Kurds in the middle: Turkish-Syrian relations

Turkish PM Erdoğan and Syrian President al-Assad

The demonstrations spreading through Syria will surely have implications beyond Syria’s borders. Syria’s neighbour to the north, Turkey, seems particularly concerned that the unrest may spread too far and affect growing Turco-Syrian relations. Relations—political, economic, and otherwise—have been improving at a brisk pace over the past decade. But relations between the two neighbours have not always been so friendly.

The decade of the 1990s, the last decade in Syria of the safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), saw severely strained relations between Damascus and Ankara; almost leading to war. Syria tolerated the PKK’s presence, if not tacitly embracing it. Damascus had little, if any, weight in political or other battles against Ankara and used the PKK as a proxy against its enemy to the north, all the while pretending the PKK were not even present on its soil.

While Damascus allowed the PKK militants to operate and train in Syria, there were red lines. The major limitation was that they leave the domestic Kurdish population alone. There was, however, great interest amongst the Syrian Kurds in the goings-on of the PKK and other groups operating within Syrian borders.

Due to the numerous restrictions placed on Kurdish cultural expression in Syria, Kurds there had always celebrated their culture in private. The PKK’s presence in the country managed to pull the Syrian Kurds from a private sphere existence to a more public one, which mostly happened through PKK-organised Newroz and other cultural celebrations in Kurdish areas of the country.

In 1998 PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced from Syria and the PKK moved out leaving a vacuum in its wake. Syrian Kurds had been politicised to some extent by the PKK’s presence and, after the group’s departure, Kurdish political parties stepped in to fill the void.

Around that same time Turkey and Syria signed a security agreement (the Adana Agreement), paving the way for improved relations between the two countries. And since that time these Kurdish political parties, though illegal and not well coordinated amongst themselves, have attempted to speak for the Kurds of Syria.

Watching al-Assad address the nation on Wednesday.

As mentioned previously, relations between Turkey and Syria have continued to improve, particularly since the AKP’s rise to power in Turkey in 2002, paving the way for increased trade and military cooperation. However, one issue continues to concern Ankara. That issue, as before, is the Kurds and the 800km common border between the two countries. So worried are the Turks that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), was dispatched this past Sunday to Damascus to express Ankara’s concerns about the spreading social unrest in Syria.

Two years ago the two countries formed a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HSCC) and held their first joint military exercises just under a year ago, in April 2010.

Turkish PM Erdoğan and Syrian President al-Assad have been speaking frequently on the phone since protests started spreading from Dera’a in the southwest corner of Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has conferred with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Mouallem to offer Turkey’s assistance in the event of a reform process towards a democratic regime.

A major concern for Turkey is the Kurdish minority in Syria. Some 10% of the population, they face severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses by the Ba’athist regime. The state of emergency that has been in force since 1963, gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge.

Why does Turkey fear the collapse of the Assad regime? The downfall of the current Ba’athist regime could perhaps lead to some autonomy for Syria’s Kurds. Turkey ultimately fears a strengthening of Pan-Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. Ankara sees Damascus as a key player in helping restrain Kurdish ambitions and subsequently see its help in the reform process as a way to keep al-Assad in power.

Linguistic mosaic along the Syrian-Turkish border (click for larger image)

While Turkey has eased—if ever so imperceptibly and begrudingly—its restrictions on Kurdish expressions of culture and language in the past several years, Damascus still does not acknowledge the Kurds’ existence and brutally represses any attempts on their part to promote ethnic equality.

Turkish PM Erdoğan, speaking on Monday to journalists, confirmed he had urged the Syrian president over the weekend to adopt a conciliatory spirit with his people.

‘We advised Mr Assad that responding to the people’s years-old demands positively, with a reformist approach, would help Syria overcome the problems more easily,’ said Erdoğan.

Whether responding to Erdoğan’s advice or trying to pre-empt the Kurds from joining the wave of protests across the country, al-Assad has begun discussing reform. In an announcement today, SANA (the official state news agency) said the president had formed a panel to study granting citizenship to stateless Kurds living in Syria.

In 1962 the Syrian government carried out a special census in the al-Hasakeh province which stripped almost 150,000 Kurds of their citizenship. These Kurds and their descendents have been stateless for decades now, prohibited from public sector employment, banned from travelling abroad, and unable to marry Syrian citizens. Today the stateless Kurds number some 300,000.

The announcement said that the census committee would complete its work before 15 April, at which time al-Assad would issue a decree based on the committee’s decision.

On Tuesday al-Assad accepted the resignation of his 32-member cabinet. One news agency has reported that a member of the Syrian Kurdish community will be offered a high-level position in the new cabinet. This would be more of a symbolic gesture aimed at appeasing Kurdish discontent in the country.

Kurds, for the most part, have so far stayed out of the current protests.


Karayilan: Syria must recognise Kurdish identity. Kurdish Info, 30 March 2011.

Couvas, Jacques. Why Erdoğan can’t let Assad down. IPS, 29 March 2011.

Karam, Zeina. Syrian president orders study on emergency laws. Bellingham Herald (AP), 31 March 2011.

Stateless Kurds in Syria. Report No. 5. KurdWatch, March 2010. (opens as .pdf)

Sinclair, Christian. Silencing of Kurdish Voices in Syria. Paper presented at ‘New Voices, New Media, New Agendas?’ Workshop sponsored by Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, February 2011.

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