As U.S. combat planes unleashed a barrage of airstrikes against Islamic extremists besieging a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria on Monday, Turkish warplanes were bombing Kurdish militants not far away in southern Turkey.
The juxtaposition of the two events is a reminder of the complexity of the war against the Islamic State: Turkey and the United States are NATO allies, but their military actions could be seen as at cross purposes.
The U.S. airstrikes – an astonishing 21 in one day, the U.S. Central Command said Tuesday – provided breathing space to defenders of the Syrian town of Kobani, whose Kurdish residents have mostly fled to Turkey.
The Turkish airstrikes in Hakkari province targeted Kurdish separatists and raised the question of whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 18-month attempt to make peace with Turkey’s Kurdish population will fall victim to the war in Syria. At least 35 people died last week in Kurdish demonstrations throughout Turkey calling for aid to Kobani.
The irony is that the Kurdish fighters who benefited from the U.S.-led strikes at Kobani and the Kurdish separatists targeted by Turkish aircraft are both affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have designated a terrorist group.
The difference is that in Kobani, the PKK affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is defending the town against Islamic State extremists, whereas in Hakkari, the PKK allegedly provoked a Turkish assault by attacking a Turkish police post.
In Kobani, which lies just south of Syria’s border with Turkey, U.S.-led airstrikes allowed the YPG to push the Islamic State fighters back into the western countryside and recapture a village that was more than three miles from the town center, Idriss Nassan, the spokesman for the self-declared canton, told McClatchy.
The airstrikes also allowed the YPG militia to recapture a hill just east of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters hauled down the extremist group’s black flag. Whether the U.S. and the YPG were coordinating their efforts was unclear, but Nassan said the U.S. aircraft were targeting “very well.”
According to the U.S. Central Command, the airstrikes destroyed or damaged 10 buildings or compounds, 10 troop staging locations and three vehicles. The aim of the airstrikes was to interdict supplies and reinforcements and prevent a massing of Islamist combat power against Kurdish-held parts of Kobani. But the command said the situation on the ground remains fluid, with Kurdish militiamen holding out against continuing Islamic State attempts to capture ground.
Turkey has blocked military aid or Kurdish volunteers from crossing into Kobani, but Idriss said he is hopeful that talks with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the largely autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq, will lead to weapons and ammunition support. If that comes to pass, the question is whether Turkey will allow it in.
The airstrikes in Hakkari, about 250 miles east of Kobani, may suggest that the answer is “no.”
The Turkish General Staff said the PKK fired rifles at a number of police posts near the town of Daglica, and Turkish security forces responded. The newspaper Hurriyet said the PKK had fired rocket-propelled grenades at a military guard post for three days and that F-16 and F-4 warplanes bombed Kurdish positions in Daglica.
The PKK, which according to the Turkish government version started the fighting, said the Turkish air attack was directed “against two guerrilla bases in Daglica” and violated a cease-fire in place for the past 18 months. In so saying, the PKK acknowledged that it had bases inside Turkey – they had supposedly abandoned them under the cease-fire. The PKK made no mention of casualties.
For Erdogan, completing the peace process with the Kurds, who comprise at least 12 million of his country’s 78 million population, would end a 30-year uprising that left some 40,000 dead and would crown his rule of more than a decade.
But the principal PKK negotiator, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in a Turkish jail for 15 years, warned two weeks ago that if Kobani falls in a massacre, the peace process will be over. Last week, he demanded that the Turkish government present its reform package guaranteeing Kurdish cultural rights by Wednesday or the process could collapse.
The draft, previewed to Kurdish legislators Monday, calls for the PKK to announce it is abandoning the armed struggle and withdrawing its forces from Turkey, in exchange for the return of militants to Turkey and legal measures to allow some PKK figures to enter Turkish politics. The actual law is due to be introduced to the Turkish Parliament as early as Wednesday.