Tue, Aug 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Syrian Kurds inch toward autonomy

With Kurdish militias trying to tighten their grip on northern Syria, the country could be fragmenting into three distinct areas, and that could pose a problem for neighboring Turkey, which has battled Kurdish militants for decades

By Jonathon Burch  /  Reuters, CEYLANPINAR, Turkey

For now, Kurdish and Arab refugees who have fled Ras al-Ain mainly speak of their longing to return to homes in peace, regardless of who is in charge.

Khadija, a 29-year-old Arab, who fled the town with her family twice in the past eight months, said seven of her male relatives were executed by Arab rebel fighters because they had wanted to escape recruitment.

“We want a state to be formed by whoever. Who it is doesn’t matter. Security is our only concern. Let us just be able to go to our homes — Arabs, Kurds or whoever,” she said.

TURKEY’S CONCERNS

Across the border, powerful neighbor Turkey is treading a careful line.

Kurdish assertiveness has posed a quandary for Ankara as it tries to make peace on its own soil with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

Turkey fears a power grab by Kurdish militias in Syria may embolden the PKK militants, but it is also uneasy about swathes of territory along its border falling to the al-Nusra Front.

In a rare statement last month, the Turkish military said it had fired on PYD fighters, describing them as “separatist terrorists,” after bullets from Ras al-Ain hit inside Turkey. Previous statements had not specified targets of return fire.

However, there are also signs Turkey is willing to work with the PYD and other Kurdish groups if it can be sure they will remain resolutely opposed to al-Assad, vow not to seek autonomy through violence or before Syria’s wider conflict is resolved, and that they pose no threat to Turkey’s own security.

“We have no problem with their aspirations... What we do not want from any group is that they use this situation opportunistically to impose their will by force,” a senior Turkish government official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

OLIVE BRANCH

The message was delivered directly to Saleh Muslim last week, when Turkey invited him to Istanbul for talks with its intelligence agency after the capture of Ras al-Ain brought what the government official described as a new sense of urgency.

“We understood him and he understood us,” the official said.

“He came out satisfied that our position towards Kurds is clear and he also clarified his position ... that they are by no means after autonomy to be established now,” the official said.

The Turkish government has been discussing reopening border crossings to Kurdish areas in Syria to help the flow of humanitarian aid, including one at Ceylanpinar closed amid uncertainty over who controlled the other side.

“Turkey has really come to a point where it realizes what needs to be done. At the least it has seen that treating the Kurds like an enemy and supporting groups like [al-]Nusra is not good for Turkey,” said Ismail Arslan, Ceylanpinar’s mayor from Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

For Adil and his five children, the day when the Kurdish area of Syria is safe — in any hands — seems far away.

“I’m not hopeful,” he said. “Syria will not be fixed even in 10 years. I could be here that long. I will not go back until this war is over.”

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