Turkey: Cornering Syria’s Kurds

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A Syrian refugee woman holding a child cries after fleeing from a refugee camp named "Container City" on the Turkish-Syrian border in Oncupinar in Kilis province, southern Turkey 22 July 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Umit Bektas)

By: Hüsnü Mahalli

Published Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Turkey opens talks with neighboring Kurdish leaders in a bid to ensure that Syrian Kurds do not become a threatening force. Meanwhile, fierce battles continue in eastern Turkey between government troops and fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party.

Istanbul – Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil Wednesday for talks could be crucial in determining future Turkish policy towards Syria and the Kurdish question.

The visit comes against a backdrop of Turkish threats to establish a buffer zone inside Syrian territory, ostensibly to safeguard refugees from the fighting raging in the country, as well as an ongoing build-up of Turkish troops and heavy weaponry along the 900-kilometer border with Syria.

Turkish diplomatic sources said Davutoglu will raise a number of concerns with Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish regional president and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), about his ties to Kurdish groups in Syria. These include recent revelations that hundreds of Syrian Kurds have received military training in Iraqi Kurdistan, the hosting in Erbil of a conference aimed at unifying Syrian Kurdish opposition groups, and statements by Barzani offering to provide them with any support or aid they need.

The sources said Davutoglu will also meet Syrian Kurdish leaders in Erbil to urge them to renounce “provocative actions” against Turkey – a reference to the reported takeover of most of the Syrian Kurdish town and villages near the Turkish border by members or Syrian supporters of Turkey’s KDP.

The Turkish minister had warned that Ankara “will not hesitate in responding to any provocative Kurdish action from the Syrian side,” indicating that the PKK presence was one of the main reasons to justify Turkey establishing a security zone inside Syria – without forgetting to uphold the right of Syria’s Kurds to democratic representation in post-Bashar al-Assad Syria.

The training of Syrian Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan was confirmed on Tuesday by the KDP’s external relations chief, Hayman Hawrami. He said that a “very small number” of young Syrian Kurds were involved, and that they had received only “basic training” to enable them “to fill any security gap after the fall of the Syrian regime.”

Hawrami said “we in the KDP are giving attention to Syrian affairs because there are more than two million Kurds in Syria,” while insisting that “[we] will not interfere in Syrian affairs and will not force any political equation on how the situation for Kurds in Syria should be.” But he added that “we supported uniting the Kurds in Syria so they can be a main supporter of the Syrian opposition and a main supporter of the positive change in Syria.”

One of the Erbil conference’s participants, Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Union in Syria and a member of the newly-formed Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC), said the training Syrian Kurds were undertaking in Iraqi Kurdistan was “for the purpose of protection.” But he voiced reservations about the idea of allowing them to return to Syria. “If they want to join any institution in Western (Syrian) Kurdistan, certain arrangements will need to be made, but if any of them want to return home they are welcome, though not as armed men.”

Abdul Hakim Bashar, head of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Party and a member of the Kurdish National Council, said no political decision had been taken on the trainees' return to Syria, which he indicated were Kurds who had defected from the Syrian army. “They completed their training and their work, not in order to fight, but in order to protect strategic areas after the downfall of the regime.”

The nominal head of the Syrian National Congress (SNC), Abdel Basset Sayda, who is of Kurdish origin, is also expected in Erbil. His main aim is to try to persuade the SKC to join the Western-backed, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition coalition, according to Syrian opposition sources, but he will also urge the Kurdish Syrian leaders he meets to cooperate with Ankara.

The SKC is composed of the two main Syrian Kurdish opposition coalitions, the Kurdish National Council and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan, whose leaders are holding ongoing discussions in Erbil.

Underlining the importance of these moves was Monday’s telephone conversation between Turkish Prime Minister Prime Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, in which they reportedly discussed how to “accelerate the process” of ousting Assad. According to government sources, Erdogan voiced his disappointment about the failure of Western capitals to support prospective Turkish military intervention in the Aleppo region. He urged Obama to provide direct backing to Turkey’s planned move, or else increase military aid to Ankara, supply the Free Syrian Army with sophisticated weapons, or participate in setting up a security zone inside Syrian territory to accommodate fresh waves of refugees.

Meanwhile, the Turkish army continues its anti-PKK operation in and around the town of Semdinli near the Iraqi and Iranian borders. The authorities have been preventing local MPs from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – the PKK’s political wing – from entering the area security grounds, while clashes have persisted for a week between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish army and security forces. Warplanes have been strafing the surrounding mountains to target PKK hideouts.

The Turkish military has long used pilotless drones bought from the US and Israel to track Kurdish fighters in the border area and inside Iraqi Kurdistan. They are now also reportedly being used over the Turkish-Syrian border to monitor Syrian army movements and forewarn the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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