The continuing violence and bloodshed in Syria may be troubling, but for Ankara, the real worry right now is actually about what's happening in the place where things are quiet, across the border in Syria's Kurdish region, where the Assad regime has now ceded control to local militias as it tries to consolidate its forces in order to protect Aleppo and Damascus from rebel forces.
With a Kurdish autonomous region already well established in northern Iraq, a nascent Kurdish autonomous region now in Syria and with its own Kurds increasingly making autonomy part of their demands, Turkey is now confronting what has long been one of the country's biggest fears: the rise of, as columnist Mehmet Ali Birand recently put it, the "mega Kurdish state."
From Ankara's perspective, there's certainly a lot happening to justify these fears, particular with regards to Syria's northern Kurdish region. With the departure of Assad's forces from the area, the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is considered to be close to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has stepped in to fill the vacuum. In response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last week that Turkey would "intervene" in Syria should the PKK set up camp there, while the Turkish military has started moving military hardware and personnel towards the Syrian border.
As political analyst and Today's Zaman columnist Ihsan Dagi writes, the fears about a Kurdistan rising that are gripping Turkey are providing a major test for Ankara's efforts to forge a new path on the decades-old Kurdish problem and for its self-stated goal to support regional moves towards greater justice and democracy:
Almost all commentaries published in Turkish media have told the story with great concern. The prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs have stated that if it becomes necessary, Turkey will not hesitate to intervene in Syria. The opposition has started to accuse the government of idly watching the establishment of a second Kurdish entity on its borders.
Underlying all these reactions is the assumption that developments in favor of the Kurds in the region constitute a threat to Turkey. It is thus inferred that Turkey would prefer the Kurds being ruled by dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad instead of having a say in their own future.
This is awkward, impossible to justify on any ethical or even practical ground. It is of course obvious that such an unethical position is the result of the security concerns of the state. Or, to put more accurately, it is due to the fact that there are demands from the Kurds of Turkey concerning their political and cultural rights. Once there is an emergence of a new entity populated by Kurds that provides the Kurds with more rights and freedoms, Turkey becomes worried that such improvements may set a “bad example” for its own Kurds. The well-being of Kurds thus is to be prevented by Turkey.
It is futile to try to build a future on the misfortune of the Kurds. Besides, in a world of changes towards democracy and self-government, it is unrealistic to assume that the Kurds will remain under the yoke of this or that nation or dictator. As the world transforms it is normal that the Kurds, too, are increasingly gaining their democratic rights and improving their standard of living.
Furthermore, the developments in northern Syria's Kurdish region are testing Ankara's newly strengthened ties with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. As described in a previous post, Turkey has been working on improving its relations with the KRG and its leader, Massoud Barzani, for economic reasons but also in the hope that by drawing Barzani closer and providing him with a route to ship his region's oil and gas westward, Ankara will be able to enlist his help in its efforts to shape the future of the Kurdish issue, which would include assisting in sidelining the PKK by reducing its freedom to operate. But it appears that Ankara was caught completely by surprise when it turned out that Barzani helped broker a deal between the various factions in the Kurdish area of Syria that effectively gave the PKK-friendly PYD control over large parts of that region.
Turkish policymakers should not have been surprised. Barzani -- correctly reading that the "Arab spring" could easily turn into a Kurdish one -- for some time now has been working to set himself up a kind of Kurdish paterfamilias who can help bring his people closer towards independence (and perhaps not just in northern Iraq). Here's what he had to say to Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf in a wide-ranging and telling interview that was posted online today:
JA: You've been such an essential part of the history of not just the Kurdish region, but the Kurdish people regionally. How would you like your legacy to be seen?
MB: I have a clear conscience as I have done whatever I have been able to do for the sake of our people. From my childhood, I have done everything to free our people, to liberate our land. The judgment will be left to the people.
JA: Is the region ready for an independent Kurdistan?
MB: It's a natural right of the people. But when and how it will be ready is a different question.