Syrian Kurds pose problems for Turkey
The crisis in Syria highlights the urgent need for Turkey to solve the Kurdish issue.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 16/04/12
More than a year after anti-government protests began in Syria, the Syrian Kurds remain divided over their role within the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), putting Turkey in a difficult position as it tries to unite the opposition while maintaining control over its own Kurdish issue.
Kurdish demonstrators hold up the Syrian independence flag during a March 21st protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli. [Reuters]
The crux of the problem was highlighted when the main Kurdish opposition bloc, the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC), walked away from the SNC before the second Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on April 1st.
The walk out exposed longstanding rifts, just as Turkey was pushing for the bickering opposition to present a united front.
The problem for Turkey is that the Syrian Kurds, like their brethren in Turkey, demand language rights, constitutional recognition as an ethnic group, the rectification of historical grievances and, for some, autonomy.
Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominate the SNC, have so far refused to include key Kurdish demands into their vision for a post-Assad Syria. Turkey has also contributed to the deadlock over its own concerns for how the Kurdish issue in Syria could ultimately play out at home.
Turkey's influence has been strengthened by close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, who view the ruling conservative AK Party government as a potential model.
The Syrian Kurds are not only wary of Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC, they also "don't expect anything good from Turkey," Jordi Tejel Gorgas, author of the book Syria's Kurds: History, Politics and Society, told SES Türkiye.
The deterioration of the Kurdish issue in Turkey since the much availed Kurdish opening in 2009 has contributed to the Syrian Kurds' unease. "The Kurdish opening failed in their eyes," Gorgas told SES Türkiye, noting a crisis of confidence.
"They [Syrian Kurds] don't see in any sense Turkey as a 'neutral' player in the region nor a model of democratisation," he added.
Meanwhile, media and Turkish intelligence reports indicate that Assad is looking the other way, if not tacitly supporting the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the PYD, against Turkey over its support for the Syrian opposition.
The PYD holds considerable weight among Syrian Kurds but its relations with the KNC and SNC remain tense -- its inclusion within any Syrian opposition would be opposed by Turkey.
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 -- are Syrian Kurds. Both the PKK and PYD have said they would fight Turkey should it intervene in Syria.
"But not all Kurds in Syria see the PYD as the legitimate representative of the Kurds, just as the Kurds as a whole don't see the SNC as the legitimate representative of all Syrians," Christian Sinclair, assistant director of University of Arizona’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, who studies the Syrian Kurds and has written about Kurdish politics in Syria, told SES Türkiye.
Sinclair says Turkey, Arab nationalists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the PYD are all jockeying for control of the Kurdish agenda. "The Kurdish street is forced to take a backseat while other groups decide its fate," he said.
Alan Semo, a representative of the PYD, told SES Türkiye that their party recently started an initiative of the Kurdish national movement in Syria.
"Our vision for the future is, first, to open the way for a change in mentality and, second, to organise the masses, meaning not only Kurds but all the people of Syria, including the Arabs and all other ethno-religious and ideological groups," he said. "We consider our ethnic diversity a colorful mosaic that adds a distinctive beauty to Syrian society."
The PYD has been accused by other Syrian Kurdish parties of being used by Assad to foment divisions among the Syrian Kurds, including accusations of attacks by the PYD on anti-Assad protestors in Kurdish areas.
"Particularly telling is the attitude of the PYD/PKK in Syria," Gorgas explained. "Ultimately, the PKK hopes that, should the regime not fall, their loyalty would bring about political hegemony in the Kurdish areas."
However, Sinclair says that although relations between the PYD and Assad could have the appearance of co-operation "it may be a mistake to view all their actions so." He explains that up until the rupture in Turkey-Syria relations last summer, the Assad regime had taken a particularly hard stance against the PYD -- but now that has changed.
"There is no reason now for Assad to rein in the PYD party members or supporters or their activities. He no longer has friends in Ankara and he's far too busy trying to quell an uprising. The PYD have taken advantage of this space to push their own agenda," he said.