Middle East

A Kurdish Spring in Turkey and Syria?

Kurds demonstrate on the 150th day of the Uludere massacre on May 26 in Istanbul, Turkey. The air force killed 34 Kurds from Uludere village in an operation. (Photo: Petitfrere, Dreamstime.com)

The uprisings of the Arab Spring are spilling over into an awakening of Kurdish people and their national self-definition. The Kurds number some 30 million people scattered around Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Caucasus. The civil war in Syria has provided certain Kurdish armed groups with the opportunity to further arm themselves and enact a round of attacks against the Turkish Army, hoping to create a second autonomous Kurdish region in the Middle East, the first being Northern Iraq. Characteristically, Massoud Barzani, current president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, said, "The Kurdish nation will be united and the day of self-determination is coming."

Since the end of 2011, as the war in Syria was building, Kurdish guerilla groups in Turkey, such as PKK, intensified their attacks. Turkish officials at that period frequently commented in the press that Northern Syria was becoming a de facto autonomous Kurdish region, from where guerillas would supply themselves with arms and launch attacks. Turkish Defense Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, "A plan to create a string of autonomous Kurdish states will set pace for the creation of the great Kurdistan that will eventual carve the Turkish territory."

Since then, hundreds of military attacks by Kurds have managed to inflict great casualties on the Turkish Army, along with a large number of kidnappings, similar in fashion to those of the Latin American guerilla groups. In mid-2012, Hakkari, a city of 60,000, was circled by the rebels, and territories up to 40 kilometers from the Turkish-Iraqi borders are in effect controlled by rebels, over which the Turkish state has for the time only nominal sovereignty. According to pro-PKK elements, the guerillas are able to deploy themselves up to 400 kilometers inside the Turkish territory and even block highways.

Since the end of July 2012, the Turkish Army has started a new anti-guerilla campaign in the mountainous terrain of southeastern Turkey, centered on the cities of Semdinli and Gerdiya. In order to show the ferocity of the battles and the sophisticated armaments used by the guerillas in that front, it is interesting to note that they have managed to shoot down nine combat helicopters of the Turkish Army and destroy more than 150 armored vehicles and tanks, along with continuous attacks against the energy infrastructure of the region, such as the oil pipeline system.

The majority of the weaponry used are being obtained by Syria; President Assad has blamed Turkey for arming his opponents in his civil war and retaliates in this manner. In parallel, the triangle region of Turkey-Iraq-Iran is traditionally one of the global hot spots for contraband distribution, be it narcotics or weapons, and the rebels find no difficulty obtaining anti-aircraft systems of ammunitions for their mortars and artillery units. Neutral military experts who have assessed the situation say the attacks by PKK against the Turkish Army have effectively boosted its combat morale and brought on an influx of newly recruited rebels, a trend that further supports the hypothesis that the battles will go on for the foreseeable future.

Semdinli Mayor Sedat Tore, who is related to the Kurdish party BDP, commented in The Economist recently that the citizens of the city are surrounded by "a circle of fire," whilst it is a common secret that the vast majority of the district's population of 52,000 favors PKK and the establishment of an independent Kurdish region.

The major fear in Ankara is a prolonged civil war in Syria that will completely free the 2 million Kurdish minority from Damascus control, driving them toward an ethnic Kurdish hub and emergence of an all-out war in the whole of southeastern Turkey. The Kurds in Syria remain neutral in the fight between Assad's government and its opponents, weighting the situation as to when it would be suitable to proclaim their own independence. Turkey on the other hand supports the Syrian National Council, which is under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and is being financed mostly by the emirate of Qatar. Thus Turkey is pursuing the ousting of Assad in order to forge closer ties with Qatar (and Egypt) and gain a leading role in the Islamic world, while also fueling the ambitions of the Kurds to dismember Turkey.

The Kurdish Democratic Union, or PYD, controls most of the 900 kilometer border line between Syria and Turkey. Should it decide to fully support PKK—who engages from the Turkish-Iraqi border—it will bring about a major military headache in Ankara, which will have to transfer military units from central Turkey in order to withstand the pressure. Already several Turkish artillery units have taken up places close to the borders with Syria as a precaution, and at the same time Ankara pushes forward its relations with the KRG Kurdish party and Barzani, who in the past collaborated with Turkey.

A large number of young Kurds live and work in Istanbul and the Western parts of Turkey. Out of about 15 million residents in metropolitan Istanbul, 5 million are of Kurdish descent, often marginalized in terms of public acceptance, assimilation and social upward mobility. A continuation of intense fighting in southeastern Turkey, where elder members of their extended families live, may eventually lead to widespread revolts in Istanbul, thus igniting a Kurdish Spring in Turkey's most important urban center.

The chain of events that started in Tunisia in late 2010 continues to flare up explosive ethnic tensions in the Middle East. The Kurdish uprising and rebel activity seems to be gaining momentum, and any developments will be critically linked to the eventual resolve of the Syrian crisis.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Ioannis Michaletos.