ISTANBUL – Syrian President Bashar Assad, facing a growing rebel presence in Aleppo, his country’s largest city and its commercial hub, has turned control of parts of northern Syria over to militant Kurds whom Turkey has long considered to be terrorists, prompting concern that Istanbul might see the development as a reason to send troops across its border with Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in comments late Wednesday, said Turkey would not accept an entity in northern Syria governed by the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has long waged a guerrilla war against Turkey, and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party.
He said the two groups had built a “structure in northern Syria” that for Turkey means “a structure of terror.”
“It is impossible for us to look favorably at such a structure,” he said in a television interview.
He warned that if Syrian Kurdish militants mount an attack or some other form of cross-border provocation against Turkey, “then intervening would be our most natural right.”
The prospect of a PKK-dominated zone in northern Syria appears to be an unintended consequence of the civil war between Assad and rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who are Sunni Muslims fighting, with U.S. and other nations’ backing, to topple Assad’s government.
Assad withdrew forces last week from six predominantly Kurdish towns and handed control to the Kurdish militants in what appears to be an effort to bolster his defenses at Aleppo, which became the scene of sustained fighting last week for the first time since the anti-Assad uprising began more than 16 months ago. Assad also reportedly has pulled forces from the Idlib region of northeastern Syria and moved them to Aleppo.
Tens of thousands of residents of Aleppo have fled in anticipation of a battle. Reports from anti-Assad groups indicate that thousands of pro-Assad and rebel fighters are converging on the city.
The developments in Kurdish areas, however, suggest that no matter who wins the civil war, the fighting is shifting the politics of Syria and its neighbors in ways that cannot be predicted.
The establishment of a Kurd-ruled zone inside Syria has long been a goal of the Kurdish population. Leaders of the anti-Assad opposition have said in recent days that they would oppose such a zone, and Kurdish fighters have said they would not allow the Free Syrian Army to operate in the region.
Turkey fears that a Syrian Kurdish state run by the PKK will radicalize its own Kurds, who number 12 million of its population of 74 million. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Syrian Kurdish fighters have taken part in PKK raids inside Turkey over the years.