In­ter­ests both shared and dif­fer­ing in US-Tur­key agree­ment on Syria


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan are both tak­ing a big gam­ble as they agree to work to­gether against the Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants in Syria.

Their goals, while over­lap­ping in some ways, are far dif­fer­ent in oth­ers, mainly on the ques­tion of how to han­dle Kur­dish mil­i­tants bat­tling Is­lamic State fight­ers in Syria. And that’s the prob­lem.

Er­do­gan wants to com­bat Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in his coun­try who had flown freely across the bor­der with Syria. But his big­gest pri­or­ity is one that’s driven by do­mes­tic pol­i­tics: cur­tail­ing grow­ing Kur­dish power along Tur­key’s south­ern bor­der. Ankara is wor­ried that Kur­dish gains in Iraq and in Syria will en­cour­age a re­vival of the Kur­dish in­sur­gency in Tur­key in pur­suit of an in­de­pen­dent state.

To that end, Er­do­gan used the start of Turk­ish air strikes against Is­lamic State forces in Syria to also at­tack Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) rebels in north­ern Iraq. And on July 27, the main Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia, the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Unit, known as the YPG, claimed that it had been shelled by Turk­ish troops. A Turk­ish of­fi­cial said the mil­i­tary was only re­turn­ing fire, and that the mil­i­tary cam­paign does not in­clude the YPG.

Since the U.S.-Tur­key agree­ment was an­nounced late last month, Turk­ish war­planes have at­tacked PKK bases in north­ern Iraq and its forces in south­east­ern Tur­key on an al­most daily ba­sis.

The U.S. has gained ac­cess to Tur­key’s Incer­lik air base near Syria’s north­ern bor­der, as well as Tur­key’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in at­tacks on Is­lamic state fight­ers from the air.

But what the U.S. stands to lose could be even greater: Washington’s most ef­fec­tive al­lies and ground forces in the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State in Syria are the Kurds, ever wary of be­ing tar­geted by Tur­key, de­spite Ankara’s prom­ise not to at­tack them.

“It’s no se­cret that Tur­key has been less in­ter­ested in fight­ing ISIS (the Is­lamic State) than sup­press­ing the Kurds,” said Stephen Tankel, pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Univer­sity. “That’s still true. Bring­ing Tur­key fur­ther into the fight against ISIS is a pos­i­tive thing depend­ing on the cost. Tur­key has said it won’t strike the Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tias, which are one of the most ef­fec­tive U.S. part­ners on the ground. “

The Kurds, an eth­nic group with their own lan­guage and cus­toms, have long sought a home­land. Nearly 25-mil­lion Kurds live mostly in Tur­key, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Ar­me­nia.

The Kurds have made un­prece­dented gains since Syria’s civil war be­gan, carv­ing out ter­ri­tory where they de­clared their own civil ad­min­is­tra­tion. With the help of U.S.-led airstrikes against the IS group, Kur­dish fight­ers ex­pelled the mil­i­tants in Kobani, a Syr­ian vil­lage on the Turk- ish bor­der in Jan­uary af­ter a long bat­tle. In June, the Kurds pushed the Is­lamic State group from their strong­hold of Tal Abyad also along the bor­der with Tur­key, rob­bing IS of a key av­enue for smug­gling oil and for­eign fight­ers.

Un­til about two years ago, Kurds had fought a three-decade in­sur­gency in south­east­ern Tur­key and from bases in north­ern Iraq. That fight­ing has taken at least 37,000 lives.

Peace talks be­gun in 2013 have bro­ken down with the re­newed Turk­ish bomb­ing in north­ern Iraq and PKK coun­ter­at­tacks in­side Tur­key.

That is bound to have put the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in a tough spot with its Kur­dish al­lies fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Syria. The White House is re­ported to have cau­tioned the Turks about mil­i­tary ac­tion in north­ern Iraq, where Kurds claim civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

But coun­ter­at­tacks by the PKK have es­ca­lated vi­o­lence be­tween Turk­ish gov­ern­ment forces and Kur­dish in­sur­gents. At least 24 peo­ple have been killed in the re­newed vi­o­lence in Tur­key, most of them sol­diers.

Er­do­gan has been strug­gling since elec­tions in June re­sulted in a hung par­lia­ment, when the pro-Kur­dish party made huge gains in Par­lia­ment. Er­do­gan, crit­ics and Kur­dish ac­tivists claim, is reignit­ing the con­flict in a bid to win na­tion­al­ist votes and un­der­mine sup­port for Kur­dish politi­cians in pos­si­ble new elec­tions in the com­ing months.

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