The Turkish prime minister has warned that Turkey won't hesitate to retaliate militarily to any threat emanating from Syria's north as he stated that Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad is abandoning territories close to the Turkish border to Kurdish groups said to be linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an interview with TV 24 on Wednesday that a PKK-linked Kurdish presence could give Turkey cause to intervene militarily in Syria, as it has done repeatedly in northern Iraq since that region slipped from Baghdad's grip following the 1991 Gulf War.
“The terrorist PKK organization's cooperation with the [Democratic Union Party] PYD is something we cannot look favorably upon,” Erdoğan said in the interview. “If a formation that's going to be a problem, if there is a terror operation, [if] an irritant emerges, then intervening would be our most natural right.”
The PKK has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and partly northern Syria is the theatre of a 28-year-old conflict between Turkish forces and the PKK, which in various incarnations has waged a campaign for autonomy in the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey. On Tuesday night, Turkish security forces killed at least 15 PKK members in a raid near the country's border with Iraq after tracking them with drones and attacking them with helicopters and on the ground.
Turkey has cemented ties with the Kurdish leadership of Iraq's semi-autonomous north, where the PKK has a military presence, through trade and investment, but remains
wary that the example of Kurdish self-rule in Iraq and deepening chaos in neighboring Syria could inflame its own Kurdish conflict.
Erdoğan's remarks also come amid a heated debate in Turkey over the possible formation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria that could destabilize Turkey's southeast provinces predominantly populated by 12 million ethnic Kurds. Syrian Kurdish opposition figures claimed earlier this week that Assad's forces have quit areas of the Hassaka and Aleppo provinces, which border Turkey, leaving them under the control of the PYD.
The head of the Syrian National Council (SNCE) -- which aspires to political leadership of the revolt against Assad and much of whose leadership is in Turkey -- said Assad's troops had lost control of some parts of those regions, but that the Syrian opposition did not endorse any Kurdish separatist project.
Erdoğan asserted the truth of reports that northern Syria had been deserted by Assad's troops and that PKK-linked groups were controlling the area. He added that Assad left five provinces to groups linked to the PKK and that they are trying to strengthen their presence there.
The prime minister also said Syrian opposition fighters are taking their final steps towards finalizing the toppling of Assad's regime, while the Syrian president is cornered. He added that Syrian opposition fighters are taking the final steps in finalizing the toppling of Assad's regime, while the Syrian president is cornered.
He quoted the Turkish consul general in Aleppo, who was recalled to Ankara earlier this week, as saying that from Aleppo to the Turkish border all areas are now under the control of the opposition forces.
On Wednesday, Turkey deployed heavy armored vehicles to the Syrian border in Şanlıurfa's Suruç district. The area is close to Syria's Qamishli district, which is said to be controlled by groups sympathetic to the PKK. Erdoğan said military retaliation against a threat from Syria is Turkey's natural right and is part of the country's new rules for military engagement with Syria.
Erdoğan stressed that any PKK-linked Kurdish presence around Syria's Qamishli district will seriously disturb Turkey and that Turkey cannot just ignore this development.
On Tuesday night, Erdoğan had five-hour talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and chief of Turkish intelligence Hakan Fidan in Ankara. It was not immediately clear what the officials discussed, but it is believed that intensifying clashes in Syria dominated the agenda of the security meeting.