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As Kurds Fight for Freedom in Syria, Fears Rise in Turkey of Following Suit

November 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Syria's civil war, a third party fights for autonomy against Syrian rebels and Assad's government troops: Syria's Kurds. Turkey's own Kurd population watches, and tensions increase, especially for those sympathetic to the PKK, who have waged insurgencies for freedom. Margaret Warner reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the conflict in Syria.

Government warplanes bombed rebel headquarters near the Turkish border today, reportedly missing their target, but sending hundreds of Syrians fleeing.

Margaret Warner has been on a reporting trip to the region. In her third and final story, she examines how the Syrian civil war has heightened tensions between Turkey and its ethnic Kurd population.

MARGARET WARNER: Just 25 miles from Aleppo, which has been pounded into dust by Bashar al-Assad’s air force, the Syrian town of Afrin is a picture of domestic tranquility. But that’s because it’s being run by a relatively unknown player in Syria’s civil war: Syrian Kurds.

They fly the banned Kurdish flag in a symbol of defiance and pride. The Kurds took control of the town after the government’s overstretched ground forces withdrew earlier this year. The Kurds quickly demolished the regime’s jailhouse.

But much of life here seems normal. Olive groves are being tended, and there’s a new school for women who were denied education before.

ATOUF ABDO, People’s Council, Afrin, Syria (through translator): There are three forces in Syria, the regime force, the Free Army force, and we became the third line in this struggle.

MARGARET WARNER: Atouf Abdo heads the new People’s Council in Afrin.

ATOUF ABDO (through translator): Every community has its own destiny now, so as a free city, we are implementing self-government. Throughout Syria, the people are getting nearer to freedom and to democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: The world’s estimated 30 million ethnic Kurds are most concentrated in four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Primarily Muslim, but of different sects, many ethnic Kurds think of themselves as a common nation without a state.

In Iraq, Kurds have autonomy in thriving Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds in Syria are trying to position themselves to do the same. They aren’t even granted citizenship in Assad’s Syria.

But rather than fight Assad’s troops, they are taking their place in northern towns near the 500-mile border with Turkey when government forces depart to focus elsewhere.

The assertiveness of Syria’s Kurds is causing anxiety in Turkey. Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens, Kurd and non-Kurd alike, have been killed in three decades of an insurgency for independence waged by Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan workers’ party, or PKK.

PKK terror attacks began trending up last year, shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Syrian President Assad to step down.

The growing power of the Syrian militia, close allies of the PKK, is exacerbating a most sensitive issue in Turkey, says Kemal Kirisci, a political scientist at BogaziciUniversity in Istanbul.

KEMAL KIRISCI, BogaziciUniversity: There is a feeling on the part of the public especially that the northeastern parts of Syria that is heavily populated by Kurds obtained a kind of de facto autonomy. It has led to the Turkish public to believe that there is a threat emanating from this particular area.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the Syrian areas taken over by the Kurds: the city of Qamishli, just across from its former half in Turkey, Nusaybin.

Millions of Turkey’s Kurds have assimilated into Turkish life, but not in southeastern enclaves like here in Nusaybin. And the fact that Syrian Kurds in Syria are now in partial control of cities like Qamishli just across the border is stirring a yearning for similar liberties among many Kurds here.

Nusaybin is almost entirely Kurdish. A Kurdish-language newspaper is sold openly, and the Turkish papers feature news about the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

But many Kurds told us they feel marginalized.

HUSEYIN ENUK, Kurdish (through translator): We have no life. We are having a hard time here. We are Kurds. The Turks and Arabs don’t accept us here.

 

MARGARET WARNER: Kurds complained bitterly about the Turkish government closing the border crossing to the Syrian side about a year ago. They can’t visit their Syrian relatives, and Kurdish shopkeepers say their business is down 70 percent or more.

So food seller Mahmut Simsek says he’s thrilled to see the Syrian Kurds taking over in their cities.

MAHMUT SIMSEK, food seller (through translator): We are happy about this.

MARGARET WARNER: Why?

MAHMUT SIMSEK (through translator): We are happy because they are our brothers. We are the same people. Of course we would be happy about this.

MARGARET WARNER: Tea wholesaler Ali Sino went even further.

ALI SINO, tea wholesaler (through translator): We wish and we hope that’s going to happen, that the Kurds get completely free on the other side.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about on this side someday?

ALI SINO (through translator): Of course, those on this side should get free, too. They have divided us into four countries and one day we will come and get into one country together.

MARGARET WARNER: That kind of separatist talk stirs deep fears among non-Kurd Turks, as we heard in the southeastern city of Mardin, just 30 miles away.

EKREM KOYAN, Turkey (through translator): If they get their freedom over there, of course, they will create problems for Turkey, create a headache for Turkey.

MARGARET WARNER: And there’s also the more immediate security threat posed by the growing PKK attacks inside Turkey, said Ibrahim Fide, who runs the Mardin provincial office of Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

IBRAHIM FIDE, Justice and Development Party (through translator): For sure, Syria is actually supporting the PKK and that’s also made the PKK attacks increase.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think Assad is deliberately trying to stir up the PKK?

IBRAHIM FIDE (through translator): I can’t say why they help the PKK. You should ask them. We don’t know exactly how this happens, but even letting the PKK cross over and stay there, that is already support.

MARGARET WARNER: Fide said the renewed PKK attacks are especially upsetting after what he says have been several years of greater freedoms for Kurds.

IBRAHIM FIDE (through translator): There is no pressure on the Kurds, on expressing their language and their culture. There are not any problems between different ethnicities. The different nations all live together in peace. We call this one nation together.

MAYOR AYSE GOKKAN,Nusaybin, Turkey (through translator): The Kurds have had big pain. They have suffered a lot in this area.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Nusaybin, Mayor Ayse Gokkan, a former journalist elected four years ago from Turkey’s legal Kurdish political party, takes issue with Fide’s rosy view.

Though her party doesn’t espouse Kurdish independence, she greeted us with a hearty “Welcome to Kurdistan” in her office overlooking the Turkey-Syria border.

AYSE GOKKAN (through translator): Kurds were happy when Iraqi Kurdistan became autonomous. And, of course, after what happened in Syria, Kurds fighting for democratic autonomy there, many Kurdish people here are happy, too.

MARGARET WARNER: But Gokkan said that doesn’t mean that most of Turkey’s Kurds want to carve out independence for themselves.

AYSE GOKKAN (through translator): The Kurds don’t want their own country. They don’t want to separate from Turkey. They don’t want new borders.

They just want have their freedom in their own country, free to have their own language, education. That’s what they demand, not to have a separate country.

MARGARET WARNER: Reassuring words, seemingly borne out just down the road from the mayor’s office at the new MittaniKurdishCulturalCenter.

BERRIN ASLAN, MittaniKurdishCulturalCenter (through translator): We have here Kurdish and Turkish books. There is a big demand for reading and learning Kurdish here, because children at the school are not allowed to learn Kurdish.

MARGARET WARNER: A library of Kurdish books would have been unthinkable a few years ago, yet center director Berrin Aslan doesn’t feel entirely secure.

BERRIN ASLAN (through translator): The government doesn’t like us at all, what we’re doing here, but so far they have not done anything to us. But they are not happy about the work we’re doing here.

MARGARET WARNER: Another disquieting note: On the grass out back, as dusk fell in the shadow of the Syrian border, the young people were sing in Kurdish.

It was an ode to Zilan, dead now 16 years, a folk heroine to some, a terrorist to many, the first female suicide bomber of the PKK.

RAY SUAREZ: You can watch Margaret’s earlier reports from Syria on our website.