The relations between Turkey and Syria might get even worse because of the latter’s alleged involvement in supporting the recent surge in terrorist attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The news stories and comments appearing in the press on Syria’s probable link with the terrorist organization caused Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to warn Damascus sternly. In a statement he made while he was on an official visit in Qatar on Tuesday, Davutoğlu said: “Recalling the past, [Syria] should not even think of playing the PKK card. Everybody will see where such an act would lead.”
Analysts as well as the Turkish public share the misgivings of Davutoğlu on Syria, a country with which Turkey had developed very close political and economic relations in recent years and was, just less than a year ago, taking steps towards economic integration.
Syria, which let Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, now in prison at İmralı, take shelter and direct the terrorist organization from within its borders for several until 1998, the year when Syria had to expulse Öcalan because of pressure from Turkey, seems inclined to play the PKK card against Turkey again since its neighbor in the north, taking a stern attitude, has criticized Damascus when it chose to crush the demonstrations calling for reforms by firing at the protestors.
Sedat Laçiner, former president of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and now the president of Çanakkale 18 March University, believes that Syria now perceives Turkey as an enemy. The reason is simple, in Laçiner’s words: “President Bashar al-Assad and the Nusayris in Syria take the recent developments in the country as a life or death issue and label all those who do not lend them support as an enemy.” And Turkey, not only pressuring Syria to change, but also hosting the dissidents within its own borders and engaging in a dialogue with them, gets labeled as a country which is out to harm Syria. “For Syria, lacking the political, economic or military means to counter Turkey’s attitude, the only card available to them is the PKK,” Laçiner says.
Professor Doğu Ergil from Fatih University, a well-seasoned scholar in the Kurdish issue who has drawn up several reports and a book, “Kürtleri Anlamak” (Understanding the Kurds), since the 1990s, has something quite new to say on the issue of origin: “A Swedish researcher who lives in Arbil for the purpose of writing his thesis [on Tuesday] arrived at the university where I lecture. He has even been to Kandil [a mountain in northern Iraq where the PKK headquarters are situated], has met Osman Öcalan [Abdullah Öcalan’s brother who is known to have severed his ties with the PKK] and has contacts with the Barzani family. And he says that 40 percent of the PKK’s militants at Kandil are either of Syrian or Iranian origin.”
What’s most interesting in this account is that PKK terrorists from Iran and Syria, instead of fighting for the rights of Kurds in their own country, choose to fight Turkey, which is actually the country, as opposed to Iran and Turkey, which has taken giant steps in the past several years so that the Kurds may enjoy better rights. A transmission from Bahoz Erdal, real name Fehman Hüseyin, one of the leading personalities in the PKK and of Syrian origin, was recently intercepted by Turkish intelligence units while communicating with PKK militants, according to reports in the Turkish press, saying “do not get into any action that might put us on bad terms with Iran.” The PKK, in the mean time, is said to have also cautioned the Kurds in Syria not to rebel against the Assad regime. It’s exactly this state of affairs that analysts find strange. “On the one side, there is Iran, which denies rights to the Kurds, and Syria, where the Kurds are not even recognized as citizens, and on the other side Turkey stands in total contrast to its neighbors. The PKK, which has either stopped fighting recently (in the case of Iran) or has never fought a war against these countries, is attacking Turkey for all it is worth. The picture being as it is, I wonder whether these militants are also there to represent the official circles of the countries in question. Not being involved in a fight against the state in their country of origin, it’s a sign that, having reached an agreement with the countries concerned, the PKK is, in a way, acting because of the disagreements those countries have with Turkey,” says Ergil.
According to Ergil, the reason behind the PKK’s efforts in trying to establish an autonomous area in Turkey is to secure the cooperation between Syria and Iran in opposition Turkey by controlling the area. Reminding us of the Kurdish demands for an autonomous area, Ergil goes on to explain his theory: “They are trying to create a Kurdish area which at one end reaches Iran, and on the other stretches out to the Syrian border. This is also in accordance with the united ‘Kurdistan’ ideal. The aim would be the establishment of an autonomous ‘Kurdistan’, a dictatorship with close ties with Iran and Syria. And this, in turn, would secure the permanency of the regimes in Iran and Syria through the Kurds affiliated with the PKK.”
A statement made recently by Osman Öcalan, which appeared earlier this week in the Sabah daily, is also revealing with regard to the role Syria and Israel might have had in the PKK attacks. In the news report Osman Öcalan draws attention to the fact that after Turkey’s relations with Syria and Israel deteriorated the number of PKK attacks increased significantly. He also adds that Turkey is on its way to becoming a regional super power, and that is disturbing to some world powers, first and foremost the US and Israel. “Some are trying to put Turkey behind the eight ball through the PKK, in an effort to force a civil war in Turkey. Especially the PKK’s connections with Syria and the Israel must be examined,” says Öcalan. Laçiner believes that fighting a terrorist organization which finds shelter in three bordering countries will be a difficult task for Turkey, particularly when the acts of terrorism have no particular aim other than satisfying a neighboring country, given that terrorism activity has increased at a time the Turkish government was making efforts to take some steps.
But Mete Yarar, advisor to the think tank Ekopolitik, and also a former member of the Special Forces in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), thinks a little differently regarding the future of the struggle against the terrorist organization. In his view, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement that the operation against the PKK would continue until their terrorism comes to an end is important. “Turkey’s security forces are strong enough to settle this matter without the cooperation of any other country. It’s no longer of relevance what Syria would do, but what Turkey will do. After having shown patience for such a long time, it’s our turn to act now,” he notes.
Regarding Syria’s alleged PKK card and the future of the Assad regime, Laçiner’s comment is not any more promising than that of other analysts: “If solid proof is obtained of Syria’s involvement, Turkey will not quietly continue merely watching what Syria is doing. So, support given to the PKK would not slow down a probable end of the regime in Syria, but in fact would accelerate it.”