We’re a couple of days into the new phase of Turkey’s “war on terror,” and so far it looks pretty much like the old phase, where the Turks offer nominal lip-service about opposing ISIS but focus their energy, and ordinance, almost exclusively on the Kurds. Turkey’s air force has allegedly flown hundreds of sorties against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq over the past couple of days, dwarfing the number of sorties it’s flown against ISIS in that same time. It’s also arrested hundreds of people with suspected ties to ISIS and the PKK in recent days, but curiously won’t get any more specific than that, which gives some credence to Kurdish claims that most of those arrests have been related to the PKK, not to ISIS.
Kurds all across the region are unhappy with what Ankara is doing. Hundreds of Kurdish protesters took to the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, and the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil (where they tried to march on the Turkish consulate) to protest Turkey’s attacks on the PKK yesterday. The PKK retaliated for the strikes by hitting a Turkish military convoy in Lice with a car bomb yesterday. The group’s ceasefire with Turkey, which has been in place since 2013, appears to be all but over at this point. Even Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and an ideological opponent of the PKK (they’re lefties and he’s a righty), who has generally had good relations with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan (they’re both righties), has denounced Turkey’s airstrikes and called for a return to negotiations between Ankara and the PKK, though Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters in Turkey that Barzani had called the operation “justified” when he and Davutoğlu talked about it over the phone on Saturday, so somebody isn’t quite telling the truth here.
It should be noted that the PKK handed Ankara a justification for these attacks when it killed those two Turkish police officers late last week over suspicions that they helped ISIS carry out Monday’s bombing in Suruç, but that’s nothing more than a pretense. These strikes are about Turkey’s fears of an independent Kurdish zone in northern Syria that could serve as a base of operations for the PKK (which is closely allied with Syria’s also-lefty Kurdish party, PYD). PKK, after all, and let’s be honest here, is still designated a terrorist group by the US, EU, and NATO, among others, and came by those designations honestly in the 1990s. So Turkey’s concerns aren’t totally unfounded. But Ankara has been playing fast and loose with the facts when it comes to the current situation in northern Syria, accusing the Kurds of taking advantage of ISIS’s activities to carve out a state for themselves. But this is absurd spin; the Kurds have been fighting ISIS to defend themselves and their land, and to the extent that they now have autonomous control over the Rojava area in northern Syria, that’s because Syria no longer has a functioning government, not because of some sinister long con by the Kurds. In fact, it’s been pretty clear that Turkey has been exploiting ISIS, casually looking the other way as fighters and supplies intended for ISIS poured over their border, in the hopes that ISIS would defeat the Kurds. Turkey obviously doesn’t want to be portrayed as an ISIS supporter or ally, but if the shoe fits…
Brett McGurk, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and the deputy US envoy to the “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” tweeted yesterday that while the US acknowledges Turkey’s right to defend itself from PKK attacks, the US also wants both sides to cease and desist so that everybody can get back to focusing on ISIS. There’s some feeling that the US bought expanded coalition access to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base and some nominal Turkish strikes against ISIS not with that alleged agreement on a safe zone in northern Syria, but with a promise to “look the other way” as the Turks launch a full scale campaign against the PKK (in another tweet, McGurk explicitly denied this connection). There may be something to this, and if that’s the case then the administration made a bad deal with Ankara. The use of Incirlik is important, but the Kurds have been the one force on the ground in both Syria and Iraq that is a) effective against ISIS given supplies and air support and b) unabashedly pro-American. If Turkey triggers a full-on war with the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, it will be yet another catastrophe for the region, and will (among many other things) add massive complications a fight against ISIS that is already has enough problems to overcome.
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