Turkey's Problems Grow with a Syrian Kurdish Move for Autonomy

8 MINS READJul 19, 2013 | 10:30 GMT
Turkey's Problems Grow with a Syrian Kurdish Move for Autonomy
(-/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish rebel fighters at a ceremony in Qamishli, northern Syria, on July 18.

That a Kurdish group would declare autonomy from Syria's currently fragmented state was inevitable, but Turkey is now facing a spread of Kurdish separatism at the same time it is facing mounting obstacles in its current peace track with the Kurdistan Workers' Party within its borders. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the largest and most organized Kurdish group in Syria, plans to claim autonomy from the Syrian government July 19. Within three months it intends to hold general elections and a constitutional referendum to formalize Kurdish administration in the densely Kurdish-populated parts of northeast Syria.

Turkey's government currently lacks the means to forcibly suppress the spread of Kurdish separatism in the region, much less secure a comprehensive peace with Kurdish militants in Turkey. However, Syrian Kurds will be far more limited than their Iraqi counterparts in their ability to consolidate control over an economically viable autonomous zone. Driven by competing strategic interests, Turkey and the Syrian regime will try to play off competing factions in the Kurdish and Sunni rebel landscape, which will only augment infighting in the Syrian Kurdish region and undermine the Democratic Union Party's attempt to consolidate power. At the same time, Turkey will struggle to ensure that the Kurdish political evolution in Syria does not revive the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey as Ankara's own peace process starts to derail.

The Democratic Union Party, which has emerged since the beginning of the Syrian rebellion as the most popular and best organized Kurdish organization in Syria, intends to carve out and take the lead in administering an ethnic autonomous zone for Syria's Kurds in the country's northeastern borderland with Turkey. Syria's Kurdish population, which constitutes about 9 percent of the country's total population of 22.5 million, is most densely concentrated in Hasakah province, where the Democratic Union Party controls about 60 percent of the oil fields. Though the Democratic Union Party is the most cohesive Kurdish organization in Syria to take advantage of the Syrian regime's preoccupation with the Sunni rebellion and loss of territorial integrity, "western Kurdistan," as Kurdish locals have been referring to the region, faces many more obstacles than its eastern counterpart in northern Iraq in trying to develop a politically cohesive and economically viable autonomous zone.

The Limits of Kurdish Autonomy in Syria

The terrain in northeastern Syria does not afford Syrian Kurds the same kind of protection that northern Iraq's mountainous enclave does for the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Syrian Kurdish region is spread across the broad flat lands of the Jazirah Plateau. This type of terrain not only makes it difficult for militant groups to take cover and find refuge but also is also conducive to conventional military operations, either by Syrian or Turkish armed forces looking to suppress Kurdish separatism when they find the political will and military wherewithal to do so.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish Regions

The Syrian Kurdish region also faces much more serious economic constraints than its Iraqi neighbor. While Iraqi Kurdistan alone is sitting on 45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, most of Syria's 2.5 billion barrels of proven reserves are split between Kurdish-populated Hasakah province in the northeast and rebel-controlled Deir el-Zour in the east. Before the rebellion, Hasakah province was producing around 166,000 barrels per day of heavy crude, but that level of output has now been halved from destruction of energy infrastructure in the area. With many refineries taken offline by the fighting, the area's residents are using extremely crude methods to distill oil in large pits dug into the ground or in makeshift mobile refineries stationed on trucks. Hasakah's heavy crude must compete with Deir el-Zour's lighter, easier-to-refine crude in the local market, where the regime and rebel forces compete for supplies, and across the border in Turkey, where producers can secure a larger profit. 

Though the Syrian Kurds have a much more limited export market for oil in the current conflict, fierce competition over these oil resources will encourage fragmentation in the Syrian Kurdish political landscape, as groups like the Democratic Union Party try to maintain a monopoly over Hasakah province's oil output. On top of Kurdish competition, both Syrian rebels and regime forces will be vying for this oil as they try to maintain their logistics chain and popular support. Interviews with Kurdish and Sunni rebel oil producers in Hasakah province and Deir el-Zour reveal a flexibility in loyalties as many producers, driven both by intimidation and profit, sell to regime and rebel elements.

The Syrian Regime's Leverage in Turkey

Notably, the Syrian Kurdish move toward autonomy is not an entirely unilateral action. The Syrian government has already openly acknowledged that it has lost control over northeastern Syria, a region too distant and not critical enough for regime forces to concentrate their operations. In peacetime, the Syrian regime would be quick to quell Kurdish separatism in the northeast, but the reality of the civil war has forced Damascus to make the best of the situation.

The Democratic Union Party is already suspected of collaborating with the regime on oil sales and against Sunni rebel factions seen as encroaching on Kurdish territory. The Syrian regime can continue to play off different Kurdish factions to keep them and Sunni rebels in the area preoccupied. Critically, the Syrian regime can use Syrian Kurdish autonomy to spook its regional adversaries in Ankara, who are extremely alarmed at the prospect of a Kurdish autonomous zone stretching from the Zagros Mountains in the east to the Taurus Mountains in the west that would risk eroding Turkey's territorial integrity.

Turkey has been facing this prospect for nearly two years now, as fragmentation in Syria and Iraq have provided the Kurds with the breathing room and incentive to bridge their frontiers and push for greater autonomy. Turkey's concerns over a regional spread of Kurdish separatism spurred the government to launch an ambitious peace track with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK, to pre-empt a much bigger Kurdish threat within its borders. But in line with Stratfor's forecast, this peace process is already stumbling in its first phase.

A Faltering Peace Process

Though the cease-fire between PKK militants and the Turkish armed forces has largely held over the past five months, the PKK has dragged out the withdrawal of its forces from Turkey to northern Iraq. According to the PKK, some 500 of its militants — about 20 percent of the group's fighters, though it is hard to know the exact number — have withdrawn from Turkey. Ankara claims that only about 300 have left, with most of those fighters consisting of females and new recruits. The PKK has also maintained its arms caches, reflecting the group's distrust of the government's ability to follow through with the necessary legislative and judicial reforms to grant amnesty to Kurdish prisoners and address cultural rights, such as allowing courses to be taught in one's native language.

Meanwhile, Turkish media has been filled with intelligence leaks alleging that the PKK has launched new recruitment drives to augment its fighting force and is training and outsourcing attacks to other militant groups that have recently become active again in Turkey after a long hiatus, including the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front and Marxist Communist Party. Speculation has also heightened over linkages between the Syrian and Iranian regimes and Kurdish militants in Syria, Turkey and Iraq, since both Damascus and Tehran share a strategic interest in backing Kurdish militancy inside Turkey to limit Turkey's role in backing the Syrian rebellion. The image of PKK war cemeteries being built and PKK-organized celebrations in southeastern Turkey have only further enflamed Turkish distrust over the peace process.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has substantial popular support, but he does not carry the political weight alone to drive this peace process forward by making the types of concessions that would compel the PKK to visibly downgrade its militant capabilities in Turkey. This is especially true in the wake of the Gezi park protests, which have provided opposition factions, including the pro-Kurdish BNP, with the political momentum to publicly demonstrate against the government.

The government has thus grown increasingly desperate in its attempt to demonstrate that the peace process remains on track. Most recently, news stories about a PKK leadership reshuffle were heavily influenced by the government to make the move appear more accommodating to the government's interests in the peace process by seemingly downgrading the status of Murat Karayilan, who has consistently threatened the government with militant consequences if their demands are not met. Contrary to the government's depiction, Karayilan remains a key figure in the organization; he is the head of the People's Defense Forces, the armed wing of the PKK, and one of six old-guard members of the newly formed General Presidency Council that will be answering to imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been leading the negotiations with Ankara.

While the PKK appears to be maintaining its cohesion and hedging its bets amid a faltering peace process, Turkey now faces the additional pressure of an autonomous zone forming in Syria that will also serve as a haven for a variety of Kurdish and jihadist militants who could threaten Turkey. Turkey has tried to forge a dialogue with the Democratic Union Party through Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani while trying to back competing rebel forces in the Kurdish region to keep a check on Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. This dual policy will make it difficult for Turkey to influence the political evolution in Syria's northeast and will only increase Ankara's dependence on Barzani, who himself faces challenges in influencing the Syrian Kurdish landscape, to mediate with Kurdish militant factions spread across Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Barzani has secured a two-year extension to continue serving as the Kurdistan Regional Government's president, thereby providing Turkey with at least some continuity in its regional Kurdish policy. However, Barzani's influence alone and Turkey's risky energy relationship with northern Iraq will be insufficient to enable Turkey to effectively manage the growing Kurdish threat on its periphery.

With both the Syrian regime and Turkey trying to set competing factions against one another in this borderland, the Democratic Union Party will struggle to consolidate power in a fledgling autonomous Kurdish territory. A fragmented political Kurdish leadership in Syria will serve the interests of both Ankara and Damascus to an extent, but Turkey must also look ahead to the derailment of a peace process that is likely to undermine security in Turkey, along with the popularity of the ruling government.

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