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TURKEY, SYRIA: Former enemies find common ground on Kurdish rebels

October 11, 2010 | 10:15 am

Assad Erdogan

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an American ally, appears to be developing a synchronized security strategy with Syria, a partner of Iran and the Shiite militia Hezbollah, in a development that is likely to increase Western anxieties over Turkey's shift eastward.

Just a decade after Turkey and Syria nearly went to war over Syrian support for Kurdish militants, the two neighbors are working together to stamp out the most powerful rebel Kurd group, the Kurdish Workers Party, known by the Turkish acronym PKK.

On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Damascus to discuss a joint Syrian-Turkish security crackdown on the PKK, which maintains a strong presence in northern Syrian and southeastern Turkey. The Turkish press also reported on efforts to step up cooperation with Iraq and Iran in an effort to wipe out the PKK completely.

Even Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed surprise at the speed with which Turkish-Syrian relations have improved, according to an official Syrian report based on an interview the president gave last week to Arabic-language Turkish channel TRT TV.

"There is very great momentum and acceleration … so we can say that yes, we expected this, but we're very glad that the time was less than expected," Assad said.

Back in July, Turkish media reported that Syria had arrested over 400 Kurds thought to have links to the PKK, which is on both the American and European Union's list of terrorist organizations.

The PKK has been officially maintaining a unilateral cease-fire since September, but the Turkish government says it will continue operations against the group. Doing so requires extending a Turkish parliamentary mandate to continue cross-border raids on PKK sites in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, a strategy that has caused tension between Turkey and the semi-autonomous government in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ancestral homeland of the Kurds stretches from southeast Turkey through Syria and Iraq to northwest Iran. Most Kurds consider themselves ethnically distinct from the majority populations of those countries and live with varying degrees of tension with the ruling governments.

The PKK was established in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist party that drew heavily from revolutionary socialist ideology. From the early 1980s until the late 1990s, Syria allowed the PKK to establish a base of operations in the north of the country, but eventually ended its support for the group under Turkish pressure. Since then, Damascus has become increasingly suspicious of its Kurdish minority, cracking down violently on expressions of Kurdish identity.

Meanwhile, trade, tourism and politics have brought Turkey and Syria even closer. The two countries have signed a number of trade agreements, done away with visa requirements, and have both been known to seek political gains by playing East and West against each other.

Assad has credited Turkey's support for Syria despite Western hostility for the rapprochement, in addition to historical and cultural ties.

Turkey, which has long sought membership in the European Union, also benefits from showing the West that it can find other friends, thank you very much. A recent article in the Israeli press voiced anxieties over Turkey's ties with China and Iran, two allies of Syria.

"When a number of countries were attempting to isolate Syria … most of these countries were participating in this isolation in fear of or in compliance with external pressure … but Turkey maintained [steady relations with Syria]," Assad told TRT.

"We move towards any people that proved their independence and motivated their state to be independent like the Turkish people," he added. "I believe that these are the main factors that led to this fast launch in relations."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Damascus on Monday. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency

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