Biting Off More Than You Can Chew: Turkey, Syria and the PKK

As the conflict in Syria worsens, an increasing number of Syrians have been heading to Turkey. The UN Refugee Agency warned on Tuesday that the number of refugees in Turkey could increase up to 200,000. Currently, around 80,000 Syrians are already registered in Turkey across nine refugee camps, with Turkey building facilities for six more camps in order to increase their capacity to accommodate refugees. This burgeoning refugee crisis is stoking tensions in Turkey, both on a local as well as a national level.

At the local level, observers have noted increased tensions in the Hatay district of Turkey, where about a million Alawis reside (Alawis are ethnically Arab and are related to the Alawi-dominated Syrian state). While some have cautioned that this in no way means that the Alawis in Turkey are directly supporting the Assad regime in Syria, the conflict has nonetheless turned their presence into a sensitive subject. As evidence, some Turkish media outlets have commented that Syrians in Turkey are being given priority over Turks in public hospitals in the district and are putting a strain on various other public services as well.

At the national level, the refugee crisis has highlighted the increasing inability of the government to deal with the Kurdish “issue.” Aliza Marcus argues in The National Interest that “the real fear isn’t that Syria will be divided. It’s that Kurds are uniting.” About a third of the PKK members are drawn from Kurds residing in Syria and organizational links are said to exist between the PKK in Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the  PKK in Syria. These ties date back to the early 1980s, from when Abdullah Öcalan, the founding member of the PKK, built up the organization from Damascus once he was forced to flee Turkey.

Intensifying PKK attacks started this July when the PKK took over a large amount of territory in the town of Şemdinli, a district in southeastern Turkey bordering Northern Iraq. Şemdinli then witnessed a two-week showdown between Turkish military and the PKK, with the Turkish government claiming that it killed 150 PKK terrorists in the two weeks. On August 13th, the PKK kidnapped Hüseyin Aygün, a deputy for Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Its most recent public attack (allegedly) was in Gaziantep, a city 30 miles from the Syrian border, where a car bomb killed 9 civilians while injuring 70 others.

The Turkish government’s problems extend beyond the worsening situation in Syria and the refugee problem, however.  Last year, it had tried to strike an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq to import a large amount of oil and natural gas, in exchange for exporting refined petroleum products to the region . While on the face of it, the deal increases the country’s energy and economic security, it was also seen as fulfilling certain strategic goals. Gonul Tol writing in The National Interest argues:

From the Turkish perspective, closer ties to the KRG serve Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. Turkey would like to use the clout of Barzani (the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan) with the Syrian Kurds to sideline the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, and to gain some influence with the Syrian Kurds in a post-Assad scenario.

However, in April of this year, the Iraqi government declared that the export of oil to Turkey was illegitimate and that the oil and natural gas reserves were the property of all Iraqis and should therefore be federally managed, instead of by the KRG alone. In May, Iraq awarded Pakistan Petroleum the right to explore for gas, officially snubbing Turkey, who is also harboring Iraq’s fugitive former Vice-President.

So what do all these events mean for Ankara? In terms of posing a threat to Turkey, the number of Kurds in Syria are too dispersed and fragmented as compared to their kin in Iraq and Turkey. The issue is most salient nationally as it highlights the inability of the ruling AKP to deal with the issue. Writing in the Hurriyet Daily Newsanalyst Semih Idiz laments:

What makes it sadder is that the situation in terms of Kurdish cultural rights is much better than it was a decade ago, and the government has the strongest mandate from the electorate any government has had over the past four to five decades. Given this situation, the government was in a position to take bold steps aimed at solving the Kurdish problem.

Instead of moving in that direction, however, it has moved in the traditional direction of considering the Kurdish problem as one that is not political in nature but a simple question of security and terrorism……The prospects for solving the Kurdish problem soon, therefore, do not appear good, which unfortunately points to more bloodshed and increased ethnic estrangement.

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