Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syria of letting Turkey’s Kurdish rebels operate inside the north of the country and warned that Ankara would not hesitate to strike against them.
“In the north, it (President Bashar al-Assad’s regime) has allotted five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organization,” Erdogan told Turkish television late Wednesday, referring to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
Asked if Ankara would strike fleeing rebels after an attack on Turkish soil, Erdogan said “That’s not even a matter of discussion, it is a given. That is the objective, that is what must be done.”
“That is what we have been doing and will continue to do in Iraq,” he said during a program aired on Kanal 24.
“If we occasionally launch arial strikes against terrorist areas it’s because these are measures taken because of defense needs.”
Turkey regularly bombs suspected Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and by much of the international community, took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have steadily soured since the start of the uprising against Assad’s rule in Syria in March 2011, with Erdogan criticizing the regime’s crackdown against the revolt.
Meanwhile, a Kurdish commander of a Syrian rebel unit -- holed up in a Turkish safe-house -- pledged to help Turkey in hitting the Kurdish militant group that has long been the arch-nemesis of Ankara, the PKK, if Ankara provided his fighters with help in their fight against the Syrian regime.
“I wish we could get some armed support from Turkey,” said Ubed Muse, speaking to AFP during a break from the bloody battles in which he has led a band of 45 rebels near Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
“If we -- Kurds and Arabs -- join ranks, and are able to get military support from Turkey, we can fight not only the regime but also the PKK,” said Muse, sitting in the secret flat in Turkey’s central Antakya province.
Around him, pictures of fighters killed or wounded in the conflict hang on the walls along with cartoons mocking Assad and a rebel Free Syrian Army slogan that proclaims: “We will never stop till victory.”
“We are in need of weapons,” Muse said, repeating a common concern of the insurgents, thousands of whom have been based in Turkey.
“With armed support from Turkey, we can hit PKK bases inside Syria because we all know about their whereabouts and which regions they control.”
The question of Kurdish ambitions in Syria has been a top concern of late for Turkey, which has long battled the PKK and its campaign for a Kurdistan homeland that would span parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
The PKK first took up arms in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives. It has since been listed as a terrorist group by much of the world community.
In northern Iraq, Kurds have carved out a semi-autonomous region since the U.S. invasion of 2003, and fears are on the rise in Turkey that the same could happen on their doorstep in northern Syria.
Turkish newspapers have published with alarm pictures of Kurdish flags fluttering from buildings in northern Syria and reported that parts of the region had fallen into the hands of the PKK or its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The head of the opposition Syrian National Council said this week that Syrian forces had “entrusted” the northern region to the PKK or the PYD and then withdrawn.
Turkey’s top security, military and political officials held talks Wednesday about the activities of Kurdish rebels in Syria.
“The latest developments in Syria, the activities of the terrorist separatist group in our country and in neighboring countries, were discussed at the meeting,” Erdogan’s office said.
Turkish officials have frequently accused Syria of aiding the PKK, saying recent attacks targeting Turkish security forces were carried out by rebels infiltrating from Syria.
When Turkey recently massed troops along the Syrian border after the Damascus regime shot down one of its fighter-jets, some Turkish media speculated that this also meant to send a signal to Kurdish rebels.
The Kurdish question has long played a role in tricky relations between Turkey and Syria, where Kurds make up less than 10 percent of the population and have long complained of discrimination and repression.
The neighbors came to the brink of a war in the 1990s over Syria harboring the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan at the time.
Relations warmed after Erdogan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party took power in Turkey in 2003.
But ties have plummeted again since the start of Syria’s uprising in March last year, which Assad’s increasingly isolated regime has sought to crush with massive military force.
Many Kurds joined the anti-regime protests in Syria; others have reportedly fought alongside regime forces.
In the Turkish safe-house, a defected Syrian army colonel joined the conversation after completing his prayers.
He dismissed fears that Syrian Kurds are motivated by the desire for an independent state, arguing that people from different ethnic groups are united in their desire to get rid of Assad.
“There is a political game going on outside, as if Kurds, Alawites and Turkmens each want separate entities,” said the defector, who wished to remain anonymous.
“This is not true. 95 percent of Syrians want a united flag and a united state.”