What drives Turkey's new Syria stance? A fear of two Kurdistans
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in February that his country stands by the Syrian people, not the regime.
May 23rd, 2012
12:45 PM ET

What drives Turkey's new Syria stance? A fear of two Kurdistans

Editor's Note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS contributor. You can find all his blog posts here. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN

When the Syrian uprising began last spring, Turkey initially stayed behind Washington. It shied away from criticizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, instead asking al-Assad to reform.

When Damascus refused, however, Ankara moved ahead of Washington, taking an aggressive posture against al-Assad and suggesting it was ready to take action to force him to step down.

Recently, though, Ankara has backpedaled, abandoning its aggression and sliding back toward Washington’s position. With this, Turkey has entered the third phase of its Syrian policy, falling nearly in line with Washington’s policy of “wait and see and hope for an orderly transition — for now.”

What could explain Turkey’s new posture? Many factors come to mind, from the fear of getting bogged down in a war with a neighboring country to being left alone to fight al-Assad. But one key factor is its fear of two Kurdistans.

Syria’s restless and well-organized Kurdish minority, for the most part, does not trust Turkey. Instead, the Syrian Kurds are looking to their counterparts in Iraq’s Kurdish region, the Middle East’s first autonomous Kurdish political entity. Some Syrian Kurdish leaders aspire to gain what the Iraqi Kurds have: their own Kurdistan.

Turkey can deal with one Kurdistan, but two might be too many.

In recent years, Ankara’s policy with the Iraqi Kurds has evolved from open hostility in 2003, when the Iraqi Kurds built their Kurdistan, to open friendship today.

In this regard, the Iraqi Kurds have helped Turkey by embracing a crucial strategy: Since 2003, the Iraqi Kurds have gradually abandoned their policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish terror group that fights Turkey inside northern Iraq.

As far as Turkey is concerned, anyone who hosts the PKK is an enemy. Seeing this plain fact, the Iraqi Kurds sacrificed the PKK to ally with Turkey against Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian central government in Baghdad.

As soon as the Iraqi Kurds showed good will on the PKK issue, Ankara reciprocated, building good ties with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil. Today, Turkey has a diplomatic mission in Erbil, and Turkish Airlines, the country’s national flag carrier, flies direct from Erbil not only to Istanbul but also to Antalya, carrying Kurdish vacationers to the Turkish Riviera. And trade between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds has boomed to such an extent that if Iraqi Kurdistan were an independent country today, Turkey would be its largest trading partner.

So far, so good. But what if there were two Kurdistans, with a second to emerge in Syria after al-Assad’s potential fall? Could Turkey deal with the second one with the same ease it has learned to deal with the first?

Maybe, if the Syrian Kurds also denied the PKK safe haven. One could then envision commercial ties cementing the relationship between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdistan, similar to Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan.

This could be a tall order, though. While the PKK has had negligible support among the Iraqi Kurds, this has not been the case among the Syrian Kurds. Granted, the Syrian Kurdish umbrella group, the Kurdistan National Council, has excluded the PKK from its membership. But still, some intelligence analysts suggest that the PKK has grassroots appeal inside Syria.

Then there is the Syrian regime’s complicity on the PKK issue. Damascus harbored the PKK for years, only stopping in the past decade to improve relations with Turkey. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, however, al-Assad has once again allowed the PKK to have an armed presence inside Syria in retaliation for Turkey’s support to the Syrian uprising.

The prospect of a second Kurdistan, one with a menacing PKK presence in it, now looms on Turkey’s radar screen. The al-Assad regime has caught on to that fear, allowing the PKK ample room to operate inside Syria, speaking to that primal Turkish strategic anxiety and sending a message to Ankara: “Help my opposition, and you might as well help the PKK and build a second Kurdistan in your backyard.”

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

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Topics: Syria • Turkey

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Turkey would do quite well to grant the Kurds the independence they deserve and end that civil war once and for all. Furthermore, they need to steer an independent course away from NATO and formulate their own policies!

    May 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Syria under Assad has no future. Sooner or later the country would either fall apart or go on under a new form of governance. Should the country split up, the Syrian Kurds would be thinking about a state of their own. This might inspire the PKK and the Kurds in Turkey to follow suit. Turkey is well advised to deal with this issue before it reaches a point of no return.

      May 23, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
      • GeneralSherman

        Let them try. We've been handing their behinds to them for a millennium.

        There's nothing to sort out. The "kurdish" ethnic group and kurdish nationalism are the inventions of 19th century european imperialists. Read christopher dickey's "bordering on insanity". The "kurds" in Turkiye, iraq, syria, and iran are all genetically dissimiliar and liguistically incoherent. The reality is that they are iranic offshouts from india who have always lived on other people's land. Even then the kurds in northen iraq have haplogroup J in frequencies of higher than 40 % making them more Arab than some Arabs. The kurds in Turkiye didn't even inhabit Eastern Anatolia until the Ottoman sultan defeated the Persian shah and gave a large amount of land to a kurdish servant of his. Historically, the "kurds" defined their allegiance by tribe, faith, or the nation to which they were stealing the culture from. Even kurdish nationalists admit that one-hundred years ago "kurdish" was mostly Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.

        May 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • GeneralSherman

      Sure, right after you grant the Native Americans the independence they deserve!

      There's no "civil war" you kurd-loving terrorist hillbilly. Just an anti-terrorism operation.

      Kurds do NOT "deserve independence". The "kurdish" ethnic group and kurdish nationalism are the inventions of 19th century european imperialists. Read christopher dickey's "bordering on insanity". The "kurds" in Turkiye, iraq, syria, and iran are all genetically dissimiliar and liguistically incoherent. The reality is that they are iranic offshouts from india who have always lived on other people's land. Even then the kurds in northen iraq have haplogroup J in frequencies of higher than 40 % making them more Arab than some Arabs. The kurds in Turkiye didn't even inhabit Eastern Anatolia until the Ottoman sultan defeated the Persian shah and gave a large amount of land to a kurdish servant of his. Historically, the "kurds" defined their allegiance by tribe, faith, or the nation to which they were stealing the culture from. Even kurdish nationalists admit that one-hundred years ago "kurdish" was mostly Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.

      Let me ask, why do you christian fundamentalist american terrorists love the kurds so much? All the racist stereotypes you have about Arabs and blacks are true about kurds 100 %. Imagine an ethnic group like occupying land in your country?

      You murdered and robbed land from the much more honorable Native Americans.

      May 23, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
      • dario Kurd

        General She

        just google origion of Kurds and u will see Kurds lived in Kurdistan long before arrival of Turks with mangol tribes..u can come here and write turkish fascist state view but no intelegent person believe u because they can google and find out..here is not turkey..google and you tube is not banned and people have enough education to seach and fine out!

        May 24, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • GeneralSherman

      Long live TURKIYE and the honorable Native Americans. Death and hell to christian fundamentalist hillbilly terrorists and christian fundamentalist kurdish terrorists.

      May 23, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
      • peres

        Long live,Israel,USA,Kurdistan and death to Mongolian invaders that stole our land.

        August 19, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • ebola

      Why not give Northern Iraq to the Assyrians? The Kurds are the ones presently killing them in droves. Maybe a corridor through Van to the Black Sea should connect Armenia with Assyria and together they could form an independent confederation. The Turks and the Kurds both owe them reparations for the genocides they committed and they should pay for it in land.

      May 23, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
      • dario Kurd

        assyrians in iraqi Kurdistan have autonomy in their towns ,,they police their own town have their own mayors and security..this situation attracted 1000s of families from the rest of iraq to there..something Vatican pope acknowledged and awarded barzani for.

        May 24, 2012 at 4:56 am |
  2. Nuri Yalcin

    The past decade is a graveyard of Mr. Cagaptay's ill-founded and often disproven analyses. This is yet another. The whole premise of Mr. Cagaptay here is that PKK is an insurmountable political force. That's far from the reality of southern Turkey. The next elections will see the emergence of anti-PKK Islamic Kurdish politics by and large aligned with either the Erdogan line or the Nurcu line. As an atheistic organization, the PKK stands no chance in the future of Kurdish or Turkish politics, especially if the Turkish state manages to tone down the violence as it intends to do.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  3. dario kurd

    in 1980 Turkish coup leaders decided to commit a kurdish genocide similar to armenian one but PKK then a political party was forced to take arm to prevented genocide of Kurds in hands of turks..in doing so the price of foiling Turkish plot was heavy. 1000s of PKK political activists were arrested and killed under torture in turkish jails..Kurdish people will never forget these heroic sacrifices and will continue to support PKK no matter what Turks and it's ally call them.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • GeneralSherman

      dario, Turkiye has, if anything, been too tolerant of kurds.

      We should have done what the American terrorists did to the Native Americans.

      Everybody knows that the PKK was created when Soviet Russian agents contacted a crypto-armenian college dropout Artin Hakopyan (Abdullah Ocalan) to cause terrorist attacks in a NATO country?

      I love how you had no excuse for why the PKK up and suddenly was created in the 80's so you tried to rely on the coup (which had nothing to do with that).

      BTW, the PKK began terrorist attacks before the coup.

      I love how the kurdish terrorists rely on the endless gullibility and darkness in the hearts of christian fundamentalist hillbilly terrorists.

      May 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
      • dario Kurd

        general she
        read history..PKK had no militia until 1984..american killed native americans centuries ago but u Turks killing Kurds in 21 st century..only a month ago Turkish regime bombed and killed 34 innocent kurdish civilians ..using american drones.!

        May 24, 2012 at 4:51 am |
  4. dario kurd

    Nuri Yalcin
    tipical of Turks when they analyse the kurdish situation based on what they wish for..I am Kurdish from the region and know only too well that apart from PKK the supporters of others party are few and police and security helping them during the elections to forge votes..just like the recent syrian election

    May 23, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • GeneralSherman

      dario, compared to kurds, there is nothing about Turks that you can say is typical except excellence. You are in no position to criticize how Turks analyze anything when the kurdish terrorist mindset is so warped and unfoundedly nationalist. It's pretty obvious from your many deranged rantings on other comments sections of articles on other news sites that you are either an Iraqi, Iranian, or Syrian kurd because you dont know Turkish and most kurds from Turkiye don't even speak that invented language known as kurdish. Also, you obviously don't know very well about that region. The political front for the PKK can't even get more than 25 % of votes of kurds and that's even with the threats of violence that the terrorists wage against kurdish peasants. You claim that kurds make up 20 % of Turkiye's population but why is it then that the BDP (political front of the PKK) can't even get more than 5 % of seats in Parliament? There's at least 3 major Turkish parties that more kurds vote for than the BDP.

      Just admit that you're the invention of Soviet Russian agents with a college dropout crypto-armenian, Artin Agopyan (Abdullah Ocalan). Why else did the PKK just come out of nowhere in the late 70's.

      May 23, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
      • dario Kurd

        general she

        no one believes these state propaganda you are spreading..PKK is a Kurdish party..it will take help from who ever provides the help weather it is israel or china and this is natural..as for your comment on election.. election in Kurdish areas of Turkey are like the one Assad regime recently done..police and security forging 100s of votes..everyone knows this.

        May 24, 2012 at 4:47 am |
      • dario Kurd

        general She

        just google for kurdish revolts in Turkey and u will see 100s of times Kurds revolted against otomans before Turkish republic was established..u have to read history of Sever treaty approved by the league of nations in 1920 that grants Kurds right to have an independant Kurdistan..go and read history SIR

        May 24, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  5. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Turkey is better off having her own foreign policy than to be underling of hindu, criminal west, time for Turkey to make up her mind, boss of her own future or a small fish in hindu filthy pond of western hinduism criminality, always be like a hindu gentile filthy slave of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, secular.

    May 23, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you're both Pakistani and not terribly well-educated...

      May 23, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
      • GeneralSherman

        I'm gonna go on a limb and say that you're a trailer-dwelling hillbilly and uneducated.

        May 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  6. erin

    to Dario Kurd, as an American from Armenian dissent I remember the stories from my grandmother regarding Kurdish brutality on Armenians, It's ironic that you're talking about Armenians genocide by Turkish people and according to my grands parents it was Kurdish tribes which robbed, tortured and killed my people During this Armenian genocide.

    May 23, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
    • dario Kurd

      Erin
      Armenian genocide was master minded by Ottoman Turkish rulers..sadly some Kurdish tribe leaders did take part in it but many other Kurds didnot and saved many armenians..in any case unlike Turks we Kurds acknowledged and apologised for these wrong doing..the Kurdish city municipalities (Diyar baker Batman..etc) that run by Kurds are restoring Armenian churches and use Armenian language as one of the official languages..while Turks sadly still denying this.

      May 24, 2012 at 4:43 am | Reply
    • dario kurd

      http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/news/2012/04/easter-is-celebrated-at-armenian-church-in-turkeys-diyarbakir/

      May 24, 2012 at 6:28 am | Reply
  7. Reality

    Will not read ANY articles about the Turks. The Turks should take personal hygine lessons. Some one needs to tell them what deodrant means.

    Turks!! clean your selfs before taking about another nation.

    May 24, 2012 at 3:06 am | Reply
    • Doug

      You are a clown.

      May 24, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Reply
    • GRAMMAR POLICE

      Reallly reality, your spelling is the real problem here. Selfs not a good idea for usage. Just saying tho'.

      May 25, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
  8. Benedict

    It seems that the reactions Turkey feared are coming to fruitation and this seems to be at the fore-front of their foreign policy. Syria is using the Kurds to blunt Tukey‘s stance on the uprising,so the international community must decide if they‘re going to arm the militants or allow the Syrian Arab Spring to run it‘s course!!

    May 24, 2012 at 6:10 am | Reply
  9. dario kurd

    the prospect on second liberated free Kurdistan is on the horizon..Turkey has option to accept and make peace with own Kurds including PKK or face division of Turkey..if not losing all of Turkey as Kurdish population in Turkey is expected to outnumber the Turks in 20 years time..Turks find it hard to swallow this bitter reality..But the soon they accept the better for them

    May 24, 2012 at 6:20 am | Reply
  10. Toiletman

    Another important reason is terrorism. Back then when Turkey was very aggressive against Syria, Syrian opposition consisted of disgruntled normal people who wanted to live better. But as the civil war continued, Islamists with Saudi money and hatred for the Syrian government for being "non-muslim" (they see that religion as outside Islam) as you can clearly see at the acts of terrorism recently. While some people call Turkey's government islamist,too, and it might even be called that on Turkish standards, it is still a laicistic country and an enemy of the Turkish state. They don't want to empower these people that might then attack Turkey from Syria. I don't think that Kurds are such a great issue right now.

    May 24, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
  11. dario kurd

    Toiletman
    most syrian opposition are moderate and no different from turkey AKP party..Kurds on the other side see Turkey as a number one enemy because of their chauvinistic policies towards Kurds..time has come for turkey to reverse this by granting Kurds autonomy..this way Turkey can benefit from good relation with kurds to influence iraq and syria..as it is happening now in iraq. Kurds sided with Turkey in the recent crises

    May 24, 2012 at 7:00 am | Reply
    • Willie12345

      General Sherman has it all wrong bove, dario. The Kurds are descents from Scythian refugees who fled from what is now Ukraine from the invading Samatians back around 200 BC and settled in Eastern Anatolia. During the Roman times they were know as the Isaurians and even had a dynasty during the 9th century. In fact, Saladin who conquered Jerusalem in 1187 himself was a Kurd.

      May 24, 2012 at 8:32 am | Reply
  12. deniz boro

    Two Kurdish states would well serve Turkey. With two Kurdish states with their present state of governing understanding, Turkey would not have to invest additional resources for preventing them to infringe upon the Turkish borders, escape to us for protection and ask us to give administrative time to solve their endless problems. The Kurdish people who claim to be displeased of the conditions of Turkey would also have a selection of land to immigrate to freely of their choices. That would be swell to get rid of all the "UNSATISFIED KURDS" out of the country and place them at a land of their choice.

    However it does not work that way. Turkey follows the mainline on uninportant global matters and plays its part- as has been globaly done for many centuries.
    Soner you well know that being a Muslim country and having a Kurdish population does not make Turkey the advocate of all Kurdish and Islamic issues. Turkey is a land of peope who believe they are Turks. Nothing else can be expected from a state.

    May 24, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      What I mean to say is an unorganized group founded on plunder, terror and bare dominance will soon turn onto itself. Yep! unless sustained by external sources. But if such two equal force claim the same resource. Well :)

      It is like fighting fire with fire.

      May 24, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  13. Matt A.

    The Kurds and the Palestinians seem to share sentiments regarding claims to ancient tribal lands.

    A Middle East Kurdistan would comprise a large landmass of 4 conjoining nations. It's difficult to view that as even a slim likelihood.

    May 27, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  14. Muhammed

    What is with the Middle east and secretarian violence. Turkey has to solve the kurdish problem with diplomacy. Give them rights, services, and freedom to be autonomous but part of the commonwealth. Wasn't it Salahuddin a kurdish fighter that ultimately won Palestine? Man I wish I could just tell everyone just stop the stupidity and look at the bigger picture.

    May 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
    • Lisa b

      You are right..

      June 22, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  15. Muhammed

    America should be an example to the rest of the middle east. Its our diversity that makes us strong. Whether we are white black yellow or brown. The middle east has to grow up socially. We all come from somewhere, in order to compete in the world work hard and use your divesity as an advantage. Being a little kurdish country does not help your people. And being a turkish bully does not help strengthening your stance in the world.

    May 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  16. mardjan

    I think Mr Sonar conveniently forgot the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Iran with it's large Kurdish population that doesn't have autonomy and gets along well with the central government. Iran has told Turkey that it would end it's cooperation with Turkey over PKK, if they don't stop funding the terrorists in Syria. Iran also has excellent relationship with the Kurds in Iraq and the central government of Iraq. Much to the dismay of Hillary they have been able to quell the sectarian dispute in Iraq. The funny thing is that all this is in the best interest of the US and our people, where as Turkey's actions in arming the Syrian mercenaries and housing Blackwater training camps does our country a disservice by rocking the oil markets.

    May 28, 2012 at 8:02 am | Reply

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