Turkey enlists northern Iraq's help in countering threat of Syria-PKK alliance
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani pose for media before their meeting in İstanbul, 5 November 2011. (Photo: EPA)
Turkey has been actively working with the Kurdish Regional Administration in northern Iraq for some time now to counter the growing threat from its southern neighbor Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government is courting terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants to strike Turkish interests, Today's Zaman has learned.
A senior government official who has deep knowledge in intelligence because of his position said Turkish officials have been meeting with Kurdish leaders in the northern Iraqi administration to put in place a comprehensive strategy to diffuse the threat posed by the PKK in the Syrian Kurdish community. The official spoke with Today's Zaman on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“We have come to an understanding from Kurdish officials in Arbil that the PKK threat in Syria is seriously undermining the legitimate aspirations of Kurds in the region,” he explained. “What is more, they also realized that the PKK's support of the violent regime in Syria puts all Kurds in the region in an awkward position. They do not want Kurds to be seen as supporting a brutal regime that has been cracking down on civilian protestors.” The official said the meeting of Syrian Kurds from 32 countries held in Arbil was held Jan. 27-28 under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as an important step towards the direction of sidelining the PKK. The PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria was not invited to attend this conference. “[Massoud] Barzani [president of the KRG] is telling us that his ultimate goal is to build a coalition as wide as possible against the PKK so that they can be effectively marginalized,” the same official explained. “In the long run, Barzani even aims to include the PYD under the Kurdish National Council Syria [KNCS] provided that they put some distance to the PKK,” he predicted.
The KNCS was founded in Qamishli in the outer northeast of the country as a consequence of the Syrian uprising in October 2011 and was regarded as a representative body of Kurdish interests there. The KNCS says it supports a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish question on the basis of self-determination or some sort of autonomy. It has been in negotiations with the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council as well as the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) and other opposition groups, to strike a deal for the position of Kurds in the post-Assad era. The most contentious issue during discussions was the status of Kurds and how that will be tied to the Arab identity of the Syrian Republic. Assad also uses the PKK to prevent Kurdish opposition from unifying while the PKK helps Assad pre-empt Kurds from joining the Arab opposition groups as well.
In the meantime, Turkish intelligence reports submitted to the government detailed how the Assad regime has been providing support to the PKK in Syria by giving them freedom to operate in the northern part of the country bordering Turkey. The reports, explained to Today’s Zaman this week by a senior government official, underlined that last year’s assassination of a leading Kurdish figure, Mishaal al-Tammo, by Syrian intelligence officers after he allied himself with the Syrian opposition was in fact a shot across the bow for Turkey. Al-Tammo was known to be strongly opposed to the PKK taking a stronghold among Syrian Kurds and thereby hijacking the legitimate demands of Kurds there. By taking him out of the picture, the Syrian regime allowed breathing room for the PKK to aggressively work towards its goals.
Assad thinks the PKK and affiliated Kurdish groups in northern Syria may act as a buffer force when Turkey decides to intervene in Syria, either alone or acting under the mandate of a regional organization or a UN Security Council resolution. The PKK has already signaled it is ready and eager to assume such a role. Cemil Bayık, number two in the PKK, has warned that if Turkey were ever to intervene against Assad, the PKK would fight on Syria’s side.
PKK’s acting leader Murat Karayılan said on Thursday to the Europe-based Fırat News Agency, a mouthpiece of the PKK, that Turkey was preparing the groundwork for an intervention in Syria. “The Turkish state is planning an intervention against our people,” he said. “Let me state clearly, if the Turkish state intervenes against our people in western Kurdistan, all of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone.”
Western Kurdistan is the term Kurdish nationalists use to describe Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, while by Kurdistan they mean the Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Kurdish intellectual and writer Kemal Burkay told the Human Rights Commission in the Turkish Parliament in January that the PKK moved as many as 2,000 militants from Iraqi hideouts to northern Syria to help Assad’s forces.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that setting up a “safe zone” or a “buffer zone” along the border with Syria to protect civilians from Assad’s forces was among the options being considered should the stream of refugees turn into a flood. Setting up such a zone would involve troops entering Syria to secure territory.
Intelligence reports also verify that to mobilize Kurdish support for the ailing regime in Syria, Assad quickly moved to offer citizenship rights to some 350,000 stateless Kurds so that they can travel, own property, enroll in universities and secure employment in Syria. The PKK-affiliated PYD in Syria, though officially illegal, was also allowed to start networking with other Kurdish parties established in the Syrian Kurdish region.
The Syrian opposition suspects that Assad has gone as far as promising autonomy to Kurds in exchange for support to his regime and loyalty. The noticeable restraint used by Syrian security services in the face of protests against the Assad regime in Kurdish areas may be another indication that the regime is counting on Kurdish support for the coming days and weeks.
This new approach is quite a contrast to the March 12, 2004 Kurdish riots in Qamishli, the capital of Hassekah province, as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus during which the regime responded violently to crack down on Kurdish protest movements. While there have been clashes between protesters and Syrian security forces mainly in Sunni Arab towns during the year-long uprising, Kurdish areas have remained relatively calm.
While Turkey has been carefully monitoring developments in Syria, Damascus seems to have returned to the adversarial policies of the ‘90s during which it tried to use the PKK as trump card against Turkey over Syria’s claim to Hatay province and the Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey. Assad’s father even sheltered the now-imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, for many years before he was forced to leave the country under Turkish pressure. He was later captured in Kenya by Turkish intelligence operatives and brought back to Turkey for trial.
The PKK, labeled as a terrorist organization both in the US and EU, has been fighting a secessionist campaign against Turkey for almost 30 years. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 PKK terrorists, soldiers and civilians.