x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Kurd-Turkish clashes feared along Syrian border

Kurdish rebels take control of some areas in power vacuum after the collapse of central government authority due to civil war.

SAATLIKOY, TURKEY // In his house along the Turkish-Syrian border, Hasan Cakmak sometimes hears the crack of gunfire and the boom of exploding shells echoing from the south.

Like many other people who live along the frontier, those sounds of war often give him cause to pause and wonder about the fate of relatives living in Syria as the civil war there grinds on.

But for Mr Cakmak, an ethnic Kurd and leader of a Kurdish village, the din resounding across the landscape is worrying for yet another reason.

Separatist Kurdish rebels, some allegedly from Iraq, have taken control of pockets of territory in northern Syria in the vacuum left by the collapse of central government authority. That means Mr Cakmak and other Kurds who live in the shadow of Syria's widening conflict could become embroiled in clashes between Kurdish fighters and Turkey's armed forces.

"It is impossible not to be worried," said forty-eight-year-old Mr Cakmak this week. He is the chief of Saatlikoy, a hamlet of about 80 people in the south-eastern Turkish province of Kilis.

Turkish officials have already accused insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of carrying out a bomb attack last week in Gaziantep, a city about 50 kilometres inside Turkey. The blast killed nine people, including four children.

The group, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in south-eastern Turkey since 1984, recently moved into predominantly Kurdish areas in the north of Syria and took control of some towns, Mr Cakmak said.

"They are even opening up their own schools, PKK schools," he added. "The state schools are closed over there."

Referring to the PKK, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has said that Ankara would not accept "terrorist structures" across the border in Syria.

Photographs published in Turkish newspapers of PKK flags flying above Syrian villages have triggered opposition accusations that government policy in Syria has failed.

Not all Kurds in Turkey, of course, are dismayed by these developments.

Some community leaders have welcomed growing Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, with some suggesting that Ankara is seeking a pretext to carry out cross-border military strikes against these experiments in self-rule for fear they could inspire similar initiatives among Turkey's Kurdish minority of about 12 million.

Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), said recently that developments in northern Syria showed that "the people are trying to erect their own administration" and warned Ankara not to interfere. The BDP is Turkey's main Kurdish party and is seen by Turkish nationalists as the PKK's political arm.

With the Turkish government's concerns about the situation in northern Syria growing daily, the PKK has stepped up attacks in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-east in what Turkish analysts describe as a campaign by the militants to create a Kurdish-ruled area that would include part of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Mr Demirtas said this week that the PKK was in control of wide stretches of the border area between Turkey and Iraq. He said that Turkey's military could reach its outposts in the area only by air. "Control on the ground has been taken over by the PKK."

The BDP's stance has angered nationalists in Ankara, who have called for the lifting of parliamentary immunity of some BDP politicians because they publicly met several PKK rebels and embraced the fighters. Some Turkish newspapers have suggested the BDP could be banned like other Kurdish parties before it.

Tensions are not limited to the political arena in Ankara. In Gaziantep, a crowd of Turks stoned buildings belonging to the BDP in the city hours after the bomb explosion last week.

"Within five minutes, officials were saying the attack had been organised by the PKK, and then we were attacked," Mehmet Sahin, a BDP leader in Gaziantep, said this week.

Mr Sahin said he suspected Turkish security forces planted the bomb in Gaziantep to prepare the country's public for an armed intervention in Syria. "They are trying to find a pretext to do something in Syria."

Huseyin Demir, another BDP representative in Gaziantep, said Ankara was thinking about creating a Turkish-controlled "safe zone" inside Syria "just because Kurds have taken over some towns" in the region. He predicted that Turkey would not be able to stop the trend towards Kurdish autonomy in Syria "not even with 10 safe zones".

Renewed tensions between the Ankara government and Kurds in both Syria and Turkey is one of the main repercussions of Syria's civil war, renewing debate about Kurdish identify and statehood.

Mr Sahin said the main problem is Turkey's refusal to recognise the Kurds as a people. "The Turkish state wants to create a unified people. Does the whole world have to be Turkish? We are Kurds, but they do not accept that."

In Saatlikoy, Mr Cakmak said he understood why some Kurds in south-eastern Turkey, witnesses to a decades-long counterinsurgency campaign by Turkish military forces, do not trust the state. But he insisted he did not regard the PKK as the sole representative of the Kurds, either.

"I am Kurdish, and I speak Kurdish as much as I like," he said, alluding to political reforms expanding the right to use the Kurdish language in Turkey. "But I learnt it from my ancestors. I didn't learn it from the PKK. You have to distinguish between Kurds and the PKK."

tseibert@thenational.ae