ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Concerns are surfacing in Turkey about the growing influence in northern Syria of a Kurdish group linked to Kurdish separatists fighting Ankara, something Turkey fears may further complicate efforts to solve its intractable Kurdish problem.
Syria’s Kurdish areas have been largely spared the worst of the violence in the 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, and Syrian Kurds see a chance to attain the freedoms enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighboring northern Iraq.
Pictures of Kurdish flags flying over buildings and being waved by Kurds in northern Syria have attracted wide coverage in Turkish media and prompted commentators to mull the possibility that Kurds could carve out an independent state there.
Kurdish opposition figures say Assad’s forces pulled out of areas of Hassaka and Aleppo provinces, leaving control of them to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a 28-year separatist conflict in Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have died.
“In some places, the Syrian regime handed over power to the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and withdrew,” Abdelbasset Seida, head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday.
The Syrian towns of Amuda, Derik, Kobani and Afrin have been reported to be under PYD control. The reports could not be confirmed due to Syrian restrictions on media access.
The assertion of control by the PYD, which denies any association with the PKK, has led to squabbles and even armed clashes with the other main Kurdish political group, the Kurdish National Council, and other Syrian rebel factions.
Syrian opposition figures have accused the PYD of acting as enforcers for Assad, putting down demonstrations in Kurdish areas and assassinating anti-Assad activists, most notably Mashaal Tammo, a charismatic Kurdish leader. He was killed last year as he organized an anti-Assad political coalition.
Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, for years sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan before the threat of a Turkish invasion in 1998 forced him to send Ocalan abroad, where Turkish agents eventually captured him and brought him back to Turkey.
As Turkish-Syrian relations improved, Bashar al-Assad cooperated with Ankara by cracking down on PKK elements hunkered down in Syria, but those ties disintegrated last year after Assad deployed military forces to crush popular unrest.
Turkish officials have not expressed concerns publicly about the PYD’s influence. A foreign ministry official said Davutoglu warned the SNC about risks of sectarian conflict or civil war.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay played down the Syrian Kurdish issue when asked by reporters on Tuesday whether he was concerned by the raising of Kurdish flags and if he was concerned that a Kurdish state could be established.
“We do not have such a concern,” he said, rejecting the idea that Kurds were now in control. “In some small places there have been flag incidents, but there is no such thing (as the Kurds being in control).”
Seida, a Kurd, emphasized the national unity of Syria, where Kurds make up around one million of the 21 million population.
“We have given the necessary orders so that no flag is raised apart from the flag of Syrian independence. The Kurds are a part of the Syrian national fabric,” he said.
But Ankara had been unpleasantly surprised by Syrian Kurdish support for the PKK-linked PYD, according to Deniz Zeyrek of the Turkish liberal daily Radikal.
“The Turkish side sees this as an ‘unexpected development’ and has started taking steps to stop this becoming a deepening problem for Turkey,” Zeyrek said.
He said one option was to get Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, to exert more influence over these groups or for Ankara, now among the states calling for Assad’s removal, to cultivate ties with Syrian Kurdish leaders.
Turkey has recently established closer relations with Barzani and the Kurdish regional government as it looks to build on growing business and energy stakes in northern Iraq.
More than 7,000 Syrians have fled growing economic hardship and instability for Iraq’s Kurdistan, which has been autonomous since 1991 with its own provincial government and armed forces, but relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget.
Meanwhile, the Turkish opposition is playing on fears of Kurdish independence in Syria.
“Now a new Kurdistan is coming. Syrian Kurdistan is on the doorstep,” Muharrem Ince, a leading member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, told reporters.
During his 10 years in power, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has thrust through reforms, mainly to increase the scope for Kurdish broadcasting and teaching, designed to address the grievances of a minority of some 12 million people.
However, inspired by the example of northern Iraq, many Turkish Kurdish politicians are pushing for political autonomy.
Turkish academic Ihsan Dagi said Turkey needed to clarify its position on the Kurdish problem, having sent “mixed signals” by holding talks with the PKK while enforcing security policies.
“Are you ready for a Kurdish state?” he wrote in the Turkish daily Zaman, saying an autonomous Kurdish administration would take shape in Syria if Assad fell and that even an independent “Western Kurdistan” was possible.
“Kurdish geopolitics are being reshaped in the region. A ‘Greater Kurdistan” is no longer just a dream for many Kurds. You may look and find the ‘first independent Kurdish state’ emerging in an unexpected place - Syria,” Dagi said.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Mark Heinrich