SYRIA: Damascus teams up with Turkey to fight Kurdish aspirations


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With economic and political ties cemented over the last 12 months, the Syria-Turkey alliance has now appeared to move on to the realm of security. Reports from Turkish state media say Syria has arrested around 400 Kurds with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by the acronym PKK, a move by Damascus seen as ending a once troubled security relationship.

The operation to round up several hundred Syrian Kurds began two weeks ago involving raids in the northeastern cities of Afrin, Aleppo, Qamishli, and Raqqa, reported the Anatolian News Agency last week. The state-run outlet also reported 11 Kurdish “terrorists” were killed in clashes with Syrian security officials as part of the operation. Kurds in Syria have for decades been marginalized and formal teaching of the Kurdish language is banned.


According to more than 630 Kurds have been taken into custody and that “The [Syrian] government implicates the detainees with false link [sic] to other Kurdish political parties, providing material support and separatism charges. Most of the detainees constitute the underprivileged civilian families living in rural areas.” Clashes regularly occur between Kurds and police during Nowruz, the Kurdish new year. Last March at least one Kurd was shot dead and dozens of others arrested in Qamishli during new year celebrations.

No details were available as to whether the operation was the combined work of Turkish and Syrian security forces against restive members of a regional Kurdish population that has caused security concerns to trouble Ankara and, to a lesser extent, Damascus.

The arrests are a first for two countries that flirted with all-out war in 1998 over Syria’s refusal to hand over PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had been hiding out there. Damascus later forced Ocalan out of the country after having been chastised for three decades by Turkey for sheltering (or ignoring) him and other PKK members.

In recent times, much has changed. May 2009 saw Turkey’s parliament pass a law to demine the Syrian-Turkish border while just last month, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visited Istanbul twice in a two-week period to work on further developing economic ties. However, Kurds in Syria fear closer ties between the two countries will see them further isolated.

Kurds in Syria occupy the lowest social rank among the country’s minorities, with thousands working as waiters and cigarette peddlers in Damascus and Aleppo. In Aleppo, Syria’s northern capital, they are largely confined to living in informal settlements in poor suburban areas, with whole families often renting rooms for as little as $30 per month. In the city center neighborhood of Baramkeh in Damascus, after dark, Kurdish vendors set up illegal clothing stalls, away from the gaze of customs police. Clothes are sold for as little as $2.

There has been a resurgence of attacks and violence in southwest Turkey in recent months. On Thursday, 12 PKK rebels were killed by government-supported local militia close to the border town of Siirt. Turkey’s air force later carried out attacks on the PKK’s main base in the Qandil mountains on the Iran-Iraq border.


-- Stephen Starr in Damascus