Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, described changes to the U.S. strategy against ISIS, including a new focus on key ISIS-held cities and stepped up U.S. airstrikes and raids with “capable partners.” However, Turkey, one of the main U.S. partners in the fight against ISIS, violently objects to some of the groups with which Carter is proposing enhanced cooperation. Turkey, which joined the anti-ISIS coalition in July 2015, has repeatedly demonstrated that it has a very different prioritization of threats in this conflict—less than one percent of the airstrikes it has flown since August targeted ISIS and the rest targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Now, Turkey appears to be actively working at direct odds with U.S. anti-ISIS strategy, having attacked Kurdish groups in Syria—the same groups that the United States recently armed and counts among its “capable partners” who will serve as part of the new efforts announced by Carter. By consistently focusing its attacks on Kurds, not ISIS, Turkey is rendering U.S. strategy less effective, if not directly undermining it.
Strikes Targeting ISIS
As of October 20, the anti-ISIS coalition (not including the United States) has conducted 1,655 airstrikes—1,515 in Iraq and 140 in Syria. Turkey has only participated in three operations against ISIS since joining the coalition in August. Turkey conducted its first operations in August, but then Turkey did not strike ISIS in Syria again until October.
Despite this slow start to Turkey’s involvement in operations against ISIS, October brought new reasons for it to participate more fully in the U.S.-led coalition. The horrific bombing of a peace rally in Ankara that killed over 100 people has been widely attributed to ISIS, though the group has not directly claimed credit. Further, Russian military intervention in Syria and the subsequent violations of Turkish airspace, observers assumed, might convince Turkey that doing more against ISIS in Syria to eliminate the putative reason for Russian involvement there would be beneficial to its own security and sovereignty.
Indeed, U.S. officials lauded Turkish involvement and suggested it would increase following both of these troubling events. “We have seen in the last 24 hours or so that Turkey has stepped up their activity in Syria… reports overnight that Turks for the first time successfully struck a mobile ISIL target inside of Syria,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said on Oct. 15. But Turkey has not conducted any further attacks against ISIS in Syria since then.
Strikes Targeting the PKK
In contrast to the three operations Turkey has carried out against ISIS, the Turkish Air Force has been carrying out near-daily airstrikes against PKK positions since July 24. Turkey’s PKK campaign has been intensive, involving huge numbers of warplanes and bombs, for example: July 24-27, 75 Turkish aircraft flew 185 sorties, dropping 300 smart bombs.
According to the Turkish government figures from early October, over 2,000 PKK militants have been killed in over 400 airstrikes and ground operations in Turkey and Northern Iraq since July. On Oct. 5, a top Turkish Armed Forces commander admitted that “Turkish Air Forces are actually waging a war. More than just a medium-scale war, it is fighting on two fronts”—against both ISIS in Syria and the PKK in Turkey and Iraq. President Obama has expressed concern about the lopsided nature of this war, saying he communicated to the Turkish government the United States’ “strong view that [ISIS] poses the largest threat to the region and we have to stay focused.”
Strikes Targeting Syrian Kurds
The “war” Turkey is fighting has taken a troubling turn, spreading from Kurds in Iraq to Kurds in Syria. On Oct. 26, Syrian Kurds reported that the Turkish military had attacked their positions in the Syrian town of Tal Abyad. Turkey’s interim Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu confirmed these attacks. Turkey had warned the Kurds, he claimed “not to pass west of the Euphrates. We’ll hit them if they do.” And, since the Kurds did not heed this warning, Davutoğlu went on, “we did hit them, twice.”
This most recent Turkish attack suggests that the U.S. approach of considering Turkish and Syrian Kurds as separate policy problems, and assuming Turkey would do the same, is failing. Moreover, it belies the notion that Turkey shares the U.S. concern about the ISIS threat and supports those who have argued that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan joined the ISIS coalition only to subvert it to his own goals.
Although there are strong connections between the Turkish PKK group and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), Washington considers them to be two separate entities. The first is designated as a foreign terrorist organization, the latter two, however, have played an important role as U.S. partners on the ground in the battle against ISIS. As recently as mid-October, the United States airdropped significant quantities of small arms to the YPG and other rebel groups in expectation of an offensive on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Even as the cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK collapsed, Washington hoped to be able to distinguish between the status of the two Kurdish groups and encourage Turkey to do the same: conduct counter-terrorist operations against the PKK at home but at least countenance YPG support of anti-ISIS operations in Syria.
This approach has not been successful. Indeed, it is likely the continued U.S. reliance on the YPG and the arming of the group and inclusion of them in plans to take Raqqa that prompted Turkey’s attacks against the group. By attacking the YPG in Tal Abyad—the scene of vital YPG victory in June 2015, where it routed ISIS from a critical logistics hub on the Turkish border and which opened the road to Raqqa—Turkey is sending a signal that it disapproves of this new offensive and the “capable partners” conducting it with the United States. Moreover, the timing of the strike, just days ahead of Turkey’s second parliamentary election in four months, suggests strong domestic political motives as well.
A clear divergence in priorities exists between Turkey and the United States. “The PKK poses a primary threat,” Erdogan has publicly explained, “whereas ISIL is a secondary threat.” His government’s actions—conducting a disproportionate number of strikes against the PKK compared to minimal operations against ISIS—have made the meaning of that statement more than clear. U.S. policymakers should realize that convincing Turkey to join the anti-ISIS coalition did not actually affect a change of Turkey’s policy. It is time to have a serious discussion with Ankara about their prioritization of threats and targets in the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Turkey is a significant and important player in this turmoil and a NATO ally of the United States. With aligned interests and objectives Washington and Ankara could do much to ameliorate the situation, but the growing chasm between them can no longer be ignored or papered over.
Timeline of PKK Strikes in Iraq:
- July 24-25: Airstrikes in Northern Iraq officially end the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK
- July 26: Airstrikes against PKK positions in Northern Iraq
- July 28-29: Overnight airstrikes against PKK targets in Zap, Metina, Gara, Avasin-Basyan, Hakurk, and the Qandil Mountains, operation was named after a gendarmerie major killed in clashes with the PKK, Arslan Kulaksiz
- July 30: Airstrikes against over 100 PKK targets in Northern Iraq involving approximately 80 warplanes
- July 31: Airstrikes against 65 PKK targets in Northern Iraq involving 30 warplanes
- August 1: Airstrikes against PKK camps near Iraq’s Zargala village reportedly kill 9 civilians
- August 19: Airstrikes against PKK bases on the Turkey-Iraq border
- August 20-August 21: At least 29 PKK militants killed in airstrikes in Northern Iraq
- August 25: At least 34 PKK militants killed in airstrikes in Iraq’s Qandil mountains
- September 7-September 8: Heavy airstrikes against PKK targets in Northern Iraq
- September 8: Turkish Special Forces cross Iraq-Turkey border in pursuit of PKK fighters following a deadly PKK attack that killed 16 Turkish soldiers in Southeastern Turkey, and around 40 Turkish F-16s and F-4s target PKK bases in Qandil, Basyan Avashin, and Zap in a six hour campaign.
- September 9: Airstrikes in villages in the Qandil Mountains
- September 10-September 11: Airstrikes in Northern Iraq involving 21 Turkish F-16 and F-4 warplanes, dropping 80 bombs on 64 PKK targets in Northern Iraq, killing at least 60 PKK militants in a five-hour campaign
- September 15: Airstrikes in Iraq’s Sinan-Haftanin area
- September 19-20: Between 55 and 60 PKK militants killed in overnight airstrikes
- September 21: Airstrikes against PKK bases in the Sinat-Haftanin area of Northern Iraq destroy PKK shelters, ammunition depots and warehouses
- September 22: Airstrikes against bunkers and weapons caches in Hakurk
- September 23: Airstrikes on PKK positions and ammunition depots in northern Dohuk province
- September 25: Airstrikes against PKK shelters and equipment and ammunition storage in Northern Iraq
- September 26: Airstrikes against PKK positions in Dohuk province
- October 3-4: Airstrikes against PKK shelters, camps, and caves in Northern Iraq
- October 4-5: Airstrikes in northern Dohuk province and sites in the Qandil Mountains
- October 11: Airstrikes target PKK positions in Metina and Zap areas of Northern Iraq, a day after deadly bombings in Ankara
Sources: Statements by the Turkish Armed Forces, reported in Turkish news sources