In Syria, a Kurdish wildcard no one wants to play

For Turkey, Syria's Kurds are a double-edged sword. By throwing their weight behind the anti-Assad revolution, they may yet expedite the collapse of the Damascus regime. But they may also make Turkey's biggest nightmare, the emergence of an independent Kurdish homeland, come alive.

Kurdish protesters at a meeting of the Democratic Society Party in Nusaybin. Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP
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The drive through town had become something of an obstacle course. On some streets, young boys, stones in hand, squared off against policemen, each group waiting for the other to make the first move.

In other parts of the city, chunks of broken pavement, remnants of recent clashes, rendered any attempt at passage impossible. It was the evening of March 20 and Nusaybin - a town in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated south-east - was still on edge. Earlier in the day, riot police had fired tear gas and water cannons on men and women marching back from a rally to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. Similar scenes were to play out across the region throughout the week, after Turkish authorities decided to ban Newroz celebrations held on any day other than March 21.

At the offices of Mar-Has, the final stop on our ride through Nusaybin, the focus - rather than on the festering conflict between Turkey and its Kurds - was on events in Syria. Nusaybin lies within earshot of the border and Mar-Has, an NGO, helps people fleeing the country find their footing in Turkey, says Mir Mehmet, one of the group's members. "We provide them with food, with blankets, and we help find homes for them," he says.

Syria is said to be home to at least two million Kurds, many of them descended from families who fled Turkey after a series of bloodily suppressed Kurdish rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s. The government in Damascus having denied these Kurds citizenship, hundreds of thousands were left in limbo, unable to claim basic rights in Syria and - lacking national identity papers - unable to travel abroad.

That impasse was finally broken in April 2011 when Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, doing his best to appease the Kurdish minority and ensure that it remain on the sidelines of the anti-government revolution raging across Syria, promised to grant citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds. For those who hoped to take advantage of the measure to travel to Nusaybin, if only to call on relatives, the opportunity to do so proved short-lived. At the beginning of 2012, Al Assad's regime decided to close the border crossing between Nusaybin and its neighbouring sister city, Qamishli. Syrian Kurds attempting to enter Nusaybin now have to do so illegally, with the help of a smuggler, or via the closest border crossing still open, at Kilis, almost 500 kilometres away.

Although there may be as many as several hundred Syrians currently living in Nusaybin, few were willing to be interviewed, citing security concerns. Of those who agreed to speak, Munteser Sino claimed that during his first attempt to sneak across the border he was detained by Turkish border guards and sent back to Syria.

To date, Turkish authorities have received and accommodated well over 25,000 Syrian refugees, nearly all of them arriving in Hatay, a southern province of Turkey. The government in Ankara remains wary of new arrivals from Kurdish-populated northeastern Syria, however.

Some of these, Turkish officials fear, may be infiltrators from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group that has waged war against the Turkish army since 1984. (Some 40,000 people, including militants, soldiers and civilians, have died since the beginning of the conflict. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all list the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Many of Turkey's 12-15 million Kurds would disagree. To them, the group remains a symbol of resistance against a Turkish state that is yet to meet the Kurds' demands for cultural rights and some measure of political autonomy.)

Sino had been involved in the anti-Al Assad revolution from the start, he says. Among other things, he had helped diffuse videos of protests in Qamishli. Apprehended by Syrian agents during a trip to Lebanon, he was brought to Damascus and tortured for three consecutive days, he recalls.

When Syrian military intelligence tried to recruit him to spy on fellow opposition members, he refused. Once released, Sino attempted to flee Syria. Apprehended the first time around, he tried once again and succeeded. Like many Kurds on the Syrian side of the border, Sino has family members in Nusaybin, he says. "I prefer to stay with them rather than in the refugee camps in Hatay."

Ibrahim, another Syrian activist based in Nusaybin, fled Qamishli in February. Back in Syria, he had been arrested twice, he says - once on account of his political activities, and once on account of his brother's. The day we met, he had received a phone call from his sister in Syria. Intelligence agents had asked about his whereabouts, she told him. The family had feigned ignorance.

Sitting in a small park overlooking the border area, Ibrahim points to several watchtowers, a field tilled by Syrian farmers, and to rows of barbed wire. This, he says, is where he snuck across the border and into Turkey. He comes here often, he says. "But no, not out of nostalgia," he protests, laughing, "but because it's one of the few places in Nusaybin where I can get coverage on my mobile phone, which is Syrian."

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Although protests have regularly taken place in Kurdish towns across Syria since the spring of 2011, many experts suggest that the Syrian Kurds are yet to throw in their lot with the anti-Assad revolution. Qamishli-based activists insist the opposite, however, claiming that they have taken to the streets just as often as fellow Arab protesters. If Qamishli has not seen the kind of violence witnessed elsewhere in Syria, they say, it is because the regime has shrewdly decided to spare the Kurds the kind of indiscriminate force meted out to protesters in Homs, Hama or Idlib.

"They think that if they attack us hard, they will lose Damascus and Aleppo," says Alan Hassaf, a student activist. Both cities, he explains, are home to hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

Even those Syrian Kurds who've decided to close ranks with Arab protesters across the country acknowledge that doing so has taken a leap of faith. As they and others recall, back in 2004 when anti-government riots broke out in Qamishli few if any Arabs came to the Kurds' aid. Even after Al Assad's security forces killed dozens of protesters, sympathy for the Kurds was scarce. "Because of government propaganda, people thought of us as terrorists, as separatists," Ibrahim told me.

A number of local Arab tribes actually abetted the government crackdown. (Some of the tribes in question had been relocated to areas around Qamishli in the 1960s in order to dilute the Kurdish presence. Many remain loyal to the regime to this day.) The kind of enmity that developed between Kurds and Arabs over the decades hasn't been easy to overcome, says Seda Altug, a Turkish researcher. "It wasn't easy for the Kurds to pick up and join the revolution right away," she explains.

If the trauma of 2004 has receded, then a more tangible force appears to be holding back the Kurds. According to numerous accounts, the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - acknowledged as the most powerful among Syria's many Kurdish groups - have acted as a brake on anti-regime activities among the Kurds. At best, the PKK is playing for time, hoping to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon only once the regime's downfall is all but assured. At worst, it is colluding with Assad to contain protests among the Kurds.

The idea of co-operating with the regime is not alien to the PKK. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Al Assad's father, former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, provided the Kurdish rebels with access to training camps and allowed Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's leader, to set up shop in Damascus. The honeymoon ended in 1998 when Turkey, threatening force, strong-armed Damascus into expelling Ocalan. He was later captured and sentenced to death by a Turkish court. After Turkey abolished capital punishment, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

In the 2000s, as Turkey and Syria began to enjoy warmer ties, Assad cracked down against the PKK, jailing many of its members and forcing others to flee abroad. After anti-regime protests broke out across Syria in 2011, however, the tide changed yet again. For a beleaguered Damascus government, the PKK and its political allies acquired renewed strategic value - both as an extra deterrent against Turkish intervention and as a means of preventing the Syrian Kurds from joining the revolution en masse.

According to several recent reports on the subject, over the past year the PKK has used intimidation and force to silence Kurdish anti-regime activists in Syria.

A Kurdish politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, recalled that members of the group had tried to sabotage several anti-regime protests in Qamishli in the spring of 2011.

At one of these, PKK supporters arrived with banners featuring pictures of Abdullah Ocalan. "They wanted to send a message to Turkey and to Syria. They wanted to show that the Kurds of Syria were under their control and they wanted to hide the purpose of the demonstrations," the politician said. When he asked the PKK members to take down the banners - "our purpose is not to support Ocalan but to oppose the Syrian regime," he explained - they threatened him with death. "Later, they told me, 'If you do this again, we will kill you. We will kill anyone who does this. We paid with our blood for this banner, for this flag.'"

A September 2011 ceasefire between the PJAK (the PKK's Iranian branch) and the government in Tehran, the politician added, is clear evidence "that the PKK, Syria, and Iran have reached an agreement."

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There are signs that the PKK and the PYD may be recalibrating its alliances, however. Although the PYD had initially been more concerned with its own interests than with the Syrian regime's overthrow, says Alan Hassaf, the group has now changed course, siding more openly with the Kurdish protesters. In an interview with Kurdwatch, a German-based website, another Qamishli-based activist reported that the group "was trying to show the people that it represents the interests of the Kurds." "Whether we want it or not, the PYD is currently the strongest force in Qamishli," he added. "Without the PYD nothing works."

With Syrian nationals forming anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent of the PKK's membership, parts of the group may also be coming under pressure to ditch the alliance with Damascus.

"Some PKK fighters are not satisfied with the connection with the regime," says Sertac Bucak, a retired Kurdish politician from Turkey. "But the PKK is highly centralised. They will do what the leadership tells them to do - unless they decide to revolt, which is impossible to foresee for the time being."

According to Emrullah Uslu, a Turkish analyst, the PKK and its supporters in Syria may simply be holding out for a deal with a weakened regime or a post-Assad government.

As Uslu recently wrote in a commentary for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, "It appears that the PKK's strategy toward Syria does not call for fighting beside the Assad regime until the very end. Rather, it has used the situation to its own advantage to open new avenues for itself and strengthen its position within Syria in order to be ready for further confrontations if the Assad regime falls."

Whichever way the PKK may currently be leaning, the group has made it clear that it will oppose any outside intervention in Syria, particularly by Turkey. "If the Turkish state intervenes against our people in [Syria]," PKK commander Murat Karayilan told the Europe-based Firat news agency in late March, "all of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone."

Yet the PKK is far from being the only actor interested in keeping the Syrian Kurds in check. The anti-Assad opposition, for one, appears haunted by what it sees as the looming spectre of Kurdish separatism.

During a key March 27 meeting in Istanbul, leaders of the Syrian National Council - the main opposition platform - preferred to see the Kurds walk out in protest rather than accept their request for autonomy in a post-Assad constitution. (The two sides reconciled a week later after the SNC inserted a reference to "Kurdish identity" in its "National Covenant for a New Syria.") While many Syrian Kurdish activists have pointed to old-school Arab nationalism as the main culprit, others have placed part of the blame for the SNC's intransigence at the door of the Turkish government. Ankara, the SNC's main backer, is doing its best to prevent the Kurds from becoming key players in a post-Assad Syria, they argue. As a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria complained in an interview with Rudaw, a Kurdish newspaper, "the Turkish government will never allow Kurds to be recognised in Syria's new constitution."

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Such fears are not without basis. Turkey, having emerged as one of the key supporters of regime change in Syria, now finds itself in a pickle. On the one hand, it knows that the Kurds, if rallied, could potentially tip the balance of the anti-Assad rebellion. On the other, it worries that a united Kurdish front could quickly pave the way for another autonomous Kurdish region - in addition to the one in northern Iraq - on Turkey's southern border. This, Turkish officials assume, would further encourage calls for Kurdish autonomy at home.

Predictably, mistrust towards Turkey's intentions in Syria also runs high among the country's own Kurdish minority. "To be against Assad is the duty of anyone who calls himself a democrat," Ahmet Turk, a former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told me aboard a March 18 flight to Diyarbakir. "But if Turkey wants to determine the future of Syria without accepting the rights and the existence of the Kurds there, and to try to avoid giving them political status, that would be the same kind of unjust, tyrannical policy as Assad's." (Two days after our interview, the 70-year-old Mr Turk was rushed to a hospital after being punched in the face by a Turkish policeman during a Newroz demonstration.)

Overall, the Turkish Kurds' response to the events in Syria has been relatively muted, according to observers. Suspicion of Turkish motives is one reason. The PKK factor is another. Whatever their personal sympathies, says Bucak, Turkish Kurds and their political representatives may be wary of crossing the PKK when it comes to Syria. "The BDP is only willing to go as far as the PKK is wiling to let them."

In the absence of clear backing from a range of regional players - including the Turkish government, the PKK and the Syrian opposition - Syrian Kurds opposed to the regime in Damascus have found a ready ally in Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, which opposes efforts to unseat Bashar, Barzani has openly backed the transition to democratic rule in Syria.

In practical terms, he has extended his support to a coalition of Kurdish political parties opposed to the Assad regime. In January, Barzani invited members of the Kurdish opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan, urging them to close ranks with other anti-regime groups and to better prepare for a post-Assad future. During a later visit to Washington, he announced that Iraqi Kurds were ready to provide their cousins across the border with "moral support, political support, [and] financial support."

However, Barzani's backing may not be enough to galvanise those Syrian Kurds who remain on the sidelines of the year-old revolution against Assad - or to sustain those who've already joined it. According to Othman Ali, head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Erbil, it is now up to the Arab opposition and its Turkish backers to win over the Kurds. To try to do so is in Ankara's own interest. "Unless Turkey speeds up its efforts to win the hearts of Syrian Kurds by using its influence with the SNC to encourage the council to be more forthcoming with regard to Kurdish rights, as well as ensure better representation for them in the SNC and its executive Council, the PKK will avail itself of the opportunity to [assert] itself," Ali wrote in a recent commentary in Today's Zaman, a Turkish daily. "The PKK could well take advantage of the political and security vacuum which might be created with the fall of Assad's regime to expand the areas from which it can attack Turkey."

Of course, Ali cautions, to earn the Syrian Kurds' trust Turkey must first come to terms with its own Kurdish minority. A new national constitution, its adoption expected later this year, may be the Turkish government's last chance to do so.

Even if supporting the Syrian Kurds might appear be a gamble for Turkey, it is one worth taking, says Luqman Sulayman, a Kurdish writer and activist who fled from Qamishli to Nusaybin last year. "Turkey shouldn't fear the Kurds," he says. "In the next government of Syria, the Kurds will be more powerful. The Turks should want to have good relations with us in the future."

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul.