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Turkey vs. ISIS and PKK: A Matter of Distinction

An analysis of Turkish actions against ISIS and the PKK—drawn from Turkish and U.S. government and military statements, as well as Turkish and international news reports—shows the stark differences between the two campaigns: while Turkish fighter jets have repeatedly battered PKK locations in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, Turkey’s air and artillery efforts against ISIS have been limited—even in response to devastating ISIS attacks in Turkey. In fact, even when attacked by ISIS, Turkey has consistently retaliated against the PKK.

Despite the United States designating the PKK a terrorist organization and supporting Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism, Turkey’s actions stand in sharp contrast to the overriding objective of current U.S. Middle East policy and the role that many American policymakers most want their once-staunch ally, Turkey, to play—a partner in defeating ISIS. Moreover, with the two conflicts—against the PKK and against ISIS—increasingly intertwined, Turkey thus far clearly has prioritized the PKK threat over that of ISIS and, as a result, has directly opposed the growing Kurdish role in the ISIS conflict in Syria, which has had a negative impact on the international anti-ISIS campaign. This has made it more difficult for the United States to achieve its strategic objective of degrading and destroying the terrorist group, which also poses a significant threat to Turkey.

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