.

As Assad’s forces face a deadlock in Damascus and other central cities, speculation has surfaced that Assad and his administration could establish an Alawite state in the coastal mountains of western Syria, where the country’s Alawite population -- which makes up 10 percent of Syria’s total population -- is concentrated. International circles, including the state of Israel, do not seem to be opposed to such an exit strategy for Assad, particularly as this option would mean an end to the bloodshed in Syria. The realization of this Alawite state would also mean that the Syria, which once laid claim to being a regional power and was a staunch opponent of Israeli policy regarding Palestine -- would have lost its influence.

Some political analysts also argue, however, that an Alawite state would not be a viable option because it would easily be overtaken by the largely Sunni Muslim opposition, which is becoming better and better coordinated militarily each day. Salman Shaikh, a Doha-based Middle East analyst for American think tank Brookings, told Sunday’s Zaman that such an option would also not be economically viable because there would be no national infrastructure on which a national economy could possibly be built. Additionally, the coastal region has a significant Sunni population of about 1.5 million and, if these people were to be deported with the formation of the Alawite state, great massacres could be a result.

Bacık also feels “there can be no solution that would reconcile all regions of Syria, regardless of the formation of an Alawite state.”

The fragmentation of Syria would likely be a long-term headache for Turkey, leading to a more difficult struggle for the latter to bring under control its decades-old terrorism problem as well as raising concern that PKK-affiliated groups in Turkey could be bolstered. Southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and parts of northern Syria have been the stage for a 28-year conflict between Turkish forces and the PKK, which in various incarnations has been waging a campaign for autonomy in the largely Kurdish Southeast of Turkey.

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