Kurdish rebel Ubed Muse speaks to a reporter during an interview at a safe house in Antakya
Kurdish rebel Ubed Muse speaks to a reporter during an interview at a safe house in Antakya on July 24. Holed up in a Turkish safe-house, a Kurdish commander of a Syrian rebel unit makes a novel pitch for more weapons to help his men fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. © Adem Altan - AFP
Kurdish rebel Ubed Muse speaks to a reporter during an interview at a safe house in Antakya
Fulya Ozerkan, AFP
Last updated: July 26, 2012

Turkey worries about Kurds in Syrian conflict

Holed up in a Turkish safe-house, a Kurdish commander of a Syrian rebel unit makes a novel pitch for more weapons to help his men fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"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 his fighters could get help from Turkey, he said, they would return the favour by hitting the Kurdish militant group that has long been the arch-nemesis of Ankara, the Kurdistan Workers' Party or 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 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 US 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).

"It is not hard to predict that the PKK will strengthen its presence in this climate," Fikret Bila, a columnist for the Milliyet daily, wrote on Thursday.

If they do manage to take control of the region, "it will be possible for the (PKK) to launch attacks into Turkey from the Syrian border," he added.

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.

Turkish officials have frequently accused Syria of aiding the PKK, saying attacks targeting Turkish security forces were carried out by rebels infiltrating from Syria.

Speaking on Turkish television late Wednesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syria of allowing the PKK to operate inside the north of the country and warned that Ankara would not hesitate to strike against them.

"In the north, it (Assad's regime) has allotted five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organisation," Erdogan said.

Asked if Ankara would strike fleeing rebels after an attack on Turkish soil, Erdogan replied: "That's not even a matter of discussion, it is a given."

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.

Osman Bahadir Dincer of Ankara-based USAK thinktank said the rising influence of Kurds in Syria could add to the pressure on Turkey to take a step forward to resolve its own Kurdish problem.

"Kurds in Syria are not after an independent state but they do want recognition of their identity ... The escalating violence could be risky for Turkey," he told AFP.

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 neighbours came to the brink of a war in the 1990s over Syria harbouring 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 colonel who had defected from the Syrian army joined the conversation after praying.

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, Alewites and Turkmens each want separate entities," said the defector, who wished to remain anonymous.

"This is not true. Ninety-five percent of Syrians want a united flag and a united state."

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