A senior US official has accused Turkey of pulling a bait-and-switch by using a recent anti-ISIS agreement with the US as a “hook” to attack the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports.
“It’s clear that ISIL was a hook,” the senior military official told the WSJ, referring to Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
“Turkey wanted to move against the PKK, but it needed a hook.”
On Tuesday, an American military source told Fox News that US military leaders were “outraged” when Turkey began its bombing campaign, giving US special forces stationed in northern Iraq virtually no warning before Turkish jets started striking the mountains.
“A Turkish officer entered the allied headquarters in the air war against ISIS and announced that the strike would begin in 10 minutes and he needed all allied jets flying above Iraq to move south of Mosul immediately,” the source said. “We were outraged.”
The confrontation highlights the tension growing between the US and Turkey, which became a reluctant ally in the fight against ISIS after years of turning a blind eye to the militants’ illicit activity on its southern border during the Syrian war.
Ankara officially joined the coalition fight against ISIS on July 24, striking ISIS for the first three times the same day. But since then, Turkey has conducted 300 strikes against the PKK and 0 against ISIS, according to data compiled by IRIN news.
Nearly 400 Kurdish militants have been killed, IRIN reports, compared with nine ISIS militants.
When asked about Turkey’s commitment to fighting the Islamic State, a senior defence official replied that “there are still question marks out there. Our folks are very eager to put it to the test.”
The ongoing bombing campaign against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq came as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have: Turkey has long seen the PKK — a designated terrorist organisation that waged a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey — as more of an existential threat than ISIS, which refrained from launching attacks inside Turkey even as its militants lived and operated along the border.
“The PKK is a bigger threat to us, as it is active within the country,” a Turkish official told the Wall Street Journal. “They stage attacks on our security forces on a daily basis, in many cities. ISIS is more active in Syria, and is therefore less urgent now.”
Moreover, President Erdogan’s bombing campaign — capitalising on the nationalist, anti-Kurd sentiment that has been steadily growing inside Turkey — could help him regain his AKP party’s absolute majority if coalition talks fail and new elections are called.
“The AKP needed the Kurdish angle to sell the war to ultranationalists inside Turkey,” whose main priority is to curb Kurdish territorial gains along its southern border, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider last month.
But Erdogan’s gamble has come at a price:
Nearly 40 Turkish police officers and military officials have been attacked and killed by PKK militants since the war began, and that number is increasing every day.
Erdogan has also complicated his party’s relationship with Washington further: While the White House was relieved when Turkey announced it would allow the US to launch airstrikes against ISIS from Incirlik airbase in its southeast, the PKK is a politically contentious target.
The militia was working with US-backed Kurdish fighters to repel ISIS from northern Iraq and is also closely linked to the the Kurdish YPG militia which, backed by US airstrikes, has proven to be the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground in northern Syria.
Now, the US is reportedly embracing an all-out partnership with the YPG to make up for the failures of its $US500 million Syrian train-and-equip program — a move that is sure to anger Ankara and inflame tensions even further.
“To fully embrace a Kurdish force would complicate an already fragile strategy, two [US] defence officials concluded,” Nancy Youseff of The Daily Beast reports.
“The Turks … would not welcome an emboldened Kurdish force on its southern border. Neither would many of America’s Arab allies, who are also threatened by Kurdish sovereignty movements.”
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