Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has expressed surprised at the speed at which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is pushing cooperation between the two erstwhile enemies, one a member of NATO, the other Iran’s closest ally and a supporter of militant Islamic groups.
Close cooperation between Turkey and Syria, which almost went to war a decade ago because of Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), is fueling mounting concern in Western capitals about a newly-found Turkish foreign policy focus on the Arab and Islamic world.
But closer ties with Syria have already produced results for Turkey: Syria is cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been waging an intermittent guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey since the early 1980s that has cost some 40,000 lives. Syrian authorities have arrested hundreds of Kurds in recent months on suspicion of ties to the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Erdogan paid a visit to Damascus this week to discuss cooperation between the two countries with Iran and Iraq in a bid to persuade them to join the crackdown on the Turkish Kurdish militants. Turkey has rewarded Syria with trade and tourism agreements and the lifting of visa requirements for Syrian nationals travelling to Turkey.
Stepped-up Turkish-Syrian cooperation comes as the Turkish parliament discusses extending the government’s mandate to conduct cross-border raids on PKK bases in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq. Turkey has vowed to continue its fight against the militants despite the declaration in September of a unilateral ceasefire by the PKK.
The Turkish refusal and the raids are straining relations between Turkey and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and threaten to undermine Turkish efforts to normalize relations with the Iraqi Kurds and ensure stability on its southeastern border.