News / Middle East

Kurdish Independence Movement in Syria Worries Turkey

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani (R) attend a ceremony with Erdogan's wife Emine Erdogan in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Nov. 16, 2013.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani (R) attend a ceremony with Erdogan's wife Emine Erdogan in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Nov. 16, 2013.
The announcement last week of a provisional Kurdish regional government in northeast Syria is worrying Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and he has sought the assistance of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani to help him stop it. 

Barzani hadn’t stepped on Turkish soil for two decades until this past weekend, when he came to Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey,  to aid Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s efforts to try to dissuade Syrian Kurds from forming an autonomous state of their own in northeast Syria.

While they have had partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991, nationalist movements have been suppressed in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan share concern about the growing power of Kurdish militias in Syria.

Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and his chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, spoke out against the self-rule declaration by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in Syria. 

Hussein argued other Syrian Kurds disapproved of the move and that the PYD was really working with President Bashar al-Assad, a claim disputed by Syrian Kurds.

“It was not the right time. It is dangerous to have a one-party system in Syrian Kurdistan, many other parties have been marginalized or ignored,” he said. 

The self-rule declaration, which came in the wake of PYD victories in recent weeks over Jihadist and Islamist Syrian rebels,  couldn’t have come at a worst time for Erdogan.

It has heightened the separatist sentiment among Turkish Kurds and is complicating his year-long peace process aimed at ending a bloody three-decade long insurgency by Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the PYD’s sister party.

The Kurds are often described as the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. They number about 30 million spread across four countries - Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They have long harbored dreams of independence.

The divisions between Kurds are now growing with some seeing the PKK as the rightful Kurdish transnational leader. Others favor Barzani in that role.

Those divisions were on display during Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir.

A PKK member, Mahmoud, 55, who declined to give his family name, says that Barzani should have spoken out against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Syria who are fighting Syrian Kurds. He like many Kurds claims the rebels receive assistance from Turkey.

“The people there in Syria, don’t have anything to eat, they don’t have medicines. Al-Qaida gets support from here," he said. "They pass through with their weapons. So why is Barzani coming here? He is shaking hands with the Turks, and they are doing all these things against the Kurds and help al-Qaida.  What is he going to do here?"

Only a few thousand people gathered to greet Barzani. There was a counter demonstration of a few hundred.

Mehmet, a 45-year-old construction worker and father of four, said most Turkish Kurds supported the PYD’s declaration of independence in Syria.

“We want them to get their own rights. We support this. We want them to be more strong,” he said.

In a worrying sign for Prime Minister Edrogan, on the eve of Barzani’s arrival, Kurdish militants attacked a Turkish military convoy near the Syrian border, one of the most serious breaches by PKK fighters during the current eight-month-old truce.

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