Western Kurdish autonomous region in Syria: the PKK's last card by Othman Ali*

Kurdish demonstrators hold flags of Syria’s opposition group, a banner and flags with a portrait of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. (PHOTO REUTERS)

July 30, 2012, Monday/ 18:01:00

Legitimate concerns were raised in Turkey after the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliate in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seized control of Syrian towns along the Turkish border.

Turkish authorities are worried that the PKK is using the current crisis in Syria to expand the area from which it can confront Turkey. Some circles in Turkey are worried that if Syrian Kurds manage to create their own autonomous state, this will fuel similar demands from Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Meanwhile, the Turkish opposition is playing on fears of Kurdish independence in Syria.

“Now a new Kurdistan is coming. Syrian Kurdistan is at the doorstep,” Muharrem İnce, a leading member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told reporters in Ankara. Therefore, Turkey is monitoring the events in northern Syria with great concern, and top officials in Ankara have made clear that they will not tolerate the PKK using the newly gained territories for any attacks on Turkey.

Although this issue has attracted excessive media coverage, we still think some somber notes on the crisis are warranted. We maintain here that this move by the PKK, which will lead to intra-Kurdish fighting, gives Turkey a casus belli for intervention in Syria on behalf of the Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Council (SNC) and serves as one more stimulus for addressing the Kurdish issue at home.

The new developments in northern Syria have created great controversy in government circles and received a disproportionate amount of media coverage in Turkey. The writers who have been dealing with the issue fall into two categories: On the one side are those who talk about it in doomsday language and describe the events as one more step towards the creation of greater Kurdistan at the expense of Turkey, Emre Uslu of Today’s Zaman and Metehan Demir of the Hürriyet daily are only a few examples of writers who conjure up such scenes. Yavuz Baydar, however, and others want to deal with the issue in a calm manner and have even seen some positive signs in it.

First and foremost it has to be stated clearly that Turkey need not be worried if the Kurds of any part of the envisaged Kurdistan become free from the tyrannical regimes of the region and enjoy their national rights in a democratic state. The Arab Spring has brought a new era to the region: freedom and the right of self-determination for all to live in democratic and civil societies. The liberation of Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and Kurds from Assad’s authoritarian rule is welcome news in Turkey, and the government of Turkey has exerted much effort and has allocated a considerable amount of resources to see it happen.

Fulfilling the obligations of a secret agreement

Secondly, what we are seeing now is not an uprising of Kurds, but rather the Assad regime completing the final phase of a secret arrangement that has been agreed upon between the PKK, the PYD, Bashar al-Assad’s army and secret police in the Kurdish regions of Haseka and Aleppo districts. This is how many experts and Abdul Basit Seda, the Kurdish head of the SNC, view the situation. The uprising in Syria has exposed the brutality of the regime and its security apparatus. We witnessed how the bloodthirsty Syrian regime forces have suddenly turned into peaceful doves and surrendered the regions to PYD supporters. To understand this unfamiliar behavior we need to point out that since the start of the uprising in Syria the PYD supporters have been acting as enforcers for Assad, suppressing demonstrations in Kurdish areas, assassinating anti-Assad activists and using all forms of terror including, torture, kidnapping and intimidation to keep the Kurdish region of northern Syrian under tight control for the regime. In return the PYD has been given a free hand to run youth and culture centers and open Kurdish schools. Reports in the Turkish press also claim that the PKK opened a new training camp in the Syrian town of Resulyan across the border from Turkey’s Urfa province in November and sent 150 PKK militants there (Milliyet, Nov. 24, 2011). Kurdish politician Kemal Burkay was quoted as saying that 2,000 PKK militants were recently deployed to Syria, while Turkish TV stations broadcast video footage of the PKK checkpoints in the Afrin district of Syria (Radikal, Jan. 18; Beyaz TV, Feb. 17).

Thirdly, some observers have linked the events in northern Syria to post-Assad scenarios. Some official circles and observers in the West have pointed out that the only viable regime for the post-Assad arrangement will be the revival of the regime which the French tried to implement in the 1920s in Syria. This will divide the country into several feuding sectarian and ethnic entities, namely Alawite, Druze, Kurdish and Sunni Arab. Israel prefers to see this scenario implemented. Turkish officials view the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish region through this lens, and the Turkish foreign minister made clear that they will not tolerate such a regime. Fourthly, it appears that either the regime needed to withdraw its badly needed forces to fight in other areas where members of the Free Syrian Army are making serious inroads, and that the PKK’s strategy toward Syria does not call for fighting alongside the Assad regime until the very end as some have argued. The PKK has used the situation to its own advantage and it could be deserting Assad’s sinking ship. For this purpose the PYD is planning to declare “democratic autonomy” in the region.

Fifthly, it is also valid to argue that the Syrian president had decided it was time to play the PKK card against Turkey once again as was its policy in the 1990s. This policy was abandoned by the signing of the Adana Agreement of 1998. In 2009, the two countries signed a joint political declaration establishing a high-level Strategic Cooperation Council, but this was disrupted by the Syrian uprising, in which Turkey has been accused of supporting the opposition.

Turkey cannot afford to see the PKK roam freely in Syria and use it as a base from which to launch armed attacks on the country. The PKK is already a big threat to Turkey’s internal security with its continuous attacks from northern Iraq’s Kandil Mountains. If the PKK gains new territory it will further complicate the situation and make it extremely difficult for Turkey to settle its Kurdish question.

The behavior of the PYD supporters in northern Syria is a clear indication that the PKK is bent on its policy of establishing an authoritarian regime that is not very different from that of Assad’s. The first victims of this policy are the Kurds of the region, especially the supporters of the groups of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which have been fooled into forming a united front with the PYD. Having realized that it cannot continue to perform for the Shabiha and for a regime which is doomed and totally isolated, the PYD representatives came hurriedly to the head of northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, in Arbil and agreed to run the Kurdish region in Syria in a partnership with the pro-Barzani KNC. The Arbil agreement signed on June 11 between the KNC and the Council of Western Kurdistan formed a joint leadership to run the Syrian cities taken by the PYD.

PYD takes over

As soon as the agreement was signed and before the coalition administration was formed and the Barzani-trained pro-KNC forces made their way to northern Syrian, the PYD supporters took the initiative and in a prior agreement with the Syrian regime took control of the area. Now the PYD’s rule is fully established, and PKK flags and Abdullah Öcalan’s portraits are spread all over the government administration offices. Other Kurdish groups’ flags were on many occasions taken down by pro-PYD militias. Thus KNC supporters were taken by surprise and left to voice complaints.

The PKK has no record of democratic rule or of believing in a dissenting voice and will accept nothing short of total submission of the 11 Kurdish groups of the KNC, which until a few weeks ago Salih Muslim, the head of the PYD, described as “enemies” and “Kurdish collaborators” of the enemy. What happens in northern Syria after the fall of the Syrian regime, or even before that, will likely be intra-Kurdish fighting, a situation very similar to what took place between Kurdish groups after the Iranian Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the Gulf War of 1991 in Iraq.

With the fall of the regime in Syria, Turkey or the international axis opposed to the Iran-Syria- PKK axis will have an opportunity to expel the PKK from Syria, and the PKK will be very much marginalized. Before the fall of the regime the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has two policy options. The first one is the traditional policy of sending troops into northern Syria to pursue PKK forces. This policy has proven to be ineffective with regard to northern Iraq. Besides, Turkey will incur the wrath of the Kurds in the region and some Arabs. The second option will be the launching of combined efforts between Turkey and Barzani and the KNC. Either Turkey will try to get from the PKK, through Barzani and the KNC, a pledge that it will not use northern Syria for attacks on Turkey, which is not very likely, or it will be a very temporary pledge. Or a joint operation between Turkey and Barzani forces to dislodge PKK militias from their base in northern Syria. It will not be easy to convince Barzani to be a part of such exploits before the PKK-PYD renegade fulfill their obligations under the Arbil agreement, or before Turkey issues a bold new initiative towards settling the Kurdish question in Turkey to marginalize the PKK. Finally, Turkey could use the PKK threat and aggressive acts emanating from northern Syria as a casus belli to rally national and international support to declare the whole of northern Syria as a safe haven to help the Syrian opposition. The Turkish government could use the emerging threat of the PKK in Syria to receive a national mandate, which is essential if Turkey wants to take action against Syria past its own borders. The opposition in the past felt reluctant to approve such operations and viewed the Syrian uprising as an issue not relevant to Turkey’s security. This operation will help to purge the PKK from the area.

Regardless of how events will unfold in Syria, the PKK seems to have made a strategic error in allying itself with the Syrian regime, which is like betting on a losing horse. The PKK’s western Kurdishautonomous adventure is its last card to play.

* Dr. Othman Ali, Ph.D., is head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Arbil, Iraq.

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