Rise of PYD in northern Syria jeopardizes Turkmen presence in region
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and a group that has been expanding its influence in northern Syria, approaching its target of establishing an autonomous Kurdish region along the Turkish border, is endangering the region's Turkmen population, a minority that does not wish to live under PYD rule.
“It is highly likely that the PYD will pose a threat to Turkmens [living in the north of Syria]. It may expel or target ethnic minorities in the region to establish its own authority there in the near future. We believe that, as an organization with a racist mindset, the PYD will never tolerate any other race, especially the Turkmens. The PYD is not in conflict with Arabs in the region. However, it is obvious that they won't refrain from conflict with the Turkmens, who have Turkey's support,” Tarık Sulo Cevizci, chairman of the Syria Democratic Turkmen Movement (SDTH), told Sunday's Zaman.
Although there is not a significant Turkmen population in the areas where the PYD has already declared autonomy -- Afrin, Kobani and Jazirah -- its armed militia's advance into the northern area that connects the three Kurdish regions may spread the conflict into areas populated by Arabs and Turkmens.
Turkmen communities coexist with the Kurdish majority in a region near the Syrian-Turkish border that runs from the northwestern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo to the northeastern governorate of Raqqa. Syrian Turkmens fear the displacement of 290 Turkmen villages in this area if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is declared.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed concerns about the PYD's advance in the region at a press conference in Ankara on Nov. 13, saying, “In the areas controlled by the PYD, with the help of the [Syrian] regime, there is brutal treatment [of minorities], especially of our Turkish brothers.”
Cevizci explained that Turkmen and Kurdish forces have encountered each other before and are likely to clash again, as the PYD does not see Turkmens as an obstacle to their plans to establish a Kurdish state in the region. However, Turkmens already have settlements in the area standing between the PYD's autonomous regions.
Although it is hard to tell the exact number of Turkmens living in Syria, Cevizci said they number 3.5 million and that nearly 1.5 million of these live in northern Syria, particularly in the regions of Raqqa, Aleppo and the port of Latakia.
Cevizci also drew attention to the small number of Turkmens who have taken refuge in neighboring countries. He said most Turkmens have not left their hometowns since the beginning of the civil war -- in March 2011 -- and continue to resist instead of allowing Turkmen areas to be occupied by extremist and racist forces.
Oytun Orhan, a prominent expert on Syria, told Sunday's Zaman that the PYD's militia force, the People's Protection Units (YPG), is showing a pattern of movement towards Turkmen settlements and stated that Turkmen groups are not strong enough to resist the YPG if it targets their settlements. He said that before the goal announced by the PYD leader -- namely, to establish a connection between the three autonomous regions, can be achieved, Turkmen militias and the YPG will face each other in combat.
“The Turkmens don't want to live under the PYD, jihadist groups or the Syrian regime. If the PYD takes the upper hand against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIS], it will face Turkmen troops, which do not have the power to resist. There has been a significant decrease in the number of Turkmen troops,” he said.
The Syrian Turkmen took the side of the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), from the start of the uprising. However, the FSA is in an extremely weak position in terms of the current multilateral conflicts, and the number of Turkmen fighters is decreasing day by day. Orhan said that while the number of Turkmen fighters was around 3,500-4,000 last year, it has now decreased to 2,000-2,500. He underlined that aid coming from the FSA has also been decreasing, with a serious effect on Turkmen military groups.
Serhat Erkmen, a consultant with the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday's Zaman that the region in which the Kurds want to establish a federal government includes many ethnic minorities, and claimed that the Kurds will clash with every minority that does not want to live under Kurdish rule.
“People living in that area [northern Syria] will probably have two options in the future: to take the side of the PYD or of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. This is a really hard choice for those people. Would Turkmens choose the PYD or al-Qaeda? I don't think they will choose al-Qaeda, although they don't want to live under PYD rule either,” Erkmen said, explaining that choosing the PYD is a difficult move for Turkmens, but if al-Qaeda-affiliated groups take the upper hand, the Turkmens will stand by the PYD.