From threat to dialogue before the Syrian Kurds

From threat to dialogue before the Syrian Kurds

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at around this time exactly one year ago, made a sudden move and withdrew his forces from Kurdish areas in the country’s north.

With a tactical evaluation, al-Assad was leaving the north to the Kurds so that he could direct his energy and military power to the more critical centers of the civil war. At the same time, this step came as retaliation against Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s strong support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

This withdrawal resulted in the passing of the control of most of the Kurdish-dominated settlements along the 900-kilometer Turkey-Syria border to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is in line with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD groups who considered Abdullah Öcalan at İmralı Island as their leader hung PKK flags at official offices in which they settled.

These flags were hung again two weeks ago, causing a major shock among the decision-makers in Turkey. After the north of Iraq became the stage for the shaping of an autonomous Kurdish administration in 1991 after the First Gulf War, the first step for a similar formation this time in northern Syria is being taken.

Syrian Kurd PYD head, Salih Muslim, lived in Istanbul as a student for seven years in the 1970s, graduating from the Chemical Engineering Department of Istanbul Technical University. He speaks fluent Turkish and is a person who does not hide that he misses Istanbul. In statements issued immediately after this incident, Muslim sent warm messages to both the Turkish government and the Turkish public, expressing his willingness to start a dialogue.

If the late President Turgut Özal, who is also an İTÜ graduate, were still alive, he would probably have immediately called the PYD leader to invite him to Istanbul.

However, Turkey’s decision makers opted for a different path.

In an interview Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave to Kanal 24 on July 25, he proclaimed that the formation in north Syria, “is the structuring of the PKK terror organization and the PYD, and this is indeed among our sensitive equilibriums. We will not say ‘OK’ to this formation from here.”

In this proclamation, Erdoğan openly mentioned an “intervention,” saying, “It is impossible for us to tolerate a terror structuring … it is of course our most natural right to intervene there.”

The prime minister also stated that the opposition in Syria also did not regard this formation positively. He gave the message that they would act together with the FSA against the PYD. As an extension of this stance, Ankara has left unanswered Salih Muslim’s calls for a dialogue for the past year.

Meanwhile, over the last year armed groups of al-Nusra, who are linked to al-Qaida, became increasingly active in the north of Syria and clashed with the PYD in several settlements. These militants, who mostly came from Islamic countries other than Syria, also entered from Turkey, and enjoyed significant logistical facilities along the border. In a sense, fundamentalist radical groups under the auspices of Turkey engaged in a fight for sovereignty in the north of Syria against the PYD, while PYD circles insistently claimed that Turkey was using al-Nusra against them.

One of the places where clashes between the PYD and al-Nusra were experienced at their peak was Ras al-Ayn, right across the border from Şanlıurfa’s Ceylanpınar district. Two weeks ago, the PYD took control of Ras al-Ayn after intense fighting. The hanging of the PYD flag after the taking down of the FSA flag at the top of a factory right across the border caused Ankara strife once more; statements came one after the other carrying the tough tones of one year ago.

However, after all these tough sentences, Ankara then totally changed its stance toward Salih Muslim and invited him to Istanbul last week. We will continue to scrutinize what last week’s Muslim visit means from the viewpoint of Turkey’s policies.

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on July 30. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.