Skip to main content

The Third Front in Turkey's 'Kurdish Problem'

Kadri Gursel writes that Turkey may be supporting Salafi groups in northern Syria to prevent a third Kurdish front.
Turkish people look on and record with phones members of the Free Syrian Army gathering as gunfire is heard between them and the armed Kurds of The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, November 25, 2012. Iran said Turkey's plans to deploy Patriot defensive missiles near its border with Syria would add to the region's problems, as fears grow of the Syrian civil war spilling across frontiers. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh  (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT)

The most critical consequence of the Syrian uprising for Turkey is the “regionalization of the Turkey’s Kurdish problem.”  Last July after the Damascus regime abandoned most parts of the Kurdish region, Syrian Kurds took over the control of Kurdish-populated towns and villages and launched an experiment in autonomy that is ongoing. 

There is a powerful reason why this development means regionalization of Turkey’s own Kurdish problem:  The Democratic Union Party [PYD] that is steering developments in Syria’s Kurdish region has the largest popular base, is the best organized and has the strongest military arm, and it is the Syrian branch of Kurdish Workers Party [PKK] that has been waging armed struggle against Turkey’s central authority for the past 28 years.

If the rulers of Turkey for the past 30 years had been able to come up with a workable and comprehensive solution approach to Turkey’s Kurdish problem and if they had made some progress in this direction, today they wouldn’t be fearing a threat from autonomy aspirations of the Syrian Kurds. What is more, such a development could have even served Turkey’s interests.

But Turkish rulers did not succeed in moving towards a solution of the country’s Kurdish problem and as a result now they perceive threats endangering Turkey’s security from developments in Syria’s Kurdish region.

The reaction of  Ankara leaders to this perception was to initiate a third front in Turkey’s Kurdish problem

The first front is Turkey.  The second front is the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory in Iraq where the leaders of PKK’S armed wing and thousands of its militants are based.

Turkey has not directly intervened militarily with the third front in Syria.  But it is evident that to enfeeble the Kurdish autonomy Turkey is carrying out a multi-pronged campaign using proxy elements. When we say “proxy elements” inevitably emerging on the radar screen is the Al Nusra Front that is the strongest international jihadist movement that is also linked to Al Qaeda.

It is now possible to read in the Western press reports that Turkey is supporting Al Nusra Front. In 12 December edition of the International Herald Tribune an article headlined “Al Qaeda in Syria,” said;

“Mr. Obama has blacklisted the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. It makes sense to isolate the group, but the designation by itself isn’t sufficient. U.S. officials have to make a case directly to the countries or actors that are believed to be most responsible for the weapons and other assistance to the Nusra Front: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Representatives of the mainstream Kurdish movement in Turkey go further and accuse Turkey of conducting a proxy war against the PYD by using jihadists led by Al Nusra.  The co-chair of Turkey’s legal Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] Gultan Kisanak recently met with a group of Turkish columnists following her visit to Kurdish populated towns along the Syrian border. She said:

“The situation is Syria is spreading to Turkey. Local people in Ceylanpinar can see with naked eyes that some military groups are armed and transferred to Syria. Most of them are from Al Nusra. They are brought in buses. There is pressure on some Arab villages nearby to accommodate these groups in their homes. If Turkey insists on doing this, it could lead to problems between Arabs and Kurds. There is no clash in Ras el Ain between Kurds and Arabs. Assad forces have completely abandoned the town. Unless Turkey instigates a conflict, there is no reason for further clashes there.”

What Kisanak said illustrates that tension prevails in the region following  PYD-Al Nusra clashes  that peaked in November.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledges that his government has adopted a tough position against the PYD but insists that has nothing to do with their Kurdish identity. Following lines are from Davutoglu’s statement that was printed in daily Milliyet on 15 December: “The real problem here is the PYD’s cooperation with the Baath regime and continuation of its terror [PKK] links. Otherwise we don’t perceive a threat from the Kurdish issue.”

We have to remember that the PKK is identified as a terror organization by the USA and EU in addition to Turkey. An economic offensive is in the making against Ankara’s third front, the PYD.

We see that Ankara is achieving some results in economically crippling the areas under the PYD’s domination by exerting pressure via the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government.

Border crossings to Syrian Kurdish region from Turkey are already closed. It is reported that the KRG has also closed the Iraq-Syrian border under Ankara’s pressure. As a result there is now serious food, fuel and basic supplies shortages in Kurdish regions of Syria. Here we have note that pressures from Ankara coincide with military threats from Baghdad against KRG capital, Erbil. KRG now needs Turkey more than ever against Baghdad and can’t afford to resist Ankara’s demands about the PYD.

According to Iraqi Kurdish website Rudaw, a PYD delegation under their leader Salih Muslim last week met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and asked him to open all  Iraqi borders with Syria to enable delivery of humanitarian assistance to Syrian Kurds.

The meeting that took place when relations of Ankara and KRG with Baghdad are at their lowest also signals a search for new balances and alliances in Turkey’s regionalized Kurdish problem.

But Kisanak is optimistic about the relations between the Kurds of the region. She says: “Turkey has serious pressure on Barzani. But Barzani will never ever fire on the PKK and the PKK won’t fire on him. There will be no clashes between the Kurds in Syria. Kurds can be rivals but not enemies of each other.”

Kisanak concludes by calling on Turkey to make a “historical and strategic alliance” with all the Kurds of the region.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Turkey Briefing Turkey Briefing

Turkey Briefing

Top Turkey stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial