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Turkey Fears Widening Kurd Offensive from Syrian Towns

Turks hold national flags as they march in Ankara, Turkey to protest the killings of soldiers , Wednesday, June 20, 2012, a day after Kurdish rebels attacked Turkish military units with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades in the Daglica area of Hakkari
As the Syrian government continues to lose control of its northern territory, Turkish officials are increasingly worried the area could become a staging ground for Kurdish rebel attacks in Turkey.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has fought a separatist insurgency in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast for nearly three decades. Over the last three days, 22 PKK militants have been killed in clashes in eastern Turkey, adding to Ankara's concerns about gains by Kurdish groups in Syria.

Syria's Democratic Unionist Party, or PYD, which has links to the PKK, reportedly has taken control in areas close to the 900-kilometer-long Syrian-Turkish border, where ethnic Kurds living on both sides are linked by strong political and economic - but also criminal - ties.

Turkish analysts say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has violated the rights of Syrian Kurds, along with other minorities, and that Turkey has no objection to their struggle for citizenship rights.

"Under the Assad regime, Syrian Kurds couldn't exercise their rights," said Ercan Citlioglu of Bahçesehir University in Istanbul. "They were not able to vote or be elected [to political office]. They were not allowed to travel [or] own property."

"I see this as a human rights issue," he said. "Turkey is not against this."

Insurgents forming

Citlioglu said the formation of insurgent groups in northern Syria, however, would be a major concern for Turkey. He said Ankara "will react to any kind of terrorist activity, any possibility of PKK cooperation with the Syrian Kurds [and] the creation of a safe haven in northern Syria for staging attacks in Turkey."

PYD leader Saleh Muhammad Muslim told VOA's Kurdish Service that Turkey’s concerns are unnecessary.

"Our goal is simply to protect our people in this ongoing bloody period," he said. "We are not Turkey’s enemies and we don’t want to become their enemies."

"We have longstanding relations and family ties with the Turkish people, and we are appealing to them to not believe [rumors]," Muslim said.

Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Turkish Economic Policy Research Foundation said 20 percent of the PKK's recruits join the organization from Syria and that the group's control over Syrian Kurds is increasing as central authority from Damascus wanes.

"This creates a very volatile and dangerous situation in northern Syria," he said. "The area is now controlled by groups that sympathize with the PKK, [enabling it] to move more freely and become even more active. There is a new window of opportunity for the PKK."

Iraq comparisons

A similar situation has reigned in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited northern Iraq this week, meeting with Iraqi Kurdish regional leader Masoud Barzani. News reports that Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government recently signed a secret agreement with the PKK and PYD have increased tensions.

Citlioglu said Barzani is experienced enough not to turn his back on Turkey.

"There is a need to get to the bottom of this," said Citlioglu. "Turkey should know if there is an agreement or not. Davutoglu’s talks with Barzani hopefully will clear any doubts. Turkey is important for Iraqi Kurds and [hopefully] Barzani will be careful not to irritate Turkey."

Ozcan said Turkey and Iraq's Kurds have a supportive but contradictory relationship that makes them mutually indispensable.

"Turkey has many investments in northern Iraq, [and] the region needs [Turkish pipelines] to export oil and natural gas to international markets," he said. "The Turkish government also seems to have found a partner in Barzani.

"But recent developments in Syria [fostered] allegations that he is now supporting the PKK," he said. "I believe Barzani will try to calm things down."

VOA's Mark Snowiss in Washington contributed to this report.