Throughout the Syrian civil war, outside governments supporting both the regime and opposition have stressed that the country’s territorial integrity must be safeguarded, amid concerns that it could fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The main concern has been the Sunni-Shi’ite divide (the opposition is mostly Sunni; President Bashar Assad is an Alawite – a Shia sect – and he is supported by Shi’ite Hezbollah and Iran), but the Kurdish factor is another complication in the complex conflict.
Kurds, who comprise between 10 and 15 percent Syria’s 23 million population, have for the past year enjoyed a level of autonomy in a Kurdish-dominated area in north-west Syria. The regime withdrew its troops from the towns last July, reportedly with an understanding that Kurds would stay out of the civil war.
After that the Kurds focused on setting up local councils and protection units, and mostly avoided antagonizing either the regime or rebels.
But growing tensions between Kurdish militia and al-Qaeda-linked jihadist rebels including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusrah Front erupted into fighting this month, centering on Ras al-Ayn, a town on the Syria-Turkey border that was controlled by al-Nusrah since last November but fell to the Kurds last week.
A secularist Syrian Kurdish militia called the Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced plans for transitional self-government in the area although it denied it was a bid to carve out an independent state.
Those denials did not assure the Turkish government, which worries that autonomy for Kurds just across the Turkey-Syria border will boost separatism among its own large Kurdish minority. The PYD is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that waged a bloody separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for three decades until it entered a peace process with Ankara last March.
“Turkey does not accept any formation of a de-facto region or the cutting of ties with other regions [in Syria] until an elected Syrian parliament is established, giving the political system its final shape,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said during a visit to Poland on Tuesday.
Quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, he warned that if the Syrian crisis starts to affect Turkey’s security, “Turkey has the right to take any measures it deems necessary to protect its borders.”
Turkish media reported stepped-up military surveillance flights and special forces patrols along the border on Tuesday.
For Washington, both sides in the fighting in northern Syria are problematic. The U.S. has designated both the al-Nusrah Front/al-Qaeda and the PYD-affiliated PKK as foreign terrorist organizations, and the Obama administration has frequently expressed strong support for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against violent Kurdish separatists.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was “very concerned by press reports indicating that the [PYD] might declare an independent Kurdish region in Syria.”
“Such a declaration is highly provocative, as it will certainly exasperate tensions between Arabs and Kurds and give excuse for extremists to exploit the situation. So we’re also watching that and we’re concerned about that as well.”
In a statement issued this week through a Europe-based office the PYD accused al-Nusrah and ISIS of plotting attacks against Kurdish towns to force Kurds to commit to “the jihadi and salafi path,” and said their recent actions showed their claims to “spread freedom and democracy” were false.
It accused the jihadists of “killing, slaughtering and beating every person who disagrees with them” – the same policies as those of the regime.
The PYD also urged outside countries to reconsider shipping weapons to both the regime and rebels, arguing that the military assistance was being misused and “the Syrian people pay the price.”
Arguably the world’s largest stateless nation, Kurds are scattered across large parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, where alone they enjoy an autonomous quasi-state – a relatively tranquil enclave in a country largely torn by Sunni-Shi’ite violence. Some Kurds view the “Arab spring” turmoil as an opportunity Kurds should exploit to advance a campaign for a free Kurdistan.
In Arbil, Iraqi Kurd leader Massoud Barzani on Monday hosted representatives from Kurdish parties based in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey and announced plans for a grand Kurdish congress there next month to discuss developments across the region.
Barzani sought to allay the various governments’ concerns about the intent of the planned gathering, saying it would be a platform to “tell the Turkish, Arab and Persian nations that the Kurdish nation wants to live together in peace and equality.”