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Kurdish separatists denied responsibility today for a car bombing in southeast Turkey yesterday that killed at least nine people, including four children, and wounded scores more.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist militant group operating in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, immediately came under suspicion after a car bomb exploded late yesterday in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. But Reuters reports that Firat, a website with close ties to the PKK, writes that the rebels denied involvement, saying "Our fighters have nothing to do with this explosion."
"A lot of people [were] chanting anti-PKK slogans, though it is not clear if they are responsible," she said. But she notes that Gaziantep is considered an unlikely target for the PKK. "People here are scratching the heads because, even if some towns are vulnerable to the PKK, this town is certainly not one of them."
Reuters notes that another Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, has sometimes conducted attacks outside of the PKK's usual sphere of operations.
The PKK has a long history in the region. The rebel group has waged a 28-year campaign to create an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, and more than 40,000 people have died in the conflict. It is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States.
But the conflict has been stirred up as of late by the civil war in Syria, where Kurds make up 10 to 15 percent of the population – the largest ethnic minority in the country. Starting in mid-July, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad began withdrawing from Kurdish regions in the northeast of the country, leaving them in the hands of Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), reports the Associated Press.
[The Syrians] ceded de facto control to armed Kurdish fighters who have since set up checkpoints, hoisted Kurdish flags, and [begun] exercising a degree of autonomy unheard of before.
It is an extraordinary development for a community that has long been oppressed and discriminated against by the Assad regime, one that threatens to upset a decades-long geopolitical balance involving Syria, Turkey and Iraq, and challenge old regional alliances.
"The Kurds are emerging as one of the major winners of the crisis in Syria," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "They have begun laying the foundation for an autonomous region like their counterparts in Iraq. It's a dream-like situation for them."
Writing at his blog Syria Comment, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies argues that upsetting the regional balance is just what President Assad intended by ceding ground to the Kurds, turning them against Turkey and Assad's rebel opponents, the Free Syrian Army.
Assad’s Kurdish strategy appears to be to help the PKK to take control of the Kurdish regions of Syria in the [northeast]. His aim is to hurt both the Free Syrian Army and Turkey, which are leading the opposition against him. In general, his strategy is to weaken the Sunni Arabs of Syria.
The PKK, masquerading as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the wing of the Kurdish movement that is most anti-Turkish and therefor anti-Free Syrian Army. It is also vocally pan-Kurdish in contrast to many of the other Kurdish parties in Syria, which have positioned themselves, at least for the time-being, around the more limited goal of seeking Kurdish national rights enshrined in an autonomous region within Syria. ... Because the PKK is better armed and more militant than other Kurdish groups, it has advantages because it is more prepared for war and the use of force.
The PYD commander in Syria's Kurdish territory, Commander Hassan, told the Voice of America that the PYD is not seeking independence for the region, which also includes several non-Kurdish communities. “The demographics [population distribution] do not support independence here and we are not looking for independence," Hassan explained. "All we want are our human rights and self-determination – not separation, just democratic autonomy.”
But Hassan said that neither Assad's regime nor the Syrian rebels have been willing to acknowledge the Kurdish minority, and so the PYD will continue to resist.
“Whatever happens, as long as the regime attacks the Kurdish people and maintains its policy regarding us, the Kurdish people will continue to sacrifice and will resist to the last drop of blood,” he said.