08/01/2012 06:23 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Turkey's Syria Dilemma

Everything was going to be all right. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan decided to dump his close friend Bashar al Assad after months of a Syrian crackdown that went against Ankara's advice, he was probably thinking things would not spiral out of control.

But look at the situation today. The Turkish government has just woken up to the fact that there is a Kurdish minority in Northern Syria, which has now seized control of five Kurdish towns close to the Turkish border. There has been a rush of high level meetings in Ankara including Turkey's intelligence services, army officials and diplomats.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's inexhaustible foreign minister, has called in representatives from the opposition Syrian National Council and told them to keep Syria as one, united nation. In particular, he asked them to take down Kurdish flags in Northern Syria.

Prime Minister Erdogan is no less worried. "We will not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey," he declared in a news conference. "If there is a step which needs to be taken against the terrorist group, we will definitely take this step," he said.

For the past 28 years Turkey has been fighting the separatist Kurdistan Worker`s Party (or PKK), which is also on the U.S. and EU terrorist lists. There are other like-minded groups throughout a region in which the Kurdish population is scattered between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The Syrian Kurdish group that seized control of the towns near the border, the Democratic Union Party (or PYD), denies any "organic" link with the PKK but admits ideological ties.

As a result, the latest developments in Northern Syria have agitated Turkey, which has discovered that its most important domestic security concern is now tangled up with the fallout from the Arab revolutions.

Mr. Davutoglu has long championed a delusional policy of a "zero problems with neighbors," but this has inevitably failed, leaving Turkey with no neighbors worth speaking of in the region.

Iran is hostile to us. Syria is falling apart, the dispute with Israel over the Mavi Marmara has become an honor issue, the government in Baghdad does not even want to hear our name.

Strangely enough, the only government in the region we seem to get along with is the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq. Turkey has been developing close commercial ties with Northern Iraq and KRG President Masoud Barzani has been keen to tell Ankara of his willingness to provide support in combatting the PKK.

In the new changing environment Barzani might end up being the best card Turkey can play. In recent weeks the main Syrian Kurdish groups signed an agreement in Erbil, the seat of the KRG government, to set up a Supreme Kurdish Council. Barzani may be emerging as a figure who can reconcile the different Syrian Kurdish groups.

The nightmare scenario for Turkey would be the emergence of a Kurdish Confederation including Northern Iraq and Northern Syria. This would jeopardize all the efforts to calm down PKK violence and find a meaningful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey. It could appear as an alluring alternative to the Kurdish population in Turkey, which is politically and socially dissatisfied.

On the one hand Turkish government wants the Assad regime to go, for ideological, humanitarian and security reasons. But on the other hand it does not want Syria to break into pieces and become a three-region state where one unit might become a safe haven for terrorist activities. Turkey is still pushing the SNC to be the central power in a future Syria. But this looks unlikely, because of the SNC's sharp internal divisions. The 2003 Iraq war left a bad taste for Turkey, leaving behind a fragile security zone. Syria might end up being worse.