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Syria's 'forgotten Kurds' grab the spotlight

One of the unintended consequences of the Syrian uprising has been the rising political aspirations of Syria's minority Kurds, predominantly based near the Syrian-Turkish border. But across the frontier, Ankara is on high alert.


Situated at the base of the Taurus Mountains on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian frontier, al-Qamishli is the sort of nondescript border city that has been on the periphery of Syrian concerns – except for the country’s Kurds.

Al-Qamishli after all, is called “the secret capital of the Kurds,” but that's a title more mythic than real.

Even in the annals of Kurdish history – a long narrative of nationalist aspirations, crushed hopes, uprisings and internecine squabbles – Syria’s Kurds are an overlooked lot.

Living predominantly in the northeastern wedge of the country, Syria’s approximately 2.5 million Kurds are often called “the forgotten Kurds” – a community overshadowed by their numerically superior brethren in Iraq and Turkey.

But al-Qamishli has a twin city, Nusaybin, which is situated just a short walk across a border in southeastern Turkey.

As the Syrian uprising heads towards an endgame, Turkey is keeping a close watch on these border cities.

Last month, the forbidden Kurdish flag - a red, white and green tricolor with a blazing sun in the center - suddenly went up on some public buildings in al-Qamishli and a few other towns in the northeastern Kurdish pockets of Syria.

The Kurdish flag sightings followed reports that chunks of northern Syria had fallen to Kurdish control as embattled Syrian government troops abandoned border posts to concentrate their military efforts in and around the Syrian commercial capital of Aleppo.

According to Turkish media reports, a Syrian Kurdish group linked to the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) – which Turkey and other Western countries consider a terrorist organisation – had taken control of several Kurdish areas in Syria.

The reports enflamed Turkish fears that if Syrian Kurds were to gain autonomy - as their brethren did in northern Iraq - it would spark calls for greater autonomy among Turkey's roughly 14 million Kurds.

The Arab Spring stirs up Kurdish hopes

Amid reports in the Turkish nationalist press that the PKK had seized control of the 800-kilometer border between the two countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that a Kurdish presence with ties to the PKK could give Turkey a reason to intervene militarily in Syria.

On Wednesday, Turkey launched military exercises in the Nusaybin district in a show of force aimed at Kurdish separatist groups.

The military exercises came as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, in northern Iraq.

In a rare joint statement between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials, the two sides said they would tackle any threat from a violent group or organization that exploits the power vacuum in Syria – an apparent reference to the PYD (Democratic Union Party), a Syrian Kurdish group with ties to the PKK.

More than a year after the Arab uprisings broke, the international community is witnessing the first major impact of the Arab Spring on the Kurds, an approximately 25-million-strong ethnic group spread across the mountainous region where the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet.

“It’s a very interesting time,” said Hugh Pope of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “I think Syria’s Kurds could definitely hope for a better deal.”

Assad attempts to woo Syria’s Kurds

But Kurdish history is marked by present-day rivalries complicating hopes for a better future - and Syria’s Kurdish community today is no exception.

Syrian Kurdish politics is currently dominated by two groups: the PYD, the PKK-linked party, which was formed in 2003, and the KNC (Kurdish National Council) - an alliance of 16 Kurdish parties, which was formed in October 2011.

The PYD acknowledges “ideological” links with the PKK, but insists the Turkish group has no control of its policies.

Those reassurances though, have never abated Turkish concerns - nor the government's opposition to the PYD.

Last week, Erdogan accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime of “allotting five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organisation” - an obvious reference to the PYD.

For its part, the PYD has denied any collusion with the Syrian regime and has officially called for Assad’s ouster.

But the spectre of rival regional leaders playing off their “Kurdish problem” to outmanoeuvre each other is not new in Kurdish history.

Since the Syrian uprising broke 18 months ago, Assad has tried to woo the Kurds by issuing a presidential decree granting Syrian citizenship to tens of thousands of them – something the Kurds had been seeking for more than half a century.

Referring to allegations that Syrian troops had ceded control to the PYD, Pope said it was “possible that it was a negotiated settlement.”

But he questioned Erdogan’s claim that the PYD was in sole control of Kurdish areas. "The fact is that PYD is not controlling all of the situation in northern Syria, they are working with other Kurdish groups," said Pope.

In an attempt at a settlement between Syrian Kurdish groups, Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, helped negotiate a formal reconciliation between the PYD and the KNC in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil on July 11.

But even if internal Kurdish divisions have been set aside – at least for the moment – there are signs of divisions between Kurdish groups and the main Arab opposition factions.

As Syrian opposition groups try to hammer out a roadmap for the post-Assad era, mounting differences between the PYD and the main Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army  have emerged.

Many Syrian Kurds are wary of the support the SNC and the Free Syrian Army have received from Turkey, a traditional Kurdish foe.

“The SNC has shut the door on the noses of the Kurds and the keys are in Turkey’s pocket,” said Bachar Issa, a Paris-based Syrian Kurdish activist in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Turkish solutions for a Turkish problem

Since the Syrian uprising broke 18 months ago, Erdogan has been a staunch supporter of the anti-Assad opposition. But the unintended consequence of what has been called “the Kurdish awakening” has complicated Turkey’s diplomatic efforts in the region.

"The Turks want the fall of Bashar al-Assad, but the Kurdish issue is a red line that cannot be crossed,” said Wehbi Bissan, a specialist of Turkish-Mideast relations, in a debate on FRANCE 24’s Arabic TV channel. “Turkey will not tolerate a parallel between Iraqi Kurds [in the autonomous Kurdish region] and Syrian Kurds because they fear this will threaten the integrity of Turkish territory.”

Bissan concludes that if Ankara wants to avoid an escalation of tensions in the region, “the best course of action would be to resolve the Kurdish question inside Turkey,” referring to the longstanding Turkish-Kurdish campaign for greater political autonomy and cultural rights.

Pope, a leading expert on Turkey, agrees. “If Turkey is worried about the empowerment of Syrian Kurds and possible knock-on effects on its own Kurdish community, the best action would be for Turkey to solve its own internal Kurdish problem.”

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