Turkey Fears Escalation of Fighting in Northern Syria

Article Summary
Fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Ras al-Ain has increased Turkish fears of escalation and complications within Turkey’s Kurdish community, writes Asli Aydintasbas.

Ceylanpinar has never been in the news so much. The town attracted nationwide interest last week because of the clashes between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. It is now living through another struggle.

Syria’s Ras al-Ain, a town just opposite Ceylanpinar, was the scene of bloody clashes between the Syrian opposition and Kurdish groups yesterday [Nov. 19]. In the clashes between the Sunni Arab-dominated Free Syrian Army (FSA), which took over the town two weeks ago, and the strongest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), 20 were killed and scores were wounded. Some of the wounded were evacuated to Ceylanpinar State Hospital.

“Has to stay neutral”

The situation along the border is posing serious problems for Ankara. Ismail Arslan, the mayor of Ceylanpinar whom I spoke to yesterday, criticized Turkey’s extension of medical assistance to wounded opposition militants but not to the PYD's.

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Arslan said, “If Turkey really wants to remain neutral in these clashes, it has to stay neutral also for the wounded. Arabs and Kurds live together here. In every house, we have relatives who came from Syria. We share our lives. It is a right decision for Turkey to stay out of Arab-Kurd clashes.”

The fight between the PYD, known as a Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Syrian opposition is over controlling Ras al-Ain, which has a mixed Arab and Kurdish population and is known as the gate to Syria’s Kurdish region. The FSA did not allow PYD units that came back to parade through the town, and asked the PYD to fly Syrian-opposition flags, not the PYD’s.

The opposition that captured the town after sustained clashes with regime forces now sees Ras al-Ain as its sovereign territory. The PYD makes the same claim for the town where more than half of the population is Kurdish. When the clashes escalated yesterday, Ankara reacted cautiously to the opposition’s calls for assistance.

People might react

Turkey is justified in trying to stay out of the Arab-Kurdish fighting in Syria. Turkey is already fighting with the PKK in its own territory and in northern Iraq, so it doesn’t want to open a third front with the PKK. Although the PYD is an armed body of Syrian Kurds, the PYD’s “popular defense forces” are mostly PKK or PKK-trained militiamen. But the PYD has been claiming that its structure is different from the PKK’s and has been trying not to confront Turkey. In principle, Turkey wants the Syrian Kurds to be integrated into the anti-Assad opposition.

There are forces that want to drag Turkey into Arab-Kurdish strife in the Syrian context. But we have been hearing warnings that because of the ethnic structure of Ceylanpinar, Viransehir and the region, and because of kinship ties, people might negatively react to any military or political move against the PYD.

Ankara is facing tough choices. While being careful not display any military force over the border, it is impossible for Turkey to isolate itself from the Syrian reality. Ankara is certainly affected by the FSA-PYD fighting, above all, in its own border security.

Costs are increasing

Once again Turkey is alone when it comes to paying the humanitarian costs of the clashes. In recent weeks, the number of refugees crossing the border at Ceylanpinar exceeded tens of thousands.

Yesterday, too, the wounded were evacuated to Ceylanpinar. But until now, PYD casualties were not admitted to Ceylanpinar State Hospital. According to local sources, medical teams in Ceylanpinar are taking care of the Syrian wounded without asking about their ethnic and party affiliations. In recent weeks, hospitals near the Turkish border have been treating Syrian civilians, opposition, Kurds and even soldiers of the Assad army.

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