Turkey has been watching with deep concern as Kurdish militants have been slowly consolidating power in areas bordering Turkey in northern Syria and preparing to declare their own autonomous state.
To mark the one year anniversary of the capture of northern Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – is preparing to declare an autonomous state in northern Syria, ringing alarm bells among officials in Ankara. As part of this plan, forces loyal to the PYD staged attacks on strategic Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, just opposite to Turkey’s Ceylanpınar, and largely took control of the town following days of fierce fighting with al-Qaeda affiliate radical groups.
Despite PYD’s full capture of the town, al-Nusra Front, aided by Ahrar al-Sham and Tawhid al-Asiam brigades, radical groups fighting against the Syrian regime, reportedly sent some 3,000 fighters to take back Ras al-Ain. Reports indicate that the PYD militants repelled latest assaults but lost some villages.
On Saturday, the PYD captured another town, Tal Abyad, in al-Raqqa province in a widening war between Kurdish militants and al-Qaeda affiliated groups fighting to oust Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Where do they stand?
More than two years into the Syrian uprising, it is still unclear where Syria’s ethnic Kurdish minority stands regarding its support or opposition to the regime. They have been alternately fighting both pro-regime troops and the rebels fighting against the Syrian army. For the Syrian Kurds, the priority is to secure areas they control and establish their own self-governance at a time when the country is going through a tremendous chaos.
Turkey’s long, troubled relationship with Kurds is fuelling Ankara’s fears that the PYD presence in northern Syria could be a destabilizing factor inside Turkey.Mahir Zeynalov
Turkey, however, is anxious. Ankara openly warned Syrian Kurds against exploiting the turmoil in Syria and creating their own state. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last Friday that only a Syrian Parliament, freely elected by the people, can decide on the future structure of Syria and that Turkey won’t allow fait accompli across the border.
To allay Turkey’s concerns, Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, said on Friday that his group is not preparing to declare another autonomous state but establish self-governing units as part of its plan to build local administrations. He said their aim is to bring order to lawless areas where absence of central authority deepens uncertainty and chaos in Kurdish populated areas. The establishment of local administrations will follow elections in three or four months.
Turkey’s long, troubled relationship with Kurds is fuelling Ankara’s fears that the PYD presence in northern Syria could be a destabilizing factor inside Turkey. At a time when Turkey is trying to preserve its fragile peace process with Kurds at home, it is worried that developments just across the border could derail its most significant peace project in decades. Already at a critical phase, the Kurdish peace process could be negatively affected by Turkey’s possible military response to the PYD.
In Turkey, calls on the government to accept a Kurdish reality in northern Syria are getting louder. Some also prefer to see Kurdish control in areas bordering Turkey rather than Al-Qaeda affiliate groups patrolling northern Syria.
In the past year, Ankara was very consistent with respect to its stance on PYD’s actions in northern Syria.
It made it very clear that it is ready to take any measure, including a military one, to avert a PYD-orchestrated security threat from northern Syria. Davutoğlu reiterated last week that Ankara will immediately retaliate against any threats from other side of the Syrian border. Until today, the military’s response was limited to attacks that came from Syria, which killed one Turkish citizen and injured several last week. Almost every day, the Turkish army has been involved in border skirmishes with gunmen in Syria.
Turkey's red line is PYD’s unilateral move to establish a state by exploiting the current situation in the country. It remains unclear, however, if Turkey will get involved in full-scale military incursion into northern Syria if PYD forms its own separate political entity and starts posing a security threat to Turkey.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov
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