Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reasserted on Thursday that Turkey will take measures to prevent Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) from ruling northern Syria, a day after he announced that intervention in Syria is an “undisputed right” if terrorists within the troubled southern neighbor pose a threat to Turkey.
“We will not let the terrorist group to set up camps [in northern Syria] and pose a threat to us,” Erdoğan told reporters before departing for London to attend the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games. “No one should attempt to provoke us. We will not bow to provocation but rather take whatever steps are necessary against terrorism.”
Erdoğan said the military, Foreign Ministry and other relevant institutions are working on appropriate measures and added that ideas such as the establishment of a buffer zone are under consideration. Officials from Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) told Today's Zaman on Thursday that the party's executive board is expected to discuss next week whether to call for an early end to Parliament's recess so lawmakers will be able to debate and vote on a measure authorizing the government to send troops abroad.
In a sign that Turkey's ties with the autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, which have only recovered in the past few years from a period of high tension, may also be hurt, Erdoğan said that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will tell the Iraqi Kurdish leadership “we are no longer responsible” for what might happen next when he visits northern Iraq by Wednesday at the latest. Syrian Kurds have gained control of several towns near the Turkish border in the past week, apparently after Syrian forces were moved to more central areas to fight back opposition forces emboldened by an audacious attack last Wednesday that resulted in the deaths of four senior Syrian officials, including the country's defense minister.
A coalition of Kurdish groups, apparently dominated by the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD), now controls the “liberated” areas and reports have said PKK flags have been raised at state buildings in the region.
Turkish officials first played down the emerging Kurdish rule, with Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay saying the flag incidents were only isolated cases. However, a security meeting headed by Erdoğan on Thursday ended with a brief statement disclosing that PKK activities in Turkey and neighboring countries are being discussed and that measures to be taken to stem these activities are under consideration.
Speaking hours after the meeting in a televised interview, Erdoğan made it clear that these measures could include military intervention in the case that a terrorism threat to Turkey out of northern Syria emerges. “This has been included in our changed rules of engagement [regarding any military threat from Syria]. … This is Turkey’s uncontestable right,” Erdoğan said during the interview with the private Kanal 24 television.
Erdoğan recalled that Turkey also conducted cross-border operations when such threats came out of northern Iraq. “Turkey’s airstrikes in northern Iraq at times were also steps taken as a security measure. And as the central Iraqi government did not object to that, the regional government in northern Iraq also accepted it,” Erdoğan maintained.
Turkey has launched countless cross-border operations into northern Iraq in recent years, causing tension with the region’s Kurdish administration. Relations improved significantly after the Kurdish administration committed itself to helping Ankara’s anti-terrorism efforts. However, this cooperation may be tested now that Syrian Kurds are becoming part of the wider picture.
The Syrian Kurds, PYD and Kurdish National Council (KNC) of Syria gained control of Kurdish areas after they agreed to set aside their differences and act together at a meeting hosted by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in Arbil last month. Barzani’s role again came to the forefront when he made it public earlier this week that a group of Syrian Kurds had been given military training in northern Iraq, an announcement that Erdoğan called “ugly.”
Asked if the developments undermined trust in Barzani, Erdoğan said on Thursday that Davutoğlu will tell the Kurdish leadership that this is what should be avoided. “Let’s not allow feelings of trust to be hurt, but you should not let wrong steps be taken. Let’s take steps together to right a wrong,” Erdoğan said of the Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
The Turkish government sees the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main umbrella group of the Syrian opposition, as a legitimate representative of Syrian Kurdish interests, disregarding their troubled ties.
“We have the SNC and it is headed by a Kurdish brother of ours,” Erdoğan said on Thursday, referring to Abdulbaset Sieda, the SNC leader. Kurdish observers, however, say Sieda, who has lived in exile for years, has no popularity among the Syrian Kurds. “Any such state there [in northern Syria] could not be seen as the Kurdish people’s own state. It would rather be a state of the terrorist PKK and the PYD,” Erdoğan said in the Kanal 24 interview.
In remarks published by French news agency AFP, a Kurdish member of the SNC said if his fighters could get help from Turkey, they would return the favor by hitting the PKK. “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 the Kurdish SNC commander, identified as Ubed Muse. “With armed support from Turkey, we can hit PKK bases inside Syria because we all know about their whereabouts and which regions they control.”
Erdoğan also told reporters that his government was against the disintegration of Syria along either sectarian or ethnic lines, a prospect that, some media commentators say, has emerged after Kurds began to run their own regions. Syria, according to such comments, may be divided into Kurdish, Alawite and Sunni Arab zones if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls and the Alawites retreat to Latakia to establish their own enclave there.
In his remarks on Wednesday, the prime minister claimed that the Syrian opposition groups are now taking steps to consolidate their victory and that they are in control of the region stretching from Aleppo to Turkey. Erdoğan also drew attention to the fact that any fragmentation in Syria would lead to a sectarian conflict.
Maintaining that Assad’s forces have now been squeezed in Damascus and to some extent in Latakia, Erdoğan indicated that “opposition forces are now enjoying a visible dominance. … It is not possible to estimate how many more casualties there will be and how long it could last.”
He also added that the regional and international powers that have supported the Syrian regime, including Iran and Russia, are going through an important change in their discourse in that they have also abandoned their hopes for Assad.