Syria backs Turkey on incursion

MILITARY ACTION: The Turkish parliament yesterday began debating a government motion on a possible operation in Iraq to pursue separatist Kurdish rebels


Thu, Oct 18, 2007 - Page 1

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday he would support a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels, as the parliament in Ankara met to vote for military action.

"We support the decisions the Turkish government has put on its agenda against terrorism and terrorist activities," Assad told reporters after talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. "We see this as Turkey's legitimate right."

He was speaking shortly before the Turkish parliament was expected to approve a government motion seeking authorization for cross-border operations into neighboring northern Iraq to pursue Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels based there.

Turkey says around 3,500 PKK militants enjoy a safe haven in autonomous Kurdish-held northern Iraq, which they use to launch attacks on Turkish territory.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey since 1984. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.

Ironically, Turkey threatened Syria with military action in 1998 over Damascus' alleged support for PKK rebels and the safe haven PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan enjoyed in Syria. Tensions ended the same year when Damascus forced Ocalan out and signed a security cooperation agreement with Ankara, resulting in a significant improvement in bilateral ties.

Ocalan was captured in Kenya in 1999, tried and jailed for life.

Iraq and the US both strongly oppose any Turkish military action in northern Iraq, but Turkey says it is left with no other choice in the face of escalating PKK violence and what it sees as a lack of cooperation by Washington and Baghdad.

Assad said US-led forces in Iraq were to blame for the war-torn country becoming a haven for armed rebels.

"The forces occupying Iraq are responsible in the first degree for the terrorist activities there because they are in control of the country," he said.

The Syrian leader also called for groups in Iraq that "support and protect terrorist activities" to be exposed.

Ankara says PKK rebels in northern Iraq are tolerated and even supported by local Kurdish leaders.

The Turkish government is expected to easily secure parliament's approval for an incursion into northern Iraq, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said thay there would be no rush to military action.

Turkey has also stressed that any cross-border operation will target only the PKK and given assurances that Ankara has no territorial ambitions in Iraq.

"We agreed that Iraq's territorial integrity must be protected," Assad said.

Syria and Turkey both oppose any Iraqi Kurdish attempt to break away from the central government in Baghdad, fearing that this could encourage the separatist aspirations of their own sizeable Kurdish communities.

Assad said he and Gul also discussed the Middle East peace process, Lebanon, the Palestinians and the roles their respective countries could play in the region.

Assad is also scheduled to travel to Istanbul before wrapping up his visit tomorrow.