November 20, 2014
Kurds seek separatist state between Syria and Turkey
by Carolina Barros
Is the Syrian crisis entering its final phase? In the last few days, while the bloodshed of this pitiless war peaked, a stunned international community witnessed yet another failure of mediation (as former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan resigned yesterday as the UN special envoy). Does this mean that Syria is drifting toward an “Afghanization” of its revolutionary conflict, of delayed outcome and dubious prognosis? As the uncertainty spins out of control into chaos, only one thing is certain — the regional map is being redrawn. Just as the Alawites (the Shiite Muslim minority to which the al-Assad dynasty belongs) could proclaim an autonomous state in the zone of Tartous (the Syrian Mediterranean port nestling under the umbrella of the Russian navy), so it is feared that the Kurds, another Syrian minority but aligned with the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, could form their own state north of Aleppo along Turkey’s southeastern frontier.
The Kurds are far from being a new problem in this neighbourhood or a small one. With thousands of years of history stretching back into Biblical times (between the Tigris and the Euphrates), they number today almost 30 million, thus making them the largest ethnic community lacking their own nation-state anywhere in the world. Even if as from 2005, after being decimated by the chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein during his 24-year dictatorship (the Kurds joined the “coalition of the willing”), they were granted the haven of an Iraqi Kurdistan, a federal autonomous region of 4.5 million inhabitants within Iraq, recognized by the UN. Nevertheless, Turkey is the home of most Kurds (16 million), followed by Iran (seven million) while Syria has 1.5 million.
Even if the Iraqi Kurdistan is governed by a moderate like Massoud Barzani, the recurrence of growing destabilization within Iraq brings nearer the possibility of cutting the umbilical cord with Baghdad. What a headache that would be — the safe and prosperous Kurdish federal state is like an oasis within Iraq sitting on the most productive oil and gas belt of that country with investments from the United States and Turkey.
But there is also a destabilizing factor within the Kurds — the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party with an estimated 6,000 activists), armed separatists who form their cells in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria (where they support and mingle with the PYD, the Democratic Union Party) seek to establish a supranational confederate Kurdish state in all those countries. In order to explain the model to which these armed Kurds aspire, some analysts point to the example which Nelson Mandela gave South Africa in his time. Nevertheless, the European Union, Turkey and the US all consider the PKK as the most important terrorist group within Turkey.
That is why the Ankara government has sent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to negotiate with Barzani a harmonious solution for the effervescent Kurd separatism. At all costs Turkey has to prevent the creation of a buffer state in what is today the territory between Syria and its southeastern frontier, governed by a radical PKK. The most malicious tongues say that, faced with that scenario, Turkey would feel obliged to seal its frontiers and isolate itself yet further from its neighbourhood. Another “metal curtain” to add to the one already on the northeastern frontier with Armenia.
According to the Turkish researcher Emre Uslu, there is scant chance of Barzani being able to control the situation. “Barzani has a concept of state based on feudal hierarchies and tribal relationships, typical of a mountain people,” he says, adding that “for its part the PKK bases its strategy on its capacity of social mobilization, a network stretching into four countries.” From there, according to Uslu, “the PKK will not allow Barzani a leading role in what they control today,” not just the Aleppo region but also the logistics and much of the strategy of the rebel counter-offensive in that part of northern Syria. On that basis any deal between Barzani and the PKK (and its Syrian version, the PYD), would be purely cyclical.
An estimated 55,000 Syrians have already fled to Turkey, seeking asylum — that figure could easily quadruple in the next few weeks. Meanwhile the propaganda war is equally incessant. While the PKK sounds the alarm over the threat of Sunni Arab penetration into northeastern Syria to combat the Kurdish presence (“orchestrated by Turkey,” they say), Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that “if the PKK and the PYD decide to establish some form of government in Syria, Turkey will use all the options within its grasp to prevent it.”