Turkish fears of an emboldened Kurdish population in Syria are rising. Since the Syrian uprising began in February 2011, Syria’s Kurdish population has taken advantage of the power vacuum in the country’s north and sought to expand its influence.
Since last summer, the Syrian government’s mass killing of civilians has made President Bashar al-Assad persona non grata with the Turkish government. Likewise, the Turkish government’s calls for Assad’s removal and its harboring of the Syrian National Council (Syria’s umbrella opposition group) and 20,000–30,000 Syrian refugees hasn’t endeared Turkish leaders to Assad, either.
In response, Assad has loosened his grip on the Kurdish population, including militants, using them as a proxy force against Turkey. Earlier this year, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group designated by the U.S. and Turkey as a terrorist organization, threatened to turn northern Syria into a “war zone” if Turkish troops entered Syria. And last month, Kurdish fighters captured Syrian towns across the northern border with Turkey.
This isn’t the first time Assad has deliberately allowed Kurdish militants to threaten Turkish security. In the 1980s, Assad’s father, and former President Hafez al-Assad, allowed the PKK to establish facilities in the Syrian-dominated Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. Relations became so hostile that in 1998, Turkey threatened to invade Syria. Damascus quickly backed down, and Assad expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan from the country.
Ankara fears that Kurdish gains will lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state—or at least an autonomous Kurdish region similar to the one in northern Iraq—which would imperil Turkish borders. However, Turkish sources, such as the daily newspaper Today’s Zaman, wrongly argue that the Kurdish population’s ability to extend its influence is a sign that it is in cahoots with the Assad regime. On the contrary, Kurds are mobilizing in an effort to favorably position themselves in a post-Assad Syria.
Mustafa Gundogdu at the Kurdish Human Rights Project argues that the Kurds have “forged a third way,” seeing Assad’s fall as an opportunity to fulfill their long-term interests. Though no friend to the Assad regime, Kurds are also wary of Islamist opposition groups. As such, they want to be in a politically advantageous position when a new government takes over.
The Syrian uprising alters the balance of power between the Kurds and the Turkish government. While it’s too soon to tell how Syria’s Kurdish population would ultimately benefit if the Assad regime falls, such momentum would be difficult to rein in.