With reports of clashes between Kurdish militias and jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition in the ethnically mixed town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian-Turkish border, the question of how Syria’s Kurdish population will fit into a post-Assad state has been forced to the front. For the past twenty months Syrian opposition forces have challenged Bashar al-Assad’s regime for control of major population centers. In response, the regime withdrew troops from peripheral towns to fight these critical battles, ceding control of some towns to militias associated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Now Syrian opposition forces have expanded their area of influence and are pushing into towns controlled by the PYD sparking clashes with casualties on both sides.
Throughout the Syrian revolution, Turkish support for opposition forces has steadily increased culminating in recent reports of Turkey’s possible deployment of Patriot missile batteries on the border, a potential precursor to the imposition of a no-fly zone and a move strongly opposed by other regional players. During past decades Damascus, Ankara, and Baghdad have competed for regional dominance and have used one another’s Kurdish populations for political gains while simultaneously oppressing their own Kurdish citizens. Turkey and Iraq fear increased sectarian instability inside their own borders stemming from an empowered Syrian Kurdish population. Turkey can mitigate this sectarian threat by using its influence with the Syrian opposition to defuse growing tension along the border.
For decades Turkey has waged a counterinsurgency against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a broad organization complete with political, military, and social components. Hosted by the Assad regime, the PKK used bases in Syria to attack Turkey for much of the 80s and 90s. After Syria signed the 1998 Adana Agreement with Turkey in which it agreed to discontinue its sponsorship of the PKK, the organization moved its base of operations to the mountains of northern Iraq. The current violence and instability in Syria is perceived in Ankara as an existential threat, since disintegration of state control could allow the PKK to once again turn the country into a base for operations against Turkish targets. The Turkish government has attempted to prevent this from occurring by aiding the Syrian opposition, which it hopes will be able to take control of Syria after Assad’s fall and prevent the country’s fracture. So far the Syrian opposition has shown little interest in including Syria’s Kurds in the new order. The PYD, although just one of many Kurdish parties in Syria, has staked out a claim for itself as the most able to protect the Syrian Kurdish population in what has become an intercommunal civil war. The PYD, while not directly under the command of the PKK, has a similar political orientation and sees the Arab-centricity of the Syrian opposition as a direct threat to Kurdish interests.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, has made efforts on Ankara’s behalf to unify the non-PKK affiliated Syrian Kurdish parties, embodied as the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to offset the advantage of the well-organized PYD. He has sponsored several meetings in Irbil where he has urged Syrian Kurdish parties to fight the “fires of discord” and to focus on “higher goals and interests.” Yet so far the PYD has outmaneuvered the KNC at every turn and remains the only relevant Kurdish fighting force in Syria. Meanwhile Barzani is enmeshed in his own domestic struggle with Baghdad over the limits of his government’s power in a federalized Iraq. This struggle, which in recent weeks has seen battle lines drawn south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, has led Barzani to seek a close relationship with Ankara to counterbalance Baghdad, which has put Ankara in the diplomatically awkward position of supporting Barzani and the KRG while fighting its own Kurdish population. The Turkish government has looked to Barzani to keep the PKK from using the mountainous border between the two countries as a base for operations. Barzani seeks to maintain his autonomy from Baghdad and increase his influence among the Kurds in eastern Syria. Turkish leadership wants to thwart any Syrian Kurdish push for autonomy, which in its view will only strengthen the hand of the PKK.
The crisis in Syria has also made Baghdad fearful of instability on its western border. Yet unlike Turkey, which has backed the Syrian opposition, Baghdad has tacitly thrown its support behind the regime. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stated that “[Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan should focus his attention on addressing Turkey’s domestic issues” and stop meddling in Iraqi domestic affairs by supporting Kurdish autonomy in the north. While Ankara has maintained that it does not wish to see an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, its support for Barzani has enabled him to play Ankara off Baghdad. The Syria issue has only further added to this dynamic with Barzani acting as an intermediary for Turkey in dealing with the KNC and Baghdad allowing arms and men to flow across its porous border to the Assad regime.
Turkey and Iraq fear sectarian contagion crossing the border from Syria in the form of Kurdish empowerment. Ankara fears a Syrian entrenched PKK and Baghdad fears an empowered Barzani. Baghdad’s fear is inflamed by Ankara’s support for Barzani, yet this support has done little to diminish the PKK’s influence inside of Turkey. Turkey wishes to see a stable Syria that does not harbor terrorists. If the Syrian Kurdish population, including the dominant PYD, is not involved in the formation of the post-Assad order then Turkey’s fear will almost certainly become a reality. Recently Erdogan conducted negotiations with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to secure the end of Kurdish hunger strikes in Turkish prisons. This shows willingness on Ankara’s part to deal with even the most extreme Kurdish nationalists. Yet the PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, has stated that his party does not “want separatism or to draw new borders” but rather only “the right to defend ourselves, but within the Syrian borders.” If Turkey wishes to prevent Syria from once again becoming a base of operations for the PKK it must use its influence with the Syrian opposition to de-escalate the tension along the border and to give Syria’s Kurdish population a seat at the table.
Dylan Maguire is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.