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Syria’s Kurds and Turkey

[PYD supporters at a funeral for a local of a village outside of Afrin, Syria, who had died fighting alongside the PKK in Turkey, August 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [PYD supporters at a funeral for a local of a village outside of Afrin, Syria, who had died fighting alongside the PKK in Turkey, August 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

In mid-July 2013, the Kurdish majority areas in Syria became embroiled in fierce fighting between the People’s Defence Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel [YPG], the Kurdish military forces) and an array of armed opposition groups.[1] While other regions of Syria—notably Homs—had descended into a state of civil war more than a year before, fighting came late to Syria’s Kurdish areas, first erupting between the YPG and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat Al-Nusra (JNA) in November 2012. Although clashes continued into early 2013 in the strategic border town of Serekaniye/Ras al-Ayn, as well as in Tel Tamer and Aleppo, they were sporadic and short-lived.

The battles that are now consuming Syria’s northeast and the north-western region of Afrin are of a different complexion. The fighting has become systematic and widespread, pitting the YPG against increasingly radical groups, with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) at the most extreme end of the spectrum. While such groups have previously trafficked logistical, military, and medical supplies over the Turkish border into Syria, the intensity of the current hostilities seems to indicate more concerted coordination with Turkey.

One of the main causes of the present onslaught may be found in the ambitious political plans unveiled in early July 2013 by the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat [PYD]), the main Syrian Kurdish party and power-broker—and the YPG’s political counterpart. These plans asserted a framework for future elections to establish a transitional local administration and a referendum on a new temporary constitution, which would provide a political structure for the areas under the de facto control of the Syrian Kurds. A mere two weeks after, the region became consumed by intense fighting along a frontline stretching from Tel Kochar/al-Yarubiya in the east to Aleppo/Afrin in the west.

Spring 2011: Seizing the Day

As protests gathered momentum in the spring of 2011, the Assad regime moved quickly to address the long-standing grievances of Syria’s Kurdish community, in order to deter Kurds from siding with the demonstrators and avoid opening another front in the country’s northeast. In March 2011, the Syrian government promised to re-grant citizenship to 300,000 Kurds. The following month, President Assad signed Decree 49, which provided citizenship for Kurds who were registered as foreigners in al-Hasaka province. The strict control by the many branches of Syrian intelligence on the Kurdish regions was also relaxed slightly during this period.

For decades, Syrian Kurds have been discriminated against, with tens of thousands being stripped of their citizenship following the controversial 1962 census. In the aftermath of the 2004 Qamishli riots, in which dozens of Kurdish civilians were killed by the Syrian security apparatus, Kurds in Syria continued to suffer repression. The PYD started its underground political activities in this context, after being established in 2003 following the withdrawal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan [PKK]) from Syria. Not surprisingly, PYD members faced widespread arrests and incarceration, as reported by human rights groups at the time. The decade following the 1998 Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria witnessed a strategic shift towards increased cooperation between the two countries at the economic and security level, effectively reducing the Kurds’ room for maneuver even further.

Come spring 2011, the PYD began to organize a mass grassroots movement. Along with staging regular Friday protests and demonstrations, it deployed its cadres by the hundreds to recruit a wide popular base, especially among the poorest strata of the population. This laid a solid foundation that later afforded the PYD a head-start vis-à-vis other Kurdish and non-Kurdish groups in terms of political influence and organizational capabilities.

The year 2011 was also eventful on the other side of the border, in Turkey, as Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government first abandoned secret peace talks with the PKK in Oslo after the June general elections, and then openly sided with the mounting opposition against former friend and ally President Assad in September. This set the stage for the "people's revolutionary war" campaign in 2012, whereby the PKK did not renew the six-month-long unilateral ceasefire it had embraced in the second half of 2010, and re-launched its armed struggle against the Turkish state. The most dramatic escalation of clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army since the 1990s ensued.

At the time, mainstream opposition activists accused the PYD of being a stooge of the Assad regime for failing to openly side with the opposition. The charge was redoubled after the Syrian army's withdrawal in summer 2012 from the Kurdish regions in Syria’s northeast, save some key sectors in Qamishli, such as the city’s airport and intelligence headquarters. While the military redeployment was dictated by the necessity to provide reinforcements to key cities, such as Aleppo, it undoubtedly created a power vacuum that the PYD/YPG would promptly fill, much to Turkey’s chagrin.

Summer 2012: Pragmatic Neutrality

The summer of 2012 marked the takeover of Kurdish towns and villages by the Syrian Kurds, turning them into the masters of their own areas for the first time in the history of modern Syria. In July, the YPG publicly announced its establishment and cited its mission to defend the Kurdish regions from any outside threat, be it from the Assad government or from opposition forces. One week later, all Syrian Kurdish political parties convened in the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to sign the Erbil agreement, establishing the Supreme Kurdish Committee (SKC) to administer the areas now de facto under Kurdish control.

In reality, the new committee would prove unable to provide an effective decision-making and administrative structure, mainly due to the persistence of old intra-Kurdish rivalries that mirrored the antagonism between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PKK. The dynamics of such rivalry have developed since the inception of the Syrian conflict, with both parties vying to expand their influence among the Syrian Kurds. At times, this has resulted in heightened tensions, as exemplified by the recurrent closure of the Faysh Khabur border crossing between Kurdish-majority areas in Syria and the KRG. In the end, the PYD/YPG—the sister organization of the PKK in Syria—has emerged as the most powerful actor on the ground, a situation unchanged to this day.

Rumors are rife as to whether the Syrian army’s withdrawal had actually been carried out with the tacit agreement of the PYD’s cadres, something that some Kurdish Syrian activists candidly discuss in private. Nevertheless, political and military events since the de facto takeover of the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria show that the PYD has been following a pragmatic course, independent of both the regime in Damascus and the Syrian opposition, with a clear Kurdish agenda in mind.

Pragmatism soon translated into a neutral and, if needed, defensive stance by the YPG in Kurdish-majority districts, with the main objective of keeping what had by then turned into a civil war out of their areas of control. In the Kurdish-inhabited quarters of Ashrafiyya and Sheikh Maqsoud in the city of Aleppo, the strategy became instead one of guarded collaboration with the FSA during engagement with Assad forces. This strategy would, however, face periodic shifts as during the September 2013 month-long clashes between the YPG and FSA groups, such as the Farouq and Tawhid Brigades.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council (SNC)—then the main opposition umbrella group outside Syria—failed to lure the Kurds into their ranks, as disagreements about the state’s future identity and collective rights for the Kurds proved to be insurmountable.[2] The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated SNC came under considerable pressure from Turkey in order to block Kurdish demands in Syria. In effect, Islamist and nationalist groups alike held deep-seated suspicions of the Kurds’ alleged separatist agenda and, at the same time, charged them of being pro-regime.

In late summer 2012, the emergence of more radical armed groups within the Syrian opposition, especially Jabhat Al-Nusra, introduced a further factor of mutual suspicion against the Kurds, whose secular stance was increasingly viewed as being at variance with the precepts of those groups’ interpretation of Islam. Kurdish activists have long blamed Ankara for acting as a logistical, military, and medical base for opposition groups to operate inside Syria. Such accusations have become persistent since the PYD announced the framework for a future transitional administration in the Syrian Kurdish territories, seemingly prompting Turkey to increase cooperation with radical armed groups within the Syrian opposition—against the Kurds.

2013: Changing Dynamics and Open Confrontation

a.     The Syrian Kurds’ Perspective

Prior to July 2013, YPG forces had largely maintained their defensive strategy and avoided, whenever possible, clashing with either government or opposition forces. Rather, they concentrated on recruiting and training fighters in the thousands and consolidating their military structure. Occasional earlier fighting with armed opposition groups had increased the YPG’s confidence in their military strength. When the latest round of hostilities in July 2013 escalated into a prolonged confrontation with some of the most radical elements within the Syrian opposition, the YPG’s general command switched from their previous policy of "defence and protection” to the combat mode of parastina aktîf which allows for offensive military operations.

The clashes with al-Qaeda-affiliated JNA and ISIS, among others, presented new challenges for the YPG, such as fighting simultaneously on multiple frontlines, suicide attacks, and the targeting of civilian infrastructures. However, the expanding front opened up the prospect for the Syrian Kurds to gain control over new strategic territory adjacent to the regions already under their de facto rule, including neighborhoods, villages, towns, supply routes, and border-crossing points, in spite of the considerable support afforded these groups by Turkey.

In practice, a significant number of non-Kurdish villages have now come under the control of the YPG, such as Alouk, Abu Rasein, al-'Ulyaniyah, and Derdara. In Ras al-Ayn countryside alone, the YPG gained control of more than twenty villages in early November 2013, when they intensified their military attacks on JNA and ISIS strongholds. Many of these areas are religiously and ethnically mixed with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, and Christian communities. It is too early to tell whether this will turn into a more inclusive political process in the future. Thus far, the Kurdish leadership has come out with encouraging declarations in this respect, highlighting the need for inter-communal outreach and dialogue in the attempt to set up a transitional local administration. Although Kurdish and Christian communities have reached a mutual understanding vis-à-vis the common threat of an increasingly radicalized armed opposition, Arab residents still need to be reassured that the Kurdish rise won't mean indiscriminate retaliation for Baathist policies.

On the ground, the YPG’s military prowess has translated into a legitimacy boost for the group, which has witnessed a swell in popular support among Kurds in Syria, to the detriment of the other Kurdish political formations. The intra-Kurdish tensions of mid-2013 are all but a distant memory: the YPG has emerged as a unifying element within Syria, while also winning over the hearts and minds of Kurds in the neighboring countries.

At the political level, the PYD has gained international recognition by actively participating in preliminary negotiations on the Geneva II peace conference. Their hope is to send a negotiating team from the SKC, as an independent delegation that represents the Syrian Kurds. Developments in Syria in the past few months have propelled the Syrian Kurds to the center of new political and military dynamics, whose reverberations are being felt across the border—nowhere more so than in Turkey.

b.    The View from Turkey

The Turkish government’s handling of the so-called Arab Spring, and especially the Syrian crisis, has shattered in just two years the foundations of Turkey’s much vaunted "zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. To aggravate matters further, mounting domestic opposition (Gezi Park) has coupled with the major regional reversal of political Islam (Egypt) to make the Turkish "new model" look very shaky indeed.

Early in the Syrian crisis, Prime Minister Erdoğan led the charge for an about-turn in Turkish foreign policy, severing diplomatic ties with the Assad regime as Ankara bet on a fast-track revolution in Syria, the same way it had happened in Egypt and Tunisia. The move came swiftly on the heels of the July 2011 creation of the FSA, which set up base in Antakya, and the August 2011 announcement of the SNC’s formation in Istanbul, where it established its headquarters. Turkey’s southern border region would soon become a safe-haven where armed rebel groups, loosely affiliated to the FSA, would plan and mount operations inside Syrian territory.

If Turkey’s initial involvement in the Syrian conflict stemmed from the objective to achieve regime change in Damascus, the failure of the opposition to deliver a fast and fatal blow to Assad laid bare Ankara’s gross miscalculation. By 2012, leading Turkish officials were issuing declarations stating the extent that the power vacuum in northern Syria posed a huge security threat to Turkey, as terrorist organizations could exploit it to create instability: all options seemed to be on the table, including creating a buffer zone or even intervening militarily in Syria’s north.

Ankara simultaneously faced a new wave of PKK guerrilla operations and the specter of a KRG-style autonomous Kurdish region on its border with Syria, courtesy of the Syrian army’s July withdrawal from the northeast of the country. In effect, the line between Turkey’s domestic and Syrian Kurdish question was being blurred, as revealed by PKK operative chief Murad Karayilan’s response to Turkish threats: "Let me state clearly, if the Turkish state intervenes against our people in western Kurdistan [i.e. Syria], all of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone."

On the home front, while other explanations have been offered for the renewed 2013 peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK, Turkey’s worsening foreign policy position in Syria has to be factored in when considering Erdoğan’s calculus. On the Syrian front, preventing the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region became at least as pressing a priority as toppling the Assad regime.

To achieve both, Ankara has not shied away from supporting radical jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates, which have proved the most effective in fighting regime forces and the most willing to engage the secular Kurds. By mid-2012, reports started focusing on a steady trickle of foreign fighters entering Syria via Turkey and Lebanon. However, Turkish territory has not only been used en route to Syria: in time, Ankara’s support has allegedly extended to arms supplies, military coordination, access to financial sources and safe havens, and treatment of wounded fighters.

The backlash has been significant: two car bombs exploded in May 2013 in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı killing fifty-one and injuring dozens, in the deadliest single act of terrorism on Turkish soil. Recently, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the bombings. The Turkish government’s handling of the Syrian crisis has been coming under a barrage of criticism domestically and has tarnished Turkey’s standing internationally. Even Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently expressed his concerns about terrorist infiltration inside Turkish territory from Syria.

Meanwhile, the AKP-PKK[3] peace process has run aground: on 9 September 2013, the PKK announced it was halting withdrawal from Turkey, as a result of the government’s delaying tactics in the implementation of the second phase of the ambiguous and non-transparent negotiation process. When Prime Minister Erdoğan unveiled the long-awaited democratization package on 30 September, it was received with harsh criticism among prominent Kurdish MPs in Turkey. On 10 October, the PKK issued a long statement dismissing it for failing to address the Kurdish people's inalienable demands, namely the constitutional recognition of Kurdish identity and culture, greater regional autonomy, and Kurdish language education.

As most politically sensitive issues concerning Turkey’s Kurdish question remain unresolved, they are becoming tightly intermixed with political and military developments in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria. Turkey’s policy on Syria’s Kurds has from the very outset been conceptualized within its overall policy on the management of the Kurdish conflict.  The fact that violence between jihadist groups and the YPG intensified after the PYD’s announcement of a framework for Kurdish governance in Syria’s north, indicates Ankara’s unwillingness to take any chances with a semi-autonomous Kurdish region next door, lest it galvanizes its own Kurdish population. In turn, Turkey’s support for such groups risks poisoning an already toxic domestic political environment, marred by distrust between Turkey’s Kurds and the government.

Turkey’s proxy policies in Syria risk backfiring, turning the country’s southern border into a lawless area of instability: half a million Syrian refugees, an ailing peace process, heightened tensions with minorities such as Alevis, Alawites, and Kurds, al-Qaeda fighters criss-crossing the border, and Syrian Kurds taking matters in their own hands in what they call western Kurdistan, or Rojava.

In essence,

Ankara now faces the “lesser of two evils” dilemma and must make up its mind, as warned several times in the past—either be neighbors with Syrian territory controlled by al-Qaeda or with Kurdish territory dominated by the PYD.

Actually, given the latest developments, Ankara may have to make do with both, the ultimate nightmare scenario for Erdoğan’s government, particularly in view of the upcoming 2014 elections. If recent reports are confirmed, building walls along the border seems more akin to an act of desperation than to a solution.


With the PYD’s announcement of a framework for a transitional administration in Syria’s northeast, a confrontation in the making for the past several months has come to a head: on the one side, the FSA and the most radical opposition groups, with JNA and ISIS in the forefront, backed by Turkey; on the other, the YPG.

The latter’s military prowess has won kudos from Kurds inside and outside Syria, along with the support of other communities that fear the radical agenda of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. The YPG has switched from factor to actor in the crisis, signaling a change of dynamics in this conflict within the Syrian conflict. On the ground, the adjustment from a neutral/defensive stance to an offensive one has translated into territorial gains for the Syrian Kurds.

Although a fragile ceasefire has come into force in the past few weeks in the Afrin region, recent history indicates that this is more tactical than strategic, increasing the likelihood of a resumption of hostilities in the near future. Fighting has continued in Tel Abyad and Tel Kochar/al-Yarubiya, with the latter falling in the hands of the YPG on 27 October, including its important border crossing with Iraq. The Syrian Kurds need to work hard to convince all constituents—especially Arabs—in the areas under their control of their democratic credentials within a united Syria. From its side, Turkey’s jumbled foreign policy on Syria has cornered it between the rock of an incipient jihadist Emirate on its southern border and the hard place of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northeast Syria.  

Despite two recent high-level meetings in Ankara between PYD head Saleh Muslim and Turkish officials, little seems to have changed in Turkey’s strategy on the ground. With the AKP-PKK peace process remaining sluggish, Turkey’s Kurdish question is becoming inextricably linked to dynamics on the other side of an increasingly blurred border, where more autonomy for the Syrian Kurds would spur Turkey’s own twenty million Kurds to up the ante in the negotiations.

With no sign of an agreement for a meaningful Geneva II peace conference in sight, matters will be settled for the foreseeable future in the military sphere, in which the Syrian Kurds appear well positioned to consolidate their gains. Left with either the jihadists or the Kurds on its nine-hundred-kilometer-long border with Syria, Ankara seems to see the latter as more of a threat than the former and risks ending up with both—plus, perhaps, a full-blown "civil war" at home, as KCK leader Cemil Bayik suggested to a Reuters journalist.


[1] These included the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Farouq Brigades and the Tawhid Brigade.

[2] The Istanbul-based SNC refused to remove “Arab” from Syria’s official name, namely the Syrian Arab Republic. In August 2013, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a loose alliance of some fifteen Syrian Kurdish parties, agreed to join the SNC. Yet, without the PYD, the move has been seen as mostly symbolic.

[3] The Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) is the ruling party in Turkey from which Prime Minister Erdoğan hails.

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