As Turkey continues its airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, it is also targeting valuable forces combating ISIS.
Turkey’s non-ISIS bombing targets have included the YPG, a militia of Syrian Kurds actively fighting against the jihadi group, and the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist group which has a strained relationship with Turkey and a presence in Iraq. The Kurds, a people whose homeland straddles the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, have sought independence for decades. Some Kurdish groups’ tactics have included violence.
The secular and leftist PKK has been a U.S. government-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) since 1997, though it struck a shaky truce with Turkey in 2013. And in the past year, Kurdish groups including the PKK have become a major force against ISIS, liberating key territories including Iraq’s Mount Sinjar and the Syrian city of Kobani. This has made Kurdish fighters among the U.S.’ most effective allies in the ground war against the jihadis. (RELATED: How ISIS Provoked A Quiet Giant Into Striking Back)
But for Turkey, bad blood with the Kurds trumps strategic alliance against ISIS. Speaking to reporters Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that “there is no difference between PKK and Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “You can’t say that PKK is better because it is fighting Daesh.”
Likewise, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Tuesday that continuing peace talks between Turkey and Kurdish groups was “not possible,” given alleged PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers which the government says caused last weekend’s reprisals. In response, the head of a Kurdish-led political party which gained influence in June’s election said that “we have committed no unforgivable crimes.” (RELATED: Sunday’s Turkish Election Was A Blow To Strongman-Style Islamism)
NATO met in an emergency session Tuesday to discuss Turkey’s sudden entry to the battlefield against ISIS. While Turkey reportedly did not request formal military assistance from NATO allies, it may be setting the stage for future requests.
Turkey began its bombing campaign Friday, shortly after reports emerged of an deal to give American warplanes access to Turkish air bases. Officials claim the two developments are not related despite the timing. (RELATED: ISIS’ Worst Nightmare Just Got In The War)
U.S. policymakers hope increased air presence over Syria will allow them to establish a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. But some fear that Turkey’s aggression against in the area will merely liquidate the Kurdish presence instead.
While Turkey has tried to distinguish between hostile and neutral Kurdish groups, the U.S.-aligned YPG claims that Turkish forces are “shooting at our fighters … instead of targeting Islamic State terrorists.” The U.S. has cautiously supported Turkey’s right to self-defense, and reiterated that Turkey’s “purpose in Syria is against” Islamic State, not the Kurds.
State Department spokesman John Kirby also said Monday that “we don’t observe a connection between” Turkey’s targeting of Islamic State and the PKK in Iraq.
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