Home inContext The Kurds: The MidEast’s Wild Card?

The Kurds: The MidEast’s Wild Card?

Kalen Taylor

As the battle for Damascus rages, the Kurds are positioning themselves to exploit the growing security and power vacuum in Syria, to the detriment of Turkey. Last week, Syrian Kurds raised their flag over several towns located on Syria’s border with Turkey. In addition, Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — which Turkey considers a branch of the Workers Union Party (PKK) that has been fighting a separatist war against Ankara since the 1980s — reportedly abandoned its presumed alliance with the Syrian regime and is now the main Kurdish group responsible for seizing territory inside Syria.

This is not to say, however, that Syria’s Kurdish rebels are siding with the broader revolt. Indeed, they remain suspicious of the opposition. But these developments indicate that trouble may be brewing for Syria’s neighbor, Turkey.

In a Syrian border town, a protester holds a Kurdish and Syrian rebel flag. (Photo: Freedom House)

Fearing that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, or even emboldened Syrian Kurds, could support the armed Kurdish PKK in Turkey, Ankara launched a series of military exercises near the border with Syria on Wednesday in an apparent bid to intimidate the rebels. Ankara went even further when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey will not tolerate a Kurdish operated region in Syria and that his country would attack any base that houses Kurdish separatists inside the embattled neighboring country.

On the diplomatic front, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the Kurdish region in northern Iraq on August 1 to discuss the “the situation of Kurds in Syria” with Mahmoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader in Arbil. The trip bore fruit when Ankara and Arbil issued a rare joint statement acknowledging that they would act against any group exploiting the security vacuum in Syria, perhaps signaling that a wedge exists between Iraq’s Kurds and those in Syria and Turkey. Erdogan is also relying on the United States to bolster his standing against the Kurdish movements. The U.S. maintains that it will support Syria’s territorial integrity above any Kurdish state.

The Kurdish separatist movement in Syria is likely to gain momentum as time passes–which could lead an increasingly wary Turkey to intervene and prevent Kurdish autonomy. In fact, the Kurds have become somewhat of a wild card in the region as the Arab Uprising continue.