Amid growing PKK threat in Syria, Turkey takes precautions
As Turkish officials warn Syria not to play the "Kurdish card", concern is mounting that Syria may once again be supporting the PKK over Ankara's support for the Syrian opposition.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 29/03/12
Growing ties between the PKK and Syria, which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterised this week as "obvious," have prompted Turkey to tighten its border security out of concern that militants could cross the border or infiltrate alongside Syrian refugees fleeing the rising violence in their country.
Syrian refugees are searched by Turkish soldiers after crossing the border fences near the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province. [Reuters]
In addition to increasing patrols along the porous border and strengthening security at border-crossings, the steady flow of refugees and the threat posed by the PKK have prompted Ankara to draw up "contingency plans" for a buffer zone in Syria.
Orhan Karasayar, a deputy with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from the province of Hatay on the border with Syria, told SES Türkiye that establishing a buffer zone is "just an option that is on the table, nothing has been decided yet."
Officials in Ankara have stated a buffer zone would only be implemented in the event of large scale refugee flows that threaten Turkey's security and stability.
Karasayar said Turkey's borders would remain open for all Syrians seeking to escape violence, "but not for those who want to threaten democracy and security in Turkey."
The renewed prospect of the PKK and its Syria offshoot, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), receiving direct or indirect support from Syria is a complicating factor in Turkey's Syria policy, as the final outcome of events in Syria remains clouded in uncertainty.
In 1998, Turkey threatened Syria with war over its support for the PKK, which ultimately led the late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad to drop his support for the PKK.
Based on media and intelligence reports, Oytun Orhan, a Syria analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, says that up to 2,000 PKK militants are deployed in Syria near the border with Turkey. He said that in recent months, Syria has been providing the PKK with "room to manoeuvre", even if it is not at the same level as in the 1980s and 1990s.
Meanwhile, Saleh Muslim Mohammed, the head of the PKK's branch in Syria, PYD, is believed to have returned to Damascus from the PKK's base in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
An estimated one-third of the PKK's fighting cadre, including Fehmen Huseyn (Bahoz Erdal) -- a member of the PKK's three man executive committee and head of its armed wing -- the HPG, are Syrian Kurds.
In return for the room to operate, the PKK appears to have come out in defence of the regime in Syria. Last week, Murat Karayilan, the acting leader of the PKK, said that "if [the Turkish state] intervenes against our people in western Kurdistan [northeast Syria], then all of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone."
"The Turkish state is planning an intervention against our people," the pro-PKK Firat News Agency quoted him as saying.
Faruk Ekmekci, assistant professor at Karadeniz Technical University in Trabzon, said that the Assad regime would like to keep the PKK card to deter a Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory.
"I believe Assad would rather like to have the PKK as a deterrent capability. But if a Turkish incursion happens and the international community does not leave the Assad regime any option but to surrender unconditionally, in that case, the Syrian regime might decide to fight to the death and make an alliance with the PKK against Turkey," he told SES Türkiye.
But there are a host of factors to consider before Turkey, with the likely support of the international community, would create any buffer zone.
"It would necessarily involve Turkish security forces and involve the potential for clashes with Syrian troops," Atilla Sandikli, former head of the International Relations Department at the Turkish War College and current head of the Wise Men Centre for Strategic Studies, told SES Türkiye.
He also noted that a potential buffer zone "has nothing directly to do with Kurdish rebels. The main reason is to protect the Syrian rebels in their own territory and prevent further social problems in Turkish territory."
Following the Gulf War in 1991, Turkey established a buffer zone in northern Iraq to protect Iraqi Kurds and prevent hundreds of thousands of refugees from pouring over the border. In addition to humanitarian concerns, Turkey calculated that the PKK would use the chaos to infiltrate fighters into Turkey.
The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, which had stabilised at around 7,000 last year, has risen over the past month to the nearly 17,000 as violence escalates across the border.