By ceding northeastern Syria to the Kurds, Assad puts Turkey in a bind

Piotr Zalewski writes: The retreat of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from parts of northeastern Syria along the Turkish border might have been welcomed by Turkey, a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, except for one thing: The region is predominantly Kurdish, and Ankara fears the resulting power vacuum will be a major boon to its number one enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whose three-decade separatist insurgency has seen some 40,000 people killed.

Until recently, Syria’s Kurds had been divided. A coalition of roughly a dozen Kurdish parties had tentatively backed the popular uprising against Assad, while the PKK’s Syrian ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), appeared to align itself with the Syrian regime, intimidating opposition activists and quashing popular protests. Others sat on the sidelines, wary of closing ranks with a Sunni Arab-dominated opposition that turned a deaf ear to Kurdish demands for new rights in a post-Assad Syria. Two weeks ago – perhaps sensing that the regime’s fall was imminent – the rival Syrian Kurdish political currents put aside their differences, under the coaching of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. In Irbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, they signed a unity agreement that has allowed them to take control of several northeastern towns, Assad’s forces mostly retreating without a fight.

The news sparked a Turkish media and political clamor about the imminent rise of a “PKK Republic” or a “Western Kurdistan” on Turkey’s southern flank. Commentators fear that the rise of a second Kurdish statelet, following the emergence of the one in neighboring Iraq in 2003, would embolden Turkey’s own 12-15 million Kurds to pursue their own dream of autonomy. Worse still, it could potentially provide the PKK — branded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., and the EU — with sanctuaries from which to launch cross-border attacks.

(MORE: Five Syria Nightmares: The Middle East Can’t Live with Assad, but Living Without Him Won’t Be Easy)

Picking up where the media left off, Turkey’s fiery leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, banged the war drums. Though he and his government proclaim the Kurds a “brother nation,” Erdogan told a TV interviewer on Wednesday, a Kurdish state in northern Syria would likely become a “terrorist entity”. If need be, he warned, Turkey would not hesitate to hit the PKK inside Syria, as it has done repeatedly in northern Iraq. “If a formation that’s going to be a problem emerges, if there is a terror operation, an irritant, then intervening would be our most natural right.”

It would not be easy. In northern Iraq — where the PKK has come under pressure from a Barzani government that seeks to improve ties with Ankara — the rebels remain ensconced in remote mountain hideouts, making it easier for Turkish forces to target them with relative impunity. In Syria, the PKK-aligned PYD is an urban-based outfit. To bring the fight to them, Turkish troops would have to operate in large population centers, many of them within a stone’s throw of the common border. [Continue reading…]

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