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US caught up in Turkey, Kurd rivalry

Spencer KimballJuly 28, 2015

They're both key to US goals in the Middle East. But they're bitterly opposed to one another. Turkey has bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq. The airstrikes could hamper Washington's war against 'IS.'

A Turkish Air Force C-160D Transall transport aircraft takes off from Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey, July 26
Image: Reuters/M. Sezer

According to the Turkish government, there's no difference between "Islamic State" and the Kurdish militant group PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). They're both terrorist organizations.

"Whichever terrorist organization poses a threat to the borders of the Turkish Republic, measures will be taken without hesitation," said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after Turkey launched operations against both groups. "No-one should have any doubt."

But the secular PKK has proven one of the most effective adversaries of the "Islamic State" group, according to Michael Gunter, who's written several books on the Kurds. So effective, that there have been calls in the US to remove the PKK from the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"The US should do it," Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Tech University, told DW. "The US has been in effect supporting the PKK by supporting the affiliate of the PKK, the PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party], in Syria."

The PKK and the US have found themselves on the same side not only in Syria. When "Islamic State" militants trapped thousands of Yazidis in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq last year, US President Barack Obama told the American people that Washington had an obligation to save the persecuted religious minority from a massacre.

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters man a checkpoint on a highway connecting the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia and the town of Snuny north of Mount Sinjar December 20, 2014.
The PKK played a role in rescuing Yazidis trapped by 'IS'Image: Reuters/Massoud Mohammed

The US subsequently began its campaign of airstrikes against "Islamic State" ("IS"). But it wasn't Washington that saved the Yazidis at Sinjar. The Kurdish PKK helped evacuate the mountains and escort the Yazidis to safety.

'Attacks against ISIS a ploy'

Now, Turkey has openly entered the increasingly complex war in Iraq and Syria. Last week, an "Islamic State" suicide bomber killed 32 leftist activists in the mostly Kurdish town of Suruc, near the Syrian border. In retaliation, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched airstrikes against IS for the first time and may grant Washington use of the airbase at Incirlik.

"This attack against ISIS is ploy, he doesn't mean it," Gunter said, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State. "Basically, Turkey is using ISIS as a weapon against the Syrian Kurds."

"It's been well documented for the last two years that Turkey has allowed jihadists who support ISIS from all over the world to transit through Turkey into Syria and join ISIS," he said.

The Turkish government simultaneously launched strikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq. PKK militants had reportedly killed two police officers in Turkey, accusing Ankara of turning a blind eye to Islamic State crimes against the Kurds.

Turkish fighter jets land at the 8th Main Jet Air Base Command of the Turkish Air Force in southeastern province Diyarbakir on July 25, 2015
Turkey's airstrikes have targeted 'IS' and PKK positionsImage: picture-alliance/AA

The US, at least publicly, has supported the Turkish strikes against the PKK. In a press conference, State Department spokesman John Kirby called the PKK "terrorists" and said Ankara has the right to defend itself.

"It's ridiculous that the United States can't see this," Gunter said. "Turkey is killing Kurds who are fighting ISIS, who is supposed to be the American enemy."

"[Turkey]'s not supporting NATO policies against ISIS," he continued. "Indeed, it's working against these policies."