Since last Wednesday, when the defense minister and two other senior officials of the Syrian administration were killed in a major attack in Damascus, Kurdish groups have gained control of towns near the Turkish border as Syrian forces were moved to Damascus and other more central areas to fight back opposition forces. Kurdish groups are reportedly still in negotiations with the Syrian forces to take over the control of the country's biggest Kurdish city Qamishli.
The development raised concerns in Turkey, with newspapers reporting that PKK flags were hoisted in state buildings in the Kurdish-controlled cities and commentators warning that the PKK would find a new home in northern Syria now that the region is under the control of an alliance of Kurdish groups that also includes the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD).
But officials played down fears, saying an autonomous Kurdish administration where the PKK plays a decisive role would not be viable because no Syrian group would want it. Speaking to Today’s Zaman, an official also said the Kurdish control of the border towns was not an unexpected development, dismissing comments that Ankara was caught off guard.
The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) has said it would not allow the creation of a Kurdish state within Syria. “The Kurdish people are on the side of the revolution,” Abdulbaset Sieda, who heads the Syrian opposition’s umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Turkish reporters after talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Ankara on Monday. “We have given orders to make sure that no flag other than the Syrian flag be raised in Syria.”
Sieda also played down prospects for Kurdish separatism, saying the Kurds are part of the “Syrian national fabric” and accused the Syrian administration of willingly turning the border areas over to the PYD.
Oytun Orhan, an expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) says that the PYD’s control in the region is temporary both because the regime almost withdrew from the region willingly and neither the FSA nor Turkey would allow a PKK-controlled area in northern Syria. “A Syrian Kurdish administration squeezed between Turkey and the FSA cannot live for a long time,” he said.
Syrian Kurds were divided on how to act as an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spread across the country. The PYD, believed to be the dominant group among Syrian Kurds, refused to join the opposition, saying it is backed by foreign countries including Turkey. The PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) of Syria -- an umbrella organization of more than 10 Kurdish parties that is more inclined to join the anti-Assad movement -- agreed to set aside their differences and act together after a meeting hosted by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in Arbil last month. The two groups are now jointly running the newly “liberated” towns in northern Syria.
Turkey says it is against the partition of Syria, although critics say its staunch support for the opposition may result in just that. “Ankara’s policy of supporting a civil war and the dissolution of the central authority in Syria without control was the wrong choice,” said Professor Ümit Özdağ, who heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute, in a conversation with Today’s Zaman.
Özdağ insisted that the Syrian Kurds will work to create an autonomous region on the pretext that they want to stay clear of a civil war between the pro-Assad Alawites and the Sunni Arab opposition that he said would be inevitable in the event of an uncontrolled dissolution of central authority in Syria.
According to Dr. Veysel Ayhan, the director of the Ankara-based International Middle East Research Center, due to the demographic nature of Syria, any group would try for autonomy in Syria in the event of a civil war. Criticizing the government’s policy, Ayhan added that Turkey has neglected the possibility of the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region next to its border throughout the 17-month uprising.
Özdağ noted that that Assad’s forces are not strong enough to fight in northern Syria since their priority is to fight back opposition forces in Damascus, but added that Assad would support the emergence of a self-governing Kurdish region in the event that he is forced to withdraw to his hometown Latakia and establish a Latakia-based Alawite state.
Ankara, too, appears to be inclined to consider deliberate support by Assad for Kurdish autonomy as a likely option.
“Assad is supporting the Kurds in Syria deliberately to cause headache for Turkey,” said another official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Analysts also agree that due to the authority gap in Syria’s north, there is a “fertile ground” for free movement of the PKK-affiliated groups in northern Syria, which might cause the situation with the PKK in Turkey to deteriorate.
Turkey has long had tense relations with the Iraqi Kurds after they broke off from the Iraqi central administration and began running their autonomous region since the US-led war in the country.
Jabar Yawar, the spokesman for the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), denied reports that the KRG has sent forces to Syria as he expressed their intention to stay away from Syria’s internal affairs.
However, Ankara believes that Barzani, who dominates the Kurdish politics in Iraq, wants to have control over any Kurdish-run region, including one that could emerge in Syria. But Barzani desires a smooth transition in the region and would like to control the region without compromising its relations with Iran and Turkey, according to observers.