Fric­tion rises over its own bat­tle with Kur­dish sep­a­ratists

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ AND GUY TAY­LOR

Even as U.S., Iraqi and Kur­dish forces make sig­nif­i­cant gains against the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, ris­ing fric­tion be­tween Turkey and Amer­ica’s key re­gional al­lies threat­ens to scut­tle the hopes of coali­tion forces to drive the ter­ror­ist group from the re­gion.

Ankara’s re­sis­tance to a co­or­di­nated strat­egy as it seeks to pro­tect its own in­ter­ests in the re­gion is caus­ing grow­ing con­cern among U.S. of­fi­cials and draw­ing the ire of Wash­ing­ton’s Mid­dle East al­lies.

Turkey’s will­ing­ness to help Amer­i­can and al­lied forces com­bat the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is bal­anced by a need to ex­tract a steep price for its co­op­er­a­tion, alien­at­ing its part­ners in the fight, out­go­ing Iraqi Am­bas­sador to the U.S. Luk­man Faily said this month.

“We have high ex­pec­ta­tions of Turkey to stand up to that chal­lenge of … look­ing at the big­ger pic­ture and not look­ing at it through any other prism,” Mr. Faily said dur­ing a speech in Wash­ing­ton. “If they [con­tinue] to view that this is a trans­ac­tion [in­stead] of a strate­gic view, then we will all lose out.”

Turkey, un­der Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan, has ar­gued that its in­ter­ests are too of­ten over­looked in the U.S.-led fight, in­clud­ing its long bat­tle with mil­i­tant Kur­dish sep­a­ratist groups and the bur­den it has had to shoul­der as vast num­bers of Iraqi and Syr­ian refugees have flooded across its bor­ders.

Ten­sions have sur­faced in re­cent weeks as U.S.-led op­er­a­tions against the ter­ror­ist group in Iraq and Syria heat up.

Most re­cently, Amer­i­can com­man­ders re­spon­si­ble for U.S. mil­i­tary train­ers on the ground in Syria re­buffed an of­fer by Turkey to con­duct joint op­er­a­tions to re­take the strate­gi­cally crit­i­cal north­ern Syr­ian district of Man­bij from Is­lamic State fighters.

Roughly 100 miles south­east of the Turk­ish bor­der city of Gaziantep, Man­bij is the main artery for weapons and equip­ment com­ing from Turkey bound for the Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa.

Turkey of­fered to pro­vide troops and ar­tillery sup­port to Syr­ian mili­tias and their U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions ad­vis­ers in the Man­bij of­fen­sive. But for Turk­ish forces to par­tic­i­pate in the bat­tle plan, Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers would have to shun the Kur­dish mem­bers of the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Unit, also known as YPG, the armed fac­tion of the Kur­dish Work­ers’ Party — a group deemed by Ankara to be on par with the Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.

YPG fighters in Syria and Kur­dish pesh­merga forces have been among the most stal­wart al­lies to Amer­i­can ef­forts against the Is­lamic State. As a re­sult, Syr­ian Arab mili­tias, YPG units and U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces moved into Man­bij with­out Turk­ish sup­port.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter and U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand chief Gen. Joseph Vo­tel at­tempted to ap­pease Ankara re­gard­ing the Man­bij op­er­a­tion, not­ing that nearly 85 per­cent of lo­cal forces fight­ing in the district were Syr­ian Arabs and that YPG forces had lit­tle in­volve­ment on the ground.

But Turkey’s ab­sence from the Man­bij as­sault high­lights a per­cep­tion that Ankara and Wash­ing­ton re­main at cross-pur­poses in the fight, un­able to agree on pri­or­i­ties or even the real en­emy.

A NATO ally

Ankara’s largest con­tri­bu­tion to the fight has been al­low­ing U.S. war­planes to carry out airstrikes against Is­lamic State tar­gets in Syria from In­cir­lik Air Base in south­ern Turkey.

Turk­ish forces have con­ducted cross­bor­der shelling of sus­pected Is­lamic State po­si­tions along the coun­try’s bor­der with Syria but by and large have kept out of the fight. Its mil­i­tary has also launched mul­ti­ple rounds of airstrikes into north­ern Syria on Is­lamic State tar­gets.

How­ever, those ar­tillery bar­rages and airstrikes more of­ten than not find their tar­gets among fight­ing po­si­tions of YPG and other Kur­dish mili­tia groups fight­ing near Aleppo and other ar­eas in north­ern Syria.

U.S. of­fi­cials have ex­pressed con­cern that Turkey aims to use the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State as a pre­text to crush the very Kur­dish mil­i­tants whom Wash­ing­ton wants to play a ma­jor role in re­tak­ing ter­ri­tory in north­ern Syria and Iraq. Iraq’s am­bas­sador shares that con­cern. “We cer­tainly were ex­pect­ing much more from Turkey” in the re­gional fight against the Is­lamic State, Mr. Faily said.

The de­ploy­ment of the USS Harry S. Tru­man car­rier strike group to the Mediter­ranean Sea this month has raised ques­tions about whether Wash­ing­ton is pre­par­ing to by­pass In­cir­lik al­to­gether.

Pen­tagon spokesman Peter Cook re­it­er­ated the De­fense De­part­ment’s sup­port for Turkey’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the fight against the Is­lamic State, but he added that the naval de­ploy­ment was in­tended to send a clear mes­sage.

“This is a mes­sage to our coali­tion part­ners that, again, the kind of force we can bring to bear, [and] one that we think the re­gion cer­tainly will look at,” Mr. Cook told re­porters at the Pen­tagon.

“We’ve worked closely with Turkey. We’ve worked closely to try and ad­dress some of [its] con­cerns and we re­main con­fi­dent that we’ll be able to con­tinue to work closely with Turkey in the fight against ISIL and in a range of other de­fense is­sues where their in­ter­ests and U.S. in­ter­ests closely align,” he said.

Turkey’s con­cerns are not with­out just cause, an­a­lysts say, as mem­bers of the Kur­dish Work­ers’ Party, known as the PKK, con­tinue to claim credit for ter­ror­ist at­tacks in­side Turkey.

The Kur­dis­tan Free­dom Fal­cons, or TAK, which is an off­shoot of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for a rush-hour car bomb­ing that killed 11 peo­ple and in­jured scores of oth­ers in a cen­tral tourist district in Is­tan­bul.

In a state­ment posted on­line Fri­day, the TAK de­nounced Mr. Erdogan’s rul­ing Justice and De­vel­op­ment Party and said it had car­ried out Tues­day’s car bomb­ing in Is­tan­bul as a re­tal­i­a­tion for a Turk­ish army op­er­a­tion that Mr. Erdogan au­tho­rized in the na­tion’s Kur­dish-dom­i­nated south­east.

The ac­tion was car­ried out “to counter all the sav­age at­tacks of the Turk­ish Repub­lic in Nusay­bin and Sir­nak and other places,” the group said, re­fer­ring to the ar­eas in the south­east where the army had been op­er­at­ing, ac­cord­ing to the news ser­vice Agence France-Presse.

“We again warn for­eign tourists who are in Turkey and who want to come to Turkey: For­eign­ers are not our tar­get, but Turkey is no longer a reli­able coun­try for them,” it said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

U.S.-backed fighters on Thurs­day closed all ma­jor roads lead­ing to the north­ern Syr­ian town of Man­bij, a strong­hold of the Is­lamic State group, and sur­rounded it from three sides. U.S. com­man­ders re­buffed an of­fer from Turkey to pro­vide as­sis­tance.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has ar­gued that its in­ter­ests are too of­ten over­looked.

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