July 20th, 2012
07:37 PM ET

Should Turkey be afraid of the Syrian Kurds?

By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS contributor. You can find his other posts here. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Many in Turkey are said to be alarmed by reports over the past couple of days that Syrian Kurds have taken over a string of towns along that country’s border with Turkey, including Ayn-al ‘Arab and Afrin.

Turkish fears stem from the fact that the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is reportedly taking over some of the border cities, has a reputation for opposing Turkey and supporting its sworn-enemy, the PKK.  Until recently, the PYD advertised itself as being close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group notorious for leading a decades-long fight against Turkey – one that has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties.

As the Turks see it, with identical PKK/PYD flags reportedly being raised over Ayn al-‘Arab and Afrin, developments suggest that the PKK may be creating a safe haven for itself on Turkey’s border with Syria. This has prompted some bad memories: in the past, the PKK has used safe havens such as the territory it occupied inside northern Iraq to launch devastating attacks in Turkey.

What’s more, today’s alleged developments leave Turkey between a rock and a hard place: will Ankara watch on as the PKK carves out a base in Syria, or will it do something about this development, taking military action inside Syria to deny the PYD/PKK that opportunity?

Hard as it would for the Turks to bear, Ankara may be forced to accept inaction, given the risks of acting alone militarily.

Syria’s restless and well-organized Kurdish minority doesn’t for the most part trust Turkey. What is more, the PKK is believed to have considerable support among the Syrian Kurds, many of whom are organized under the PYD.

After the Syrian uprising began in spring 2011, Ankara took a firm stand against the Bashar al-Assad regime’s crackdown. Turkey adopted some tough rhetoric toward Assad and began offering refuge to members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition group. Turkey also provided safe haven to Syrian refugees fleeing persecution, as well as hosting some members of the armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army.

Simultaneously, reports surfaced that Assad was re-allowing the PKK, which Damascus sheltered in the 1980s and the 1990s, to operate inside Syria. In March of this year, for example, the PKK was accused of moving as many as 2,000 of its members to Syria from the Qandil enclave along the Iraq-Iran border, where the group has maintained its headquarters and camps over the past decade.

So, the more Turkey has increased its opposition to the al-Assad regime, the more the al-Assad regime seems to have allowed the PKK/PYD to establish a base in its territory to gain a card to play against Ankara. This makes a unilateral Turkish foray into Syria extremely risky for Ankara: Turkey would surely face a Kurdish insurgency if it were to enter Syrian territory to prevent the PYD from taking control of the Syrian cities.

But Ankara may not have to suffer the worst. Until recently, the PYD refused to join the Syrian uprising or the broader Kurdish opposition, organized under the Kurdistan National Council (KNC). But now, the KNC and PYD have reportedly reached a deal to unify their efforts. At the reported request of the powerful Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, a friend of Ankara, the PYD is said to have agreed to stop fighting Turkey, focusing its efforts instead in the struggle to unseat the al-Assad regime.

This new Kurdish alliance may help Ankara adopt a more sanguine approach to the emerging Kurdish region inside Syria. For this to happen, the PYD needs to hold on to its part of the deal (a tall order given the close ties between the PYD and the PKK), while the Iraqi Kurds must use their influence over the Syrian Kurds to encourage them to focus their its efforts on unseating the al-Assad regime, and not squandering an opportunity by fighting Turkey.

Topics: Middle East • Turkey

soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Ilter

    Kurds are too separated to fight for an independent state. they also made a lot of mistakes trying to gain power over each other. when you look a little deeper, you see how many separate Kurdish group there are in the same region. All "tribes" have different background and support a different independence idea. so right now their role in middle east is just the "gram" on the scale and the level of threat for mighty Turkey is very low...

    July 21, 2012 at 3:12 am | Reply
    • AZ

      Indeed Kurds in Syria were seperated for a long time. And indeed there are many parties who have different backgrounds and ideas about independence. But that is very normal in my opinion. It wouldn't be normal if every political party would think the same. And there is only one political party among the kurds who is based on tribal principles and thats the party of the barzani's. So try to inform yourself before you write something down. And turkey wouldn't have to be afraid if they had not taken all rights from the Kurds in Turkey. Even denying that there are kurds in turkey for many years! And if it had not detroyed thousands of villages and forced the residents to move to the big cities like istanbul and ankara!

      And the threat is I think more than a gram if, as said above, the PKK is involved.

      I find this articles very unprofessional written as it's not journalistic at all. From the first sentences you can smell the Turkishness in it and you can tell it's a Turkish participant who has written it!

      July 21, 2012 at 4:11 am | Reply
      • AZ

        I say all this because I write so good.
        I better than Fareed.
        Fareed, you go back to school and learn like me.

        July 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • azzi

      hey how about? hey i"m a Turk i hate Kurds and their not human beings?. you should say it , it will show your true color. we kurds like any other nations have problems probably less problem than other nations. that doesn't mean we shouldnt get whats ours.so whos the fk are you to come and speak for us?

      July 23, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  2. Chukwuemeka

    The turbulence experience in Syrian would definitely move soon into Turkey. The mistake leaders in the region have made is by taking side with rebels without having a clear picture of government views. After Turkey falls which country would be next? Perhaps Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states.

    July 21, 2012 at 5:49 am | Reply
    • Özgür

      You can only wish that Turkey will fail.
      You are some stupid arab with no brains.

      July 21, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
    • Suat

      "After Turkey falls" my GOD how funny :)))))

      July 23, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  3. Öçal

    Just remember, we Turks are not arab.
    We have nothing to do with these stupid people.
    Islam was a creation of Turks and stolen by arabs.

    July 21, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
    • SA

      What does that have to do with the article?

      July 21, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
      • Mal Mısın?

        "Islam was a creation of Turks and stolen by arabs."

        Ignorant? That's why Qur'an is Arabic and Muhammed was an Arab. I know education sucks in Turkey but it seems you have failed very well on History lessons.

        I'm not even religious but neither I am moron.

        July 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • deniz boro

      How very innovative. I am sure you can improve on that an a fantasy triller.

      July 22, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    A sociopath that steals names and makes offensive remarks to participants has ruined the comment section in Fareeds blog.

    July 21, 2012 at 9:18 am | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      I totally agree with that, JAL. The person doing this needs to be banned from this website. This has been going for the last month or so. I also noticed that a certain Patrick has been getting his name stolen by this jerk in order to spew his right-wing nonsense under that name and now he seems to be doing it to the rest of us!!!

      July 21, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      He does it to me too, JAL. I call this bozo Phunnie boy. I guess that until if or when he gets banned from this web page, this will go on!

      July 21, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      My hotmail address was hacked by most probably some spam advertisers. It was a total nuisiance. But I was extreemly disturbed of the consequances and hopefully did take full measure (along with the service providers) to stop the furtherance of this unauthorized use of my info. I chose to trust that CNN has its measures to stop such unauthorised access.

      July 24, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  5. poke

    Yes. Turkey will regret sending weapons and fighters to destabilize Syria because the problem will come back to them tenfold. In the event of war, the Turkish economy will come crashing down and the Kurd and Alevi/Alawi uprisings will take big chunks of territory. Turkey has been stealing water from Syria for years. In the power vacuum people are bound to start fighting over this scarce resource. Maybe Constantinople and other Greek cities will finally go back to their real owners.

    July 21, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Let's all hope that you're right, poke. The Kurds do deserve their independence and a right to set up their own home state just like the Israelis did back in 1948. Moreover, I for one would like to see the resurrection of the Eastern Roman Empire!

      July 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
      • adam

        You can only see that in your dream.Be realistic for god sake.Nobody can destroy Turkish People.

        July 22, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Jeff

      Jews were very rich and are richer now. Palestine was fool enough to sell their lands and they didn't have a strong army.

      It is very hard to destroy Turkey if you believe UN and NATO. Even without those, Europe's economical crisis (especially Greece) is a big handicap for nationalist greek dreamers. Syria's situation is bad enough.

      The problem with PKK is many foreign countries support them including my country.

      July 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Brett

      Oh yeah, and Taiwan will be a part of China and Prussia will be ressurected again. Get real and get a hold of yourself, you clown.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:10 am | Reply
  6. Patrick

    I am going to try and post. I hope the Muslim fanatic who has stolen my moniker multiple times will leave me alone. Gee whiz, life is tough enough. So, a big drum rolls for my first post in a month!
    Despite all its efforts, or probably because of the way its security forces carry them out, Turkey has been unable to eradicate PKK, a Marxist-Stalinist organization that refines and smuggles drugs, executes 'collaborators' and their families, extorts money from Kurds in Europe and is labeled terrorist by several countries, including Britain. 'The PKK wants to do things by force. Turkey states that they want to do it democratically, legally.

    July 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • USMC Forever

      Gee Patrick, your statement above is just like taking up for the British during our Revolutionary War(1776-1783) and condemning out founding fathers as evil terrorists. Actually, the difference between out founding fathers then and the modern day PKK now is extremely minimal. The fault here lies with the bullheaded Turks who want to continue to expolit Kurdish resources.

      July 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        Really?
        Perhaps, to ensure proper communication, you could first explain:
        1. When you state "the difference between out founding fathers then and the modern day PKK now is extremely minimal", I do not know what you are thinking when you make that statement. and,
        2. How are the "bullheaded Turks" exploiting "Kurdish resources".

        July 21, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
      • USMC Forever

        There is one main difference between our founding fathers and the modern day PKK, Patrick and that difference is, is that France bankrolled our side and sent in Gen. Marquis de Lafayette to fight along side of the Contiental Army commanded by Gen. George Washington whereas the modern day PKK have no outside help from ayone due to Western influence. Furthermore, northern Kurdistan has a lot of oil that is under total control of the bullheaded Turks.

        July 21, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
      • Patrick

        USMC Forever
        Historical records show that The Marquis de Lafayette was very wealthy on his own and so was his wife. Apparantly, he became enamoured of the plight of Americans and decided, on his own volition, to help Washington. He brought a few of his friends and helped the USA in their revolution. Furthermore, The Marquis de Lafayette and his friends went to the USA against the wishes of the French King.
        Wether the PKK has help from anyone is not something that is on record.
        My research does not show a country called Kurdistan.There is a Kurdistan region in Iraq.The so-called insurgency is mainly in South-Eastern Turkey.This insurgency has cost the lives of an estimated 75,000 civilians and soldiers from both sides.

        July 21, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
      • Jeff

        Americans were terrorists! Yes, you should learn about British perspective of war.

        Those vampric so called Americans (should be called USA Citizens) genocided natives! Shame on them! Shame to those who murdered millions of natives in both North America and South America including Aztecs, Mayans etc.

        July 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Howie

      Patrick, I am surprised you repeating some of old Turkish government propaganda. The government in Turkey admitted in recent court cases against underground paramilitary gangs that drug dealing, kidnapping and mass killing was indeed job of pro government gangs not PKK. Sure ANC and Mandela, Sinn Féin and IRA , even George Washington and American revolutionaries were considered a terrorist and trouble maker at certain period of their struggle for freedom. My friend you have your facts wrong, it is PKK who is willing to disarm for general unconditional amnesty and recognition of Kurds as a national minority. Most Turks and Kurds want peace, it is rightwing and military will lose their power in peaceful solution to Kurdish rights.

      July 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        I may surprise you but you have not said anything that proves me wrong.

        July 21, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
      • Patrick

        BTW nothing I have said puts me on one side or the other.

        July 21, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
      • Jeff

        Americans were terroirsts! Yes, you should learn about British perspective of war.

        Those vampric so called Americans (should be called USA Citizens) genocided natives! Shame on them! Shame to those who murdered millions of natives in both North America and South America including Aztecs, Mayans etc.

        July 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Azad

      Turkey states that they want to do it democratically, legally.
      Patrick
      Turkish government says that, of course what do you expect? Are they going to say no we are not giving them their rights?
      You pick model country with minorities, who are original people on their homeland and tell me if you agree that Kurdish should have same rights. If Turkish government serious about solving the Kurdish rights issue, why do not they announce a model, say Switzerland government structure, Quebec in Canada or Kurdistan region in Iraq. Then they base their legal and democratic solution to work to solve this war. Labeling any Kurd who asks for their right as terrorist does not solve this problem.

      July 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        Labeling any Kurd that kills soldiers, polices (aka the innocent people), and doing everything almost that is illegal. Yes they are terrorist. Many of the Kurds are not terrorist that's right. But you are confused about terrorists, terrorist supporters and innocent people.

        Don't expect Turkey to accept foreign countries' model, did other countries accept foreign models? No. Turks' and Kurds' situation is a lot different.

        Turkey will not give sovereignty to Kurds until PKK stop weapons.

        Killing people can't be accepted to be right! It's wrong to kill innocent young soldiers. It is forbidden to Turkish soldiers to kill terrorist without warning. Thus, this makes PKK's guerilla tactics work and causes some of the young innocent people to be killed.

        July 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The PYD does the right thing to join the Syrian rebels. The Syrian Kurds live mostly in the north-eastern border region with Iraq and Turkey, and make up 10-15% of the population, yet they have always felt discriminated by Assad, as he feared they might seek self-determination. Many were denied citizenship under a controversial law in the early 1960s. Frustration at this treatment boiled over in March 2004 in the town of Qamishli, when Kurds rioted before security forces moved in. This March online activists opposed to Assad had found new significance in the Qamishli events and urged their compatriots to mark the date in order to win the hearts of the Syrian Kurds.

    July 21, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      There are also many Turkmens just like Iraq in that territory.

      Kurds and Turks are not very different, it's really normal that they live in same lands.

      July 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
      • azzi

        jeff you know nothing about kurds. you are on the turkish side if you havnt noticed. you can type all day but kurds will have their own countries weather you like it or not or the turks like it or not. it will take time. thats something they want and they wont give up, unless the turks and the arabs kill them all which they have been trying to do for some time. but its obviously not a working plan.

        July 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • deniz boro

      von hettlingen, states have to think of the wellbeing of all its people whereas some religious, racial or otherwise groups may chose to help the groups they symphasize with. I first thought PYD is acting very compassionately; However compassion can always be misused. With all the news pollution I get on this issue I can not claim that I can see this whole picture clearly. But I somehow think all the stakeholders are as confused as I am. I do not only mean the affected parties but also the major parties of the conflict (which can not even be named). This conflict is not even a devent war... It is a skirmish, almost as if it is a bar fight between teenagers.

      July 24, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        Azzi, nobody in Turkey is trying to kill the Kurds out of a conflict. It is only that the opposing Kurds in Turkey have not been acting very decently so far. Even their democratically chosen representatives try to gain votes by causing all types of nuisiances. Turkey as well as the whole world went through changes. All versions of Kurdish groupings should adopt the same changes rather than making dirty money as a bandit of the mountain selling its service to anyone who offers. Maybe the Kurdish groupings would be more successful in getting what they want by updating and restructuring their body. But than most of their followers may end up saying "They are perfectly comfortable living in the land they live in now".

        July 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    The Kurds will never have independence, because they're too disorganized and fight amongst themselves. If they're ever given independence, they'll turn into another Taliban state with different factions killing each other. Many of them join a violent campaign at an early age (15-17 yrs old) joining the PKK or PJAK. The represent the largest drug smuggling organization in all of Europe and often engage in suicide bombing, roadside bombing, bombing of shops and buildings. The PKK for instance, was built on communist ideals founded by the terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan who is now in prison on a remote island. They often complain of unequal rights and mistreatment, but it's all just a cover story for gaining independence. Sure, different ethnic groups often mistreated, but that is common in all places. Let's take an example... Kurds in Turkey enjoy as much freedom as Turks do. They can purchase land, bussiness, speak their own language, marry a Turk (which happens very often) etc. Some of the richest celebrities in Turkey are Kurds. There's even a state sponsored Kurdish channel in Kurdish. One of Turkey's presidents was a Kurd (Turgut Ozal). Yet, they want to split Turkey in 2 and claim their own land. I'm sorry, but just wanting something doesn't make it yours. Yes, they live in the poorest regions of Turkey, but that does not mean they're mistreated in any way. Take for instance the earthquake of 2011 in the region of Van. The Turkish government had responded the disaster with 1275 personnel, 174 vehicles, 290 health officials, 43 ambulances, and 6 air ambulances. Disasters and Emergency Situations Directorate of Turkey AFAD announced that 13 million TL (around $7 million US) has been sent so far in terms of emergency relief efforts. Another 8.6 million TL (just under $5 million US) has been donated via charity so far. Yet, you still see the PKK crossing over the border from Iraq and killing Turkish citizens and kidnapping doctors, teachers, tourists and setting up bombs. All of that being funded by drugs and other countries seeking to destabilize the region for their own gain. In conclusion, I'd like to add that I, as a Turk have many Kurdish friends and I accept them as brothers and equals. It's not the Kurds that are the problem, rather it's the politics of other nations seeking to destroy the peace we enjoy.

    July 21, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • Howie

      Farhat, I wish you read some unbiased facts about Kurds in Turkey and their aspiration.
      There is Kurds and Kurdistan
      Do you know prior to 80s, speaking in Kurdish in public were illegal,
      There were Mountain Turks not Kurds
      Then Kurdish music allowed but not writing,
      There are people in Kurdish origin but not Kurdish minority
      Now Kurdish schools are allowed but there is no Kurdish nation.
      We all know very well the Turkish government sooner or later will negotiate with Kurdish politicians and militant group including PKK leadership. Why do not you join the peace loving Turks and Kurds and advocate peaceful solution to Kurdish rights in Turkey.
      (By the way your name is Kurdish and it has a meaning in Kurdish, it is Farhad not Farhat)

      July 21, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Actually, Farhad is an ancient Persian name. Unlike Farhad though, Ferhat is a Turkish name. Sure, what you speak of is in the past. Those situations are no longer the case. As such, you cannot dwell on them and punish the current establishment. Negotiation with terrorists is not really an option. As everyone knows, terrorists only seek bloodshed and violence, because it is the only thing that keeps them functioning. The only peaceful solution to the PKK is to have them lay down their arms and stop the violence. Enough blood has been spilled already.

        July 21, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
      • Jeff

        So all you do is taking revenge from what it was in the past? Those young soldiers are responsible for the past's mistakes?

        Why all nationalists think the same? All they do is murdering and supporting neo-nazi like ideologies.

        July 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
      • azzi

        farhad im a kurd lets not be biased okay. i don't support the pkk killing. but pkk have reasons to fight the Turkish government. you talk about soldiers dieing i feel bad too. but what about all the kurds the government has killed jailed and deported? and the cultural freedom they don't enjoy?

        July 23, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  9. AZ

    first of all, the first comment was mine, the second one about Fareed not.

    I am kind of surprised by reading some of your comments. Some people are stating things which are never proofed but one heard in Turkish propaganda television. Like PKK being a drug kartel.

    Mr. Farhad (Farhad or Farhat are both the same name btw, the one is a wrong pronounsation of the original name). All those things you are stating in your comment, about "all" the rights kurds have, are the result of the PKK war. All those things were not able in Turkey in the 80'.

    And I also believe you do not know the reason why so many Kurds are living in the major cities of Turkey (like Istanbul and Ankara) and why alot of Kurds are not able to speak Kurdish. Well i can tell you that most of them were by forced moved to those cities by the Turkish army and that their villages were distroyed. And the fact that they don't speak Kurdish is because they were afraid of speaking Kurdish dear Ferhad!

    And please, next time you travel to Turkey, go have a look at the east side of Turkey, and see the difference between West and East, then you know what mistreatment is..

    Don't forget that statements about terrorist change in the word, see the IRA and Mandela's party. All now seen as parties who fought for their freedom.

    July 22, 2012 at 6:20 am | Reply
    • Jeff

      Lol if you don't believe that PKK is a major drug dealer you should be either paranoiac or brainwashed.

      Google Earth is your friend...
      'nuff said

      July 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
      • AZ

        Well Jeff, i do not know untill it's proven. And i guess in the modern world everyone is innocent untill....right? I didn't know you were Shelock Holmes and had already gathered to evidence!

        deniz boro, it's not about being keen or not being keen. And it's not about all the islamic stated, but only those where the kurds live. I guess you should go read more books than that one. And it's not a so called political case...it's a case for human rights. Go read about how many Kurdish villages are distroyed in Turkey , and the villagers forced to move, then come an write comments please...

        July 23, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Jeff

      And kill them, kill their brother, kill their mother, genocide their family!! Continue to murder!!!

      And write faked history books about your past.

      Be proud of exchanging innocent lifes with your desires!
      Hope Turkish people forgive you...

      July 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  10. deniz boro

    I ever loved a book called "The Short History of the World" by H.G.Wells. He was defining the states of Europe in the middle ages as A GROUP OF AMEOEBEA UNITING, PARTING, REPRODUCING AND DYING. 5-6 centuries after it does look so. I just cannot get myself to think otherwise on this KURDISH-SO-CALLED-POLITICAL case. But it reminds me of a cooking receipt I read in Asterix& Obelix. It clearly said "Let them steam in their own juice; It brings out the flavor".

    July 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    But still..Why is everyone so keen to bring the Kurdish issue into all conflicts that fall in the Islamic states? I think even CNN needs an enlightning on the exact roots and religious inclinations of this geography. Or else all of these "very valuable" comments would be grounded on the clouds :)

    July 22, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  12. savvas petroou

    The only terorist to the midle east is turkey.turks is barbarians and there roots come from mogolia.the kurts is a separate nation and was from the 500 bc as greek historikal IRODODOS wrote about greek persians wars.turks must read this real history and no only there SAHTE history. kurts have diferent language cultur frm turks.

    August 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
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  14. rustam

    those who says that pkk are a terrorist group or drug smugglers are idiots and morons who knows nothing about kurds and their history

    October 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Reply
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