World Review | Syrian uprising leaves Turkey fearing embryonic Kurdish state

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Syrian uprising leaves Turkey fearing embryonic Kurdish state

Syrian uprising leaves Turkey fearing embryonic Kurdish state
Thousands of Syrians - many of them Kurds - have fled to refugee camps on Turkey's borders (photo: dpa)

THE upheaval in the Arab world has left Turkey in a quandary as it questions how it should respond.

The policy of ‘zero problems’ with Turkey’s neighbours – pursued until 2011 by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - have failed. Relations with Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow have been clouded by political differences.

And now, the civil war in Syria presents Turkey with both a foreign policy and a domestic policy dilemma.

Until the outbreak of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, relations with Damascus were seen as evidence of the success of the ‘zero problems’ policy. Relations between the leaders were excellent, economic cooperation had increased and the visa requirement for travellers had been lifted.

But following the start of the revolt, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad did not take the advice from Ankara to carry out political reforms and instead stepped up repressive measures. At that point, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan called for him to go.

The Syrian crisis began to affect Turkey directly with the arrival of those fleeing Syria. By the end of 2012 some 130,000 refugees were in camps in Turkey. At the same time, the Turkish government tried to isolate the refugees to prevent the political and religious spark from igniting the multi-confessional province of Hatay (on the Mediterranean coast bordering Syria), where Christians and Alevis live alongside the Muslim majority.

During the fighting between the troops of the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels, the Turkish frontier region repeatedly came under fire. Given the resolve of the international community not to intervene in Syria, Turkey’s room for action was limited.

Turkey’s foreign policy predicament goes hand in hand with an almost greater domestic policy dilemma concerning the Kurdish question. There are around two million Kurds in Syria. They were marginalised and repressed by the regime.

With the outbreak of the revolt, the Syrian regime has largely withdrawn from the Kurdish regions along the Syrian-Turkish border, and the Kurds have established their own Kurdish administration there. The driving force behind that is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely related ideologically to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

The PKK is engaged in an armed conflict with the Turkish army that has claimed 2,800 lives over the past three years. The Kurds’ achievement of autonomy in Syria does not make it easier to combat the PKK in Turkey.

For Ankara this question is further complicated by developments in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, where the Kurds have achieved a political status that comes close to state autonomy, for which revenues from exporting petroleum form the economic basis.

Ankara’s attitude to that autonomy is not without contradictions. It still regards any steps taken by the Iraqi Kurds towards achieving independence with unease, and the Turkish army repeatedly operates across the border in connection in its fight against the PKK.

On the other hand, cooperation with the Kurdish government based in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil carries great boons for the Turkish economy.

It looks likely that the international community will step up its intervention in Syria in an effort to contribute to the fall of the Assad regime as the conflict threatens to spread to Lebanon and Jordan. The dispatch of Patriot surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to Turkey in January 2013 should be seen as a prelude to that.

But the Syrian crisis has demonstrated that Turkey’s role in helping to settle the Middle East crisis is over for the time being. If Turkey wishes to play a role there that matches the size of its population and its economic weight, the Turkish government will need to continue the process of democratic reform and pay particular attention to solving the Kurdish question, which extends far beyond Turkey.

Professor Dr Udo Steinbach

Professor Dr Udo Steinbach is a Middle East specialist who teaches at the Centre of Near and Middle East Studies at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany. He was Director of the German ...

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