Turkey sent fighter jets into northern Iraq last week to attack an adversary it sees as a grave threat to its national security. But the target was not the Islamic State.
Instead, the Turkish warplanes pounded a Kurdish militia in Iraq that has fought Ankara for years in a bid for self-rule.
Turkey also bombed Islamic State militants in Syria last week. Yet the strikes against the guerrilla Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains underscored Washington’s dilemma as it seeks to bring Turkey into the fight against the Islamic State despite Ankara’s long-running conflict with Kurdish separatists.
The United States has been pushing Turkey for nearly a year to throw its full weight behind the war against the Islamic State and for months was denied permission to stage airstrikes out of Incirlik Air Base, near the border with Syria. But now, as a consequence of winning Turkey’s permission to use the base for airstrikes, Washington may be allowing Ankara to batter the only forces on the ground that have proved effective against the Islamic State.
While Washington sees the Islamic State as a dire threat, it’s clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is as focused on going after the PKK, which claimed responsibility for fatally shooting two Turkish police officers on July 22. The attack prompted the Turkish air raids against the group in northern Iraq and signaled that a fragile two-year-old cease-fire had come undone.
Turkish leaders often speak about the Islamic State and the PKK in equivalent terms and have viewed the battlefield gains made by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds as a potential danger that could ignite separatist sentiment among its own restive Kurdish minority. The PKK waged a 30-year insurgency against Turkey that left tens of thousands dead, and the United States has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
The gap between Turkey and the United States was exposed in recent days as officials used different language to describe their new agreement. Turkish leaders said the two countries plan to form a “safe zone” along a strip of land in northern Syria on the border with Turkey.
The officials suggested the area would resemble a no-fly zone. Although the Islamic State has no air force, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has air defenses and warplanes that could threaten any safe area. U.S. officials have previously balked at the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone, as it would mean a wider American military commitment and possibly require opening a second front against the Assad regime even as the fight continues against the Islamic State.
U.S. officials were more cautious about the proposed 68-mile-long safe area, saying the two governments were still discussing exactly how an Islamic State “free zone” in northern Syria would operate and how it would be secured.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the tentative arrangement with Turkey was delicate and complicated, and they said they are urging Ankara to act with restraint and proportion in pursuing the PKK to avoid undermining the broader objective of defeating the Islamic State.
Officials said U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration recognizes the value of the Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq and vowed not to abandon them.
The Syrian Kurds are an important partner and “they have had great success,” an administration official said Tuesday.
“We don’t want to see that complicated in any way” and “we are not going to forsake them,” the official told Foreign Policy.
Turkey received expressions of political support from NATO allies at an extraordinary meeting convened on Tuesday, with member states welcoming the country’s decision to move more forcefully against the Islamic State. But European officials are also concerned that Ankara could undercut the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria if it unleashes a large-scale campaign against the PKK.
Obama’s deputy envoy to the international coalition battling the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, sought to play down the Turkish airstrikes against the PKK.
“We look forward to intensifying cooperation with Turkey and all of our partners in the global fight against #ISIL,” McGurk wrote in a tweet on Saturday.
“There is no connection between these airstrikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against #ISIL,” he stated in another tweet.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an outspoken critic of Obama’s war strategy, backed the proposed safe area but voiced alarm at reports that alleged Turkish forces had attacked Syrian Kurds.
“One of my biggest fears is that the president’s mishandling of Syria would ignite regional tensions and expand the conflict,” Graham said in a statement. “A conflict between Turkey and the Kurds only benefits ISIL and Assad and further plunges the region into chaos. This ultimately compromises our national security.”
U.S. military officers frequently cite Kurdish forces as a model of success in the often faltering campaign against the Islamic State.
The Iraqi Army has lost ground in the west and struggled to push back the Islamic State at the Baiji oil refinery northwest of Baghdad. But the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq and the Kurdish militia in Syria have steadily advanced, able to take advantage of U.S.-led air power to maneuver and seize back territory.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on May 24 that Iraqi Army troops who retreated from the western city of Ramadi earlier this year lacked the “will to fight.” After recent victories by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, Defense Department spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said in June that the result showed what could be achieved by coalition air power coupled with “capable and willing ground forces.”
U.S. officials hope the proposed buffer zone along Syria’s northern border could choke off the two remaining supply lines for the Islamic State that run through the Syrian cities of Dabiq and Jarabulus.
“We’ve also discussed with Turkey the possibility of working with them in a coordinated way and with moderate opposition groups to begin to clear out … the last stretch of international border with Turkey that is controlled by ISIL,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday.
The area would not require a no-fly zone, but such a project “will be done in a way that the objective is to get Daesh out of this area and to allow life to return,” said the official, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.
Enabling armed American drones and manned aircraft to fly strike missions out of Incirlik instead of from more distant bases in the Persian Gulf will bolster the U.S.-led air war against the militants, officials said, as it puts warplanes much closer to potential targets and allows them to linger for a longer period over a target.
But the Pentagon said it will take “weeks” before U.S. airstrikes are launched from Turkish soil, as officials are still working out final arrangements. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday that several bases were being looked at to house U.S. aircraft for missions against the Islamic State.
Davis said that the United States has not provided any logistical or intelligence support for the Turkish strikes on the PKK and has only shared information to ensure coalition flights are coordinated over Syrian and Iraqi airspace.
Although the mounting threat from the Islamic State has raised anxiety in Ankara, Turkish domestic politics played a major factor in the government’s shift, as Erdogan is anxious to present himself as a man of action to shore up political support, experts said.
And amid concern in Turkey about a Kurdish independent state potentially emerging on its border, the planned buffer zone will be seen as a safety measure to protect the country’s flank, said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former Turkish MP from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
“Turkish public opinion is sensitive to a situation whereby a Kurdish entity is in command of Turkey’s southern borders. The safe zone — if successfully created — would de facto break the continuity of a future Kurdish entity there,” said Kiniklioglu, now executive director of the Center for Strategic Communication (STRATIM), an Ankara-based think tank.
A former Obama administration official said discussions on the use of Incirlik had been underway since 2014. In return for permitting U.S. air raids to be staged from the base, Turkey had demanded the creation of a safe area in northern Syria.
The discussions had revolved around international law, Turkey’s role in the safe area, and how the zone would be maintained — what military planners call “sustainability,” the ex-official said.
“One of the biggest issues is sustainability — because once you start it, you can’t stop,” he said.