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Ankara softens stance on Syria's emboldened Kurds

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    Kurds march with a giant Kurdish flag during a protest on June 30, 2013, in Diyarbakir. After embarking on a peace process with Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Ankara is now softening its position on the increasingly autonomous Kurdish minority in war-torn neighbouring Syria, analysts say. (AFP/File)

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    A female rebel fighter of the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units holds a weapon in the Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 9, 2013. After embarking on a peace process with Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Ankara is now softening its position on the increasingly autonomous Kurdish minority in war-torn neighbouring Syria, analysts say. (AFP/File)

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    Turkish riot policemen and soldiers disperse Kurdish protesters in a field on April 9, 2013 near Dicle University in Diyarbakir. After embarking on a peace process with Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Ankara is now softening its position on the increasingly autonomous Kurdish minority in war-torn neighbouring Syria, analysts say. (AFP/File)

After embarking on a peace process with Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Ankara is now softening its position on the increasingly autonomous Kurdish minority in war-torn neighbouring Syria, analysts say.

The Turkish government has long kept a wary eye on Kurdish ambitions in Syria, fearing the creation of a Kurdish state there could serve as a magnet for Turkey's own Kurdish population.

Ankara's unease only increased after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces last year withdrew from majority Kurdish areas in the north of the embattled country and entrusted the security there to Kurdish militia.

At the time, Turkish newspapers published alarming pictures of Kurdish flags fluttering from buildings and reported that parts of the area had fallen into the hands of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

But since then the Turkish government has signalled a willingness for dialogue with the PYD instead of viewing the group as a threat, observers say.

The policy shift comes amid fears of a power vacuum in Syria's north, and mounting concern that Turkey, an outspoken supporter of the rebels fighting to oust Assad, could be seen to be backing Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels, experts say.

"What's Turkey's alternative?" asked Ilter Turan, a professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

"The channels for Turkey's leaders to have an influence in Syria are closed unless they have dialogue with Syrian Kurds, especially after it has become clear it will not be that easy to topple Assad," he told AFP.

In a sign of the changing times, PYD leader Saleh Muslim was invited to Istanbul for high-profile talks late last month, during which he said Turkey had promised to start providing humanitarian aid to Kurds in Syria.

"I can say that Turkey has changed its attitude towards the PYD. The simple fact that I am here already shows the biggest change," Muslim said afterwards.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the new approach to Syria's Kurds was in line with a policy change at home, where Turkish authorities are in talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to end the nearly three-decade insurgency that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

"There is nothing more natural than re-evaluating our approach toward the PYD amid the ongoing peace process in Turkey," Davutoglu said in a television interview Friday.

At the talks with Muslim, Turkey warned the PYD against any "dangerous actions" such as a push for autonomy in the border region.

Easing their suspicions, the PYD leader said in remarks carried by the Milliyet newspaper that his movement had no intention of proclaiming independence, but that the Kurds needed to "be in charge of the region temporarily" while awaiting "a political solution in which everyone -- Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs -- finds their place."

Kurds in Syria make up 10 percent of the population and are mostly concentrated in the north.

Marginalised for decades by Damascus, Kurds and their fighters are trying to ensure that neither regime forces nor the opposition take control of their areas.

Fierce fighting has broken out in recent weeks between Kurdish forces and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, which is also fighting against Assad, after Syrian Kurds expelled the jihadists from the key town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey.

The border clashes are a sensitive issue in Turkey, where four Turks have already been killed by stray gunfire from the Syrian side.

Amid witness reports of jihadists staying in hotels in Turkish border towns and shuttling back and forth between the two countries, Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said last week that the jihadists' suspected infiltration into Turkey was bringing Ankara "under suspicion".

The party said it would be better to "develop good relations with the Kurds instead of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates".

"Turkey has never officially declared that it aided Nusra fighters, but it's clear that the group has been tolerated by the government," Turan said.

"Now it's understood that this tolerance will no longer be that generous," he added.

Davutoglu himself has dismissed the concerns over Al-Nusra, insisting that Ankara was supporting only the opposition Syrian National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council -- neither of which include Al-Nusra members.

He said Ankara was pushing for Syrian Kurdish groups to join forces with the National Coalition.

"What matters here is not only the Nusra-PYD conflict. What we're trying to prevent is the breakout of a Kurd-Arab conflict," the foreign minister said.

"Kurds urgently need to take their place within the Syrian National Coalition."