Last Updated: Fri Jul 27, 2012 07:40 am (KSA) 04:40 am (GMT)

Syrian Kurds more a chance than challenge to Turkey, if…

Yavuz Baydar

The Kurdish entry into the Syrian theater is an exciting element. Curiously, it has exposed two opposite camps in Turkey. Some claim that the area of what they call “western Kurdistan” will any day now fall under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) control, while others see the pullout of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from the entire Turkish border area as a new, profound opportunity for a new regional design with Turkey in the lead.

I received a note for my previous column from a reliable old source, an expert on Kurdish movements in the region and a former intelligence employee of the American administration.

After some undue praise, he wrote: “Like all political issues, this one [fears of Kurdish aspirations on self-rule in northern Syria] too is played by the various factions in and outside Turkey to their own ends. Look at the absence of serious discussion even in Washington over the Syrian issue, although I think the government does understand the complexity and risks of intervention. I have some modest confidence that Turkey will muddle through and come out on the right side of these Syrian-related issues. It has shown remarkable ability to do so over the past two decades or more.”

This is a view I share as far as confidence in the “new Ankara” goes, though I maintain my concerns that “deep Ankara” is still healthy and keen enough to make an “anti-Kurdish” comeback. It has changed tactics lately by acting in visible submission to the power exercised by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) but stands ready to strike (as the Uludere tragedy showed) when it finds a proper “loophole.” So, when it comes to managing a post-Assad Syria, deep wisdom is blended with hope and caution. In a new assessment posted on the Al-Monitor website, Henri J. Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a highly esteemed expert on PKK-related issues, presented such a perspective.

“On paper,” Barkey wrote, “the main beneficiary of the change in Syria will be Turkey. With America’s diminished posture and a weakened Iran, Turkey emerges as an economic behemoth ready to engage with its businesspeople and know-how. It is also the country that both the US and the Europeans expect will help establish a semblance of order in Syria.

“A strengthened Kurdish movement will put pressure on Turkey to resolve its own domestic Kurdish problem; this would be a long overdue and a welcome development. Still, it is not completely clear that Turkish leaders, who have big ideas but often act emotionally, have the wherewithal and maturity to rise to these twin challenges of Kurdish resurgence and managing the chaos that will ensue after Assad’s departure,” Barkey concluded.

Not completely clear, indeed, but not acting on primitive reflexes, either. The “wait and see” attitude of Ankara is somewhat synched with many pundits in the pro-government press.

And while others of the Kemalist breed again start to pump up old fears and hatred of Kurdish aspirations for self-rule, reporters from the same outlets showed remarkable nuances in their reports on the ground, stating that many Syrian Kurds were indeed ready to fight the PKK if they saw an intent to set up a liberated zone or a “statelet.”

The main question from now on is what the choice of the PKK will be, regarding Syria in particular, and the Kurdish “awakening” in the regional context. I could not have expressed better what Orhan Miroğlu, a Kurdish intellectual with vast knowledge of the PKK, who in the 1990s barely survived a hit organized by “deep Ankara,” suggested in the Taraf daily yesterday:

“The Syrian revolution seems to be a big political test for the PKK. Because it presents a chance for the Kurds and the international community to judge its ability to share power with others. The PKK has two choices: Risk opposing Syrian Kurds, the Syrian National Congress and the West, and pursue the formation of an autonomous -- or buffer -- zone, which equals political suicide. Or, it may choose to be part of the revolution.

“Turkey and Southern Kurdistan” -- Iraq -- “are neighbors of Syrian Kurds. The PKK conducts an armed struggle against the former and sees the latter as the sole adversary to its existence. ... The PKK will be unable to construct an own area under its hegemony. Syria’s ethnic map and sociology will not allow it... The PKK cannot remain the old PKK, in spite of the Syrian revolution, because it is already in the revolution. Even if it has not done anything to be part of it, and even if it had earlier cooperated with a dictator, who is ready to fall any time now, this gives a chance for change. You may find my idea premature, and I would understand it, but let me say it: The PKK must hurry for a peace settlement with Turkey. Because it has, from now on, things to lose in Syria and this fact will force it not to wage further war, but to seek dialogue and settlement.”

Add to this, the role of the religious and sectarian loyalties of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, as well. So, it is a long and winding road, but no reason for panic.

Published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman on July 26, 2012.

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