By Roy Gutman
ISTANBUL — President Bashar Assad, facing a growing rebel presence in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub, has turned control of parts of northern Syria over to militant Kurds who Turkey has long branded as terrorists, prompting concern that Istanbul might see the development as a reason to send troops across its border with Syria.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in comments late Wednesday, said that Turkey would not accept an entity in northern Syria governed by the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has long waged a guerrilla war against Turkey, and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party.
He said the two groups had built a “structure in northern Syria” that for Turkey means “a structure of terror.”
“It is impossible for us to look favorably at such a structure,” he said in an interview with a private television channel.
He warned that if Syrian Kurdish militants mount a terror operation or some other form of cross-border provocation against Turkey, “then intervening would be our most natural right.”
The prospect of a PKK-dominated zone in northern Syria appears to be an unintended consequence of the civil war now raging between Assad and rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who are Arab Sunni Muslims who’ve been fighting, with U.S. and other nations’ backing, to topple Assad’s government.
Assad withdrew forces last week from six predominantly Kurdish towns and handed control to the Kurdish militants in what appears to be an effort to bolster his defenses at Aleppo, which became the scene of sustained fighting last week for the first time since the anti-Assad uprising began more than 16 months ago. Assad also reportedly has pulled forces from the Idlib region of northeastern Syria and moved them to Aleppo in preparation for what some say will be a pitched battle for the city.
Tens of thousands of residents of Aleppo have fled in anticipation of the battle. Reports from anti-Assad groups indicate that thousands of pro-Assad and rebel fighters are converging on the city, which many believe Assad must hold if he is to maintain control of the country.
The developments in Kurdish areas, however, suggest that no matter who wins the civil war, the fighting is shifting the politics of Syria and its neighbors in ways that cannot be predicted.
The establishment of a Kurdish-ruled zone inside Syria has long been a goal of the Kurdish population. Leaders of the anti-Assad opposition have said in recent days that they would oppose such a zone, and Kurdish fighters have said they would not allow the Free Syrian Army to operate in the region.
Officially, the Democratic Union Party is sharing power over six towns – Kobane, Derek, Amude, Efrin, Sari Kani and Girke Lege – with the Kurdish National Council, an umbrella organization of anti-Assad Kurdish groups. In fact, the Kurdish militants have raised the PKK flag over public buildings or have used force to haul down their rivals’ flag, Kurdish news media in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil reported Thursday.
The PKK affiliate also controls stretches of the Syrian border, including a key crossing into territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the increasingly autonomous province in neighboring Iraq.
The stakes are enormous in this otherwise obscure region. Turkey fears that a Syrian Kurdish state run by the PKK will radicalize its own restive Kurds, who comprise 12 million, or one-sixth, of its 74 million population. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Syrian Kurdish fighters have taken part in PKK raids inside Turkey over the years.
The development also could worsen the political situation inside Iraq, where the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government maintains chilly relations with the central government in Baghdad, but ever closer relations with Turkey. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, is a supporter of Assad, whose Alawite religious sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Baghdad and the Kurdish government disagree over a range of other issues, from oil export policy to who should govern cities where the population is split between Kurds and Arabs.
Kurdistan’s president, Massoud Barzani, tried to head off a Democratic Union Party takeover several weeks ago, when he hosted the 16 or so groups comprising the Kurdish National Council, together with the Syrian National Council, also an umbrella body, at a meeting in Erbil. Many now believe the arrangement he brokered actually paved the way for the PKK takeover.
In a move some analysts said might be intended to undercut PKK influence in Syria, Barzani announced Sunday that the Kurdistan Regional Government would dispatch back to Syria, allegedly to fill a security vacuum, some of the Kurdish Syrian soldiers who’ve deserted into Iraq to escape the civil war. Kurdish media reported that some 650 Kurdish soldiers already returned to Syria last week, and there were suggestions that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s own military, the peshmerga, is considering entering Syria as well. That move is opposed by the PKK, local Kurdish newspapers have reported.
“Peshmerga forces are our brothers and relatives and we do not have any problems with them,” Salih Muslim, a Democratic Union Party leader, told the English-language daily Rudaw. “But Syrian Kurdistan does not need assistance from the peshmerga forces at this point and if the need arises we will ask for their help.”
Assad forces still control Qamishli, a city of well over 400,000 and the unofficial capital of the predominantly Kurdish northern region. But a decision by Assad to allow the PKK to take over there as well could move Barzani to intervene on Turkey’s behalf. Such a development could spark a reaction in Baghdad, whose authority over Iraq’s international relations would be directly challenged by a peshmerga move into Syria.
Turkey has shown little hesitance to invade neighboring countries in response to PKK attacks on Turkish targets. In October, Turkish aircraft and troops crossed into Iraq to hunt down PKK guerrillas who’d killed 29 members of Turkey’s security forces and five civilians in a series of raids in southern Turkey.
McClatchy special correspondent Abdulla Hawaz contributed from Erbil, Iraq.