Syria's Kurdish Threat to Turkish Interests

3 MINS READOct 30, 2012 | 10:15 GMT
Syrian Kurds residing in Lebanon protest in Beirut on Oct. 7

Recent clashes between Syrian Kurdish factions and the Free Syrian Army highlight a potential tool Ankara could use to contain the growing threat Kurdish separatism poses to Turkey. The conflict began Oct. 25, when for the first time rebels from the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, reportedly entered the Kurdish districts of Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsud in northern Aleppo. Syrian government forces responded by shelling these districts, killing several Kurdish civilians.

The Ashrafiyeh region is critical to Syrian government and rebel forces since it offers a strategic vantage point over Aleppo and sits at the crossroads of the city's main central and northern routes. Whoever controls Ashrafiyeh would enjoy a considerable advantage in efforts to cut its opponents' supply lines.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish Regions

The FSA's move into these Kurdish districts, however, is meeting considerable resistance from local Kurds. Kurds protested against the FSA on Oct. 26 for the previous day's killings, with clashes breaking out between Kurdish rebels and Syrian rebels. Firat News Agency, a media outlet that sympathizes with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a militant group commonly referred to as the PKK, claimed that the FSA opened fire on Kurdish protesters in Ashrafiyeh, killing five and wounding 10.

The Syrian opposition's Local Coordination Committees defended the FSA, blaming Kurdish rebels belonging to the Democratic Union Party — a Syrian Kurdish faction affiliated with the PKK — for instigating the violence. The People's Defense Units, a recently formed Syrian Kurdish faction affiliated with the Democratic Union Party, claimed Oct. 27 that it attacked FSA elements in the area, killing 19 FSA rebels. The Kurdistan Communities Union, the PKK's supreme political authority led by senior PKK figure Murat Karayilan, then openly threatened Turkey and the FSA on Oct. 28 for their military operations in northern Syria, an area the Kurdistan Communities Union referred to as "Western Kurdistan."

As the events of the past few days attest, the Kurdish landscape in Syria is extremely fractured. While some factions are focused on defeating Syrian President Bashar al Assad and are willing to align with the FSA, others evidently are not pleased with having the FSA intrude on their turf and are willing to fight the Syrian rebels. This dynamic serves the al Assad regime well, giving it divisions within the rebellion to exploit. Iran and Syria can be expected to encourage clashes between the FSA and Kurdish factions affiliated with the PKK.

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While fraught with risks for Ankara, the dynamic also suits Turkish interests. Turkey wants a fortified Syrian rebellion to force the al Assad clan from power, but Ankara's immediate interest is in containing a rising wave of Kurdish separatism in the region. Turkey understands that Kurds throughout the region see a unique opportunity with Baghdad and Damascus facing major internal distractions and with Ankara facing significant constraints in trying to manage this threat.

Countries in the region can exploit numerous divisions within the Kurdish landscape, but for now the momentum is with the Kurds. That momentum is building as various Kurdish factions are finding reasons to cooperate across borders. Turkey is thus likely to use its relationship with the FSA to form a bulwark against an emboldened Kurdish presence in Syria before Syrian Kurds establish ties with Kurdish groups beyond Syrian borders, potentially creating a regional Kurdish threat to Ankara.

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