Ankara and the Syrian Buffer Zone

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Demonstrators near Aleppo waive Syrian Opposition and Kurdish flags in protest against the Assad regime. (Photo: reuters)
Demonstrators near Aleppo waive Syrian Opposition and Kurdish flags in protest against the Assad regime. (Photo: reuters)

In the wake of the steady disintegration of the Assad regime, Syrian opposition activists reported that several towns, such as Amouda and Qabani in Syria’s Kurdish populated north eastern region had passed in mid-July 2012 without a fight into the hands of a local group called the Free Kurdish Army. Thus emerged for the first time in modern Kurdish history the nucleus of an exclusively Kurdish-controlled enclave bordering the predominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey. After largely sitting on the sidelines of the Syrian revolution, political groups from Syria’s Kurdish minority in the northeastern region appear to have moved decisively to claim control of the Kurdish-populated towns.

The Turks, who have been at war with the Kurdish PKK for decades, have been monitoring developments in Syria with increasing concern. As Arab borders and the integrity of Arab states look shakier than they have at any time in living memory, Turkey faces the possibility of sharing long-term borders with two semi-sovereign Kurdish entities. The specter of eventual Kurdish sovereignty and Turkish fear of this are also discernible in the air. Thus a columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet wrote in late July: “Only a week ago we had a 400-kilometer ‘Kurdish border.’ Now, 800 kilometers have been added to this.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan has made clear that Turkey sees intervention against rebel bases in northern Syria as its “most natural right.”

The spike in the PKK’s terrorist activity in Turkey comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the PKK and its affiliates are gaining ground in Turkey’s southern neighbor. Particularly alarming was the capture of several towns along the Turkish border by the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD). Turkey watched nervously as Kurdish groups took control of the towns after the withdrawal of Assad forces and hoisted the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings. The takeover of Syrian Kurdish towns along the border with Turkey by armed Kurds of the PYD, confronts Turkey with a challenging dilemma for which, unlike in Iraq, it has no ready answers.

Turkish fears of Syrian Kurdish areas developing into a springboard for attacks on Turkey may also present the real reason for Ankara’s proposal to create a “humanitarian” bufferzone on the Turkish-Syrian border to counter Syrian and neighboring Kurd’s intentions. Indeed the Turkish government has already quite bluntly warned: “We will not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear that Turkey would take any step that is necessary against a terrorist group, in his real meaning Kurdish fighter presence in northern Syria.

Ankara is not alone to declare such a “buffer zone” in Syria. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France, which backs Turkey’s idea, said in an interview last Wednesday on France-Inter radio that setting them up without an internationally imposed no-fly zone to protect civilians is impossible. Naturally, only Turkey has sufficient forces available to act within such a contingency without presenting a major problem. All it needs, is for someone to take the decision and call for action, which is already much too late in coming.

For now the Syrian Kurds are hedging their bets. Their takeover of Syrian Kurdish towns while remaining on the side lines of the effort to topple Assad, gives them leverage irrespective of who emerges victorious from the battle for the future of Syria. In a post-Assad Syria that will probably remain volatile and unstable with ethnic and religious groups fighting one another, Syrian Kurds are likely to learn from the success of Iraqi Kurds in carving out a relatively stable enclave of their own while the rest of Iraq tore itself apart. In preparation, Iraqi Kurdish forces have already started training Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Turkish observers have commented that the geopolitics of the Middle East is already being reshaped, with the emergence of a “Greater Kurdistan” no longer a remote possibility. This is posing enormous challenges for all the states hosting large Kurdish populations: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Kurdistan is a potential land bridge for many of the conflicts currently erupting in this part of the region. It provides a ground route for Iraqi Kurdistan to supply the Syrian Kurds as they seek greater autonomy from Damascus. But its use will depend on which power dominates the tri-border area between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. For Turkey a Kurdish ruled Kurdistan presents a strategic challenge, which has to be averted by all means, in order to maintain its national sovereignty. And the challenge is both strategic and demographic.

Presently, Turkey’s population is approximately 75 million. Kurdish sources claim there are as many as 25 million Kurds in Turkey, but some Turkish demographers estimate that the real number could actually reach as high as 37 million, becoming almost half of modern Turkey’s population.

Despite enjoying wide-spread popular support in Kurdistan, Kurdistan’s politicians have been slow to throw their support behind Syria’s 11 month long popular uprising. In January 2012 Massoud Barazani, The president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan first openly voiced his support. (kurdishrights)

In Syria, ethnic Kurds account for roughly nine percent of Syria’s population, reaching a total of nearly 1,6 million, making it the largest ethnic minority in this country. Kurdish fighters, although sofar not willing to align fully with the Free Syrian Army, are already sizably involved in the insurrection. Some even assess that they might hold the key to the final fate of this struggle, toppling the Alawite Assad Regime. And Syrian Kurdish leaders are already feeling their way towards their Kurdish neighbors. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, has recently invited the Syrian Kurdish parties to a meeting in Erbil, Iraq, on 28 January 2012. The purpose of the meeting was to call for the overthrow of the Assad regime, against the advice of Iran and the PKK, with whom the KRG are at loggerheads. Meanwhile the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq is training Syrian Kurdish fighters to help defend their territories within Syria. But matters are far from easy, as a decade long political rift exists between various Kurdish factions. In this Barazani has also managed to achieve some breakthrough. He has played an important role in brokering a reconciliation agreement between the two main Syrian Kurdish factions, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the People’s Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and also persuaded anti-Turkish Syrian Kurdish factions to stop fighting against Turkey, at least for the time being and concentrate their efforts against the Assad regime.

It remains to be seen if Ankara will manage to persuade it’s NATO allies to join in creating a so-called humanitarian Buffer Zone along the Syrian northern border, or even decide to act alone, if matters get too rough on its volatile borders, which eventually could then embrace the entire region, spreading from Turkish Hatay on the coast (formerly Alexandretta) and the tri-border zone to the east. Then sooner or later as the fighting spreads and more and more displaced refugees will flock into the safe area, the Turkish Army will have to intervene to “restore order” in the ensuing dangerous chaos. Once deployed there in force, it will require some decisive action to get them out again. As matters stand right now, judging by recent performance of an indecisive world leadership, Ankara stands a good chance to get away with such move and even improve its deteriorating political situation along its unstable southern border.