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Clashes Between Syrian Kurds, Rebels Worry Turkey

Members of the Free Syrian Army set up a fire to obscure the Kurdish militants' vision, while standing alert during a truce on top of a hilly mountain in the Kurdish area of al-Qaftal, overlooking the town of Azaz, October 31, 2012.
Clashes between Syrian Kurdish forces and Syrian rebels have been on the rise the past few weeks. Concentrating control in their own areas of northwestern Syria, Kurdish leaders have been slow to join the broader rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, prefering to seek greater regional autonomy. This is a big concern for neighboring Turkey.

When Syrian rebels seized the border post at Ras al-Ain on November 8, they celebrated the victory and went on to "liberate" the town, a place where both Arabs and Kurds live on Syria's northeastern border with Turkey.

But the Kurdish inhabitants quickly saw the perils of the move. Within days, dozens of people were dead in clashes between Kurdish militias and the rebels.

Turkish soldiers take up position near the border with Syria, in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 26, 2012.
Turkish soldiers take up position near the border with Syria, in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 26, 2012.
Ankara is worried about the clashes in the region, fearing that Syria's Kurdish Party, the PYD, is supporting Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, known as the PKK, with encouragement from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz of the Hurriyet daily said, "If there is an overt PKK connection with the PYD, and there is a Turkey-friendly outfit that seems to be combating this, I can see how there are people in Turkey who might see this as being to Turkey's advantage. But I don't know that there is a direct Turkish involvement in this."

The PKK has been fighting for greater autonomy against Turkish security forces since the 1980s. The Syrian crisis has reopened the question of regional Kurdish autonomy, rekindling hope among some Kurds that their 30-million-strong flock - divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran - could emerge with their own state.

Ankara fears an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region on its border would further strengthen the PKK insurgency.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month warned that Turkey would never allow it.

International relations analyst Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University said Ankara's increasingly tough language convinces him that Turkey could be involved in fueling the clashes.

"According to reports, the clashes are not between the Syrian opposition and the Kurds but between the Kurds and al-Qaida-like militia directly and indirectly supported by the Turkish authorities. If that is true, it means Turkey is implementing its policy towards the Kurdish-populated areas of Syria where, as the prime minister has indicated, it won't tolerate any sort of autonomy," Aktar said.

Gultan Kisanak is the leader of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party. She also accuses Turkish security forces of being behind the clashes. Similar claims were made in a press release Tuesday by the Kurdistan National Congress, a coalition of Kurdish groups across Europe.

But Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal dismissed the notion. He said, "We don't have any kind of place in such an internal clash. It's not in the interest of anybody to continue clashes while [they] are fighting an oppressive regime," he said.

According to Turkish media reports, the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, is seeking to mediate between the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian opposition.

In recent years, Ankara has developed good economic and political relations with the neighboring Iraqi Kurds after a decade of mistrust.

International relations analyst Aktar said Turkey needs to develop similar relations with Syrian Kurds, but may need help.

"When a semi-autonomous region appeared in the north of Iraq, Turkey did not like it. But it was convinced by the Americans," said Aktar. "So Turkey needs again the good office of the U.S. to create the same type of working relationship with the Syrian Kurds."

Aktar warned the alternative will be increasing tensions between Ankara and Syrian Kurds. He said that would result in further clashes and confrontations.