Crisis in Syria emboldens country's Kurds

Kurdish Syrian refugees Some Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraq, but the many remaining are asserting autonomy as the Assad regime becomes embroiled in conflict

What is happening in Syria cannot be taken in isolation. The protracted upheaval in one of the Middle East's biggest, most powerful and most influential countries is affecting the entire region and, most critically, its immediate neighbours.

Like Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon Turkey has already absorbed - almost without hesitation - thousands of Syrians fleeing the fighting, in particular from the northern cities of Hama and Aleppo.

Turkey is understandably concerned that the number of civilians fleeing across its relatively open southern border will increase as the fighting intensifies in Syria.

Some of those refugees also bring their own political baggage with them and there have already been disturbances in the border camps.

Occasionally ethnic and regional tensions spill over as thousands of displaced Syrians live cheek by jowl in tents under the blisteringly hot summer sum.

But for Turkey, the refugee issue is a mere inconvenience compared to what it thinks will be the biggest fall-out of the Syrian crisis - the Kurds and Kurdistan.

In an almost mirror image of what happened in Iraq after 1991, Kurdish nationalists in northern Syria are making the most of the turmoil and violence in the rest of the country to strengthen their own identity and position.

'Govern ourselves'

For Turkey, it is like a red rag to a bull.

As the Assad regime pulls in regular Syrian troops from peripheral areas for the military assault on Aleppo, there is clear evidence that others are almost seamlessly moving in to the vacuum left behind.

And in some Kurdish parts of northern Syria the opposition forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and other smaller factions have all but taken over.

The leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, spoke to the BBC in recent days about his movement's strategy and aspirations.

"We are able to govern ourselves - we have the power for it," he said.

Mr Muslim was careful to insist, at this stage at least, that he wasn't calling for an independent Kurdistan but an autonomous region within a new, democratic Syria.

It is thought that Kurdish militias now control at least four main towns and cities in northern Syria. They reportedly include at least parts of Qamishlo, Efrin, Amude, Terbaspi and Ay El Arab.

More remarkable is that although there were sporadic clashes and some loss of life many of them appear to have been secured without much of a fight.

"We warned them to leave the Kurdish areas, otherwise we would resort to different measures," says Muslim, referring to civil administrators and officials from Damascus who used to run the towns."

They were aware of the people's demands and that's why they gave in without blood being spilled."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan sees a Kurdish enclave in Syria a direct threat to Turkey
Erdogan's "terrorist" threat

Quite deliberately choosing to describe the region of northern Syria as "West Kurdistan" the PYD leader said most people in the region stood with the movement and supported their aims.

Those aims are certainly not supported by the Turkish government, which has, for decades, fought its own often bloody battles with Kurdish separatists and nationalists of the PKK - the Kurdish Workers' Party.

In a blunt message at the end of this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it abundantly clear he saw the creation of a separate Kurdish enclave in northern Syria as a direct threat to his own country's interests and security.

Mr Erdogan said that Ankara would not accept the creation of a "terrorist" structure in the region.

"It is our most natural right to intervene (in northern Syria) since those terrorist formations would disturb our national peace," said the Prime Minister in a television interview.

Turkey, a one time ally of the Assad regime in Syria for pragmatic and economic reasons as much as anything, has all but given up on Damascus.

On more than one occasion Mr Erdogan has called on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the onslaught against his own people and to step down before more lives are lost.

Assad handover?

Some in Turkey also believe that a desperate President Assad has deliberately abandoned, or handed over, the northern regions to the PYD in order to create tensions with Turkey and also divide the already fractious opposition movements in Syria.

Syrian rebel FSA soldiers tear up a poster of President Bashar al-Assad The crisis has emboldened Syria's Kurds but some analysts say their relationship with the FSA is tense

"In the North, (Assad) has already allocated five provinces to the terrorists (Kurds)," Mr Erdogan was quoted as saying by a Turkish news agency last week. Ankara simply regards the Syrian PYD as a branch of its own, outlawed PKK.

But the criticism and allegations of trying to create regional instability aren't limited to the pariah that is the regime in Damascus.

The autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq has now admitted it has been training Kurdish-Syrian fighters on its territory.

In a recent interview the regional leader, President Massoud Barzani, openly confirmed the presence of a military training camp where "a good number of young Kurds" have been trained.

Tension with FSA

With as many as 20million Kurds in Turkey alone, watching their brethren to the east quite literally marking out their territory, the famously nationalist Turks are, to put it mildly, concerned.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davatoglu is being dispatched to northern Iraq in the coming days where, according to reports, he will talk with Kurdish officials there about the situation in Syria and Turkish "sensitivities."

Many things are still unclear; relations between the Syrian Kurds and other opposition groups (the Free Syria Army) are said to be tense.

In some Syrian Kurdish towns under the de-facto control of the PYD, pro Assad troops have remained in their barracks, raising questions about a deal, of sorts, between Damascus and the Kurds.

And, the biggest question of all, will Turkey carry out its threat to intervene militarily in northern Syria to prevent the creation of a Kurdish "entity".

One thing is certain. If and when President Assad is driven from power, the country he leaves behind will for some time be divided, damaged and violent.

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