The Turkish military began tank exercises in Mardin province, near the Syrian border, amid heightened concerns in Ankara over the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) gaining control over Kurdish cities in northern Syria.
The exercises in the Nusaybin district follow a series of military deployments to the Syrian border since reports that Syrian Kurdish groups have established control over northern Syria appeared in the Turkish media late last month. About 25 tanks joined the exercises, which are meant to test the tanks’ speed and maneuvering capabilities, the Anatolia news agency said. The exercises will continue for the next few days, Mardin Governor Turhan Ayvaz told Anatolia. The governor did not mention developments on the other side of the border, saying the exercises were “routine.”
Nusaybin is just two kilometers (one mile) from the Syrian border, and the Syrian city of Qamishli, the biggest city to have fallen to Kurdish hands since last month, is immediately across the border from Nusaybin.
Turkey is concerned that the PKK could broaden its influence if Kurdish groups, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), begin running northern Syrian cities. Ankara says the PYD is a mere extension of the PKK.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu traveled on Wednesday to Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan, for talks on the situation in northern Syria. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has recently brokered a deal between the PYD and rival Kurdish groups to unite them under the roof of the Supreme Kurdish Council, has significant influence over the Syrian Kurds.
“We will never tolerate initiatives that would threaten Turkey’s security,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an address to the nation Tuesday, referring to the Kurdish entity in northern Syria.
However, any Turkish interference in Syria to stem a PKK-led entity there risks sparking tensions across the region and even military confrontation between Turkey and other regional countries. Iran, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly warned of a “harsh response” if Turkey happens to carry out attacks inside Syria.
“Any attack on Syrian territory will meet with a harsh response, and the Iranian-Syrian mutual defense agreement will be activated,” Syria’s al-Watan newspaper reported, according to French news agency AFP. “Turkey has received very strong warnings in the past few hours, and the following message -- beware changing the rules of the game.”
Al-Watan cited an “Arab diplomat” as accusing Turkey of seeking to use its fears about the PKK, which already enjoys rear-bases in the far north of Iraq, as a pretext to intervene in Syria. “Ankara is preparing an agreement with Washington to intervene militarily in the Syrian (crisis), using the Kurdish card as an excuse,” the paper was quoted as saying by AFP.
“Turkey has agreed with the US on an intervention limited to the north of Syria, specifically the province of Aleppo, to pave the way for the creation of a safe haven guarded by the armed gangs.”
Iran and Turkey have improved their relations under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, but the two neighbors are at odds over Syria, with Turkey supporting the anti-Assad opposition.
Turkish support for the opposition might have taken on a new dimension, according to a report by NBC News, indicating that the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) had obtained nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles that were delivered to the group via Turkey. If true, this is the first time opposition fighters have acquired surface-to-air missiles, weapons that would be a significant threat to the helicopter gunships Syrian government forces have deployed against opposition strongholds such as Aleppo.