WASHINGTON - After having proved themselves an effective fighting force against Islamic extremists, Syrian Kurds are worrying Washington will distance itself from their fighters and look the other way as Turkey resumes its war against Kurdish separatists.
The Kurdish militia fighting Islamic State extremists is accusing Turkey of targeting its fighters inside Syria four times in the past week, describing the airstrikes as provocative - and as evidence the primary enemy of Turkey's government is the Kurds on both sides of the border rather than the jihadists.
A campaign of airstrikes on the bases and training camps of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq began last month by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.
The strikes have been dubbed by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as a “synchronized fight against terror” that has also included air raids and artillery shelling of Islamic State (IS) militants.
The Kurds argue most of Turkey’s "counterterror" operations appear to have targeted them in northern Iraq or southeast Turkey, and now in northern Syria.
Turkish help vs. IS
Turkish officials deny they have been targeting Syrian Kurds, but the suspicion underscores a dilemma for the U.S. administration as it seeks to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while trying to avoid fueling sectarian and territorial disputes between allies and possible partners.
The Obama administration has long lobbied a reluctant Ankara to adopt a forward-leaning role in the international coalition against the extremists and to stop foreign recruits from crossing the border to join the jihadists. The Turkish government declined to do so for more than a year, arguing that the coalition should be doing more to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and that with his departure the appeal of the Islamic extremists would diminish.
The recent Turkish military moves against Islamic extremists that came after a jihadist bombing in southern Turkey have been welcomed in Washington, as has Ankara’s agreement to let the U.S. use a NATO airbase in southern Turkey to strike at IS, reducing considerably the flying time for bombing missions.
Kurds on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border fear President Erdogan’s primary objective is not to fight the Islamic State, but to ensure the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the PKK, doesn’t establish an autonomous state in northern Syria, one that would likely inspire Kurdish separatist demands in Turkey.
According to a top Syrian Kurdish commander, Sipan Hamo, the Turks say they "fight against IS, but in practice this war is nonexistent.”
Kurds under Turkish fire
On its website over the weekend, the PYD’s militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), cited four cross-border shelling incidents that left several people dead. Turkish tanks bombarded a position used by the YPG in Zor Maghar village west of Kobani in Syria on July 24, wounding four rebels and a number of civilians, the group claimed.
In another incident, the Turkish army fired on a YPG vehicle in Tel Fender, a village west of Tal Abyad.
Turkish officials say the YPG is not being targeted, but the army responds to any attacks, and the shelling was launched because Turkish forces came under fire.
“We consider recent movements of the Turkish military as provocative and hostile actions," the YPG said a statement. "We ask our partners in the U.S.-led international coalition against [IS] to clarify their approach towards these actions of the Turkish military.” The YPG, which has coordinated with coalition warplanes in the fight against Islamic extremists, insists it isn’t formally linked with the PKK.
Speaking to VOA last week, Sipan Hamo, General Commander of the YPG, insisted the militia has, “no formal relations with PKK…. We are not connected to the PKK.” He added: “However, we consider the PKK as a Kurdish and Kurdistani party. Without a doubt, we have relations with all Kurdish parties and are in contact with them.”
But local Kurds in the town of Kobani, which withstood a 134-day siege by IS extremists, say many of the Kurdish fighters in the town weren’t from Syria but from Turkey and were members of the PKK, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.
One YPG fighter admitted to VOA during the siege, which was lifted in January, that 15 out of 20 top militia commanders were not Syrian but Turkish Kurds, nicknamed Quandil Kurds, a reference to the PKK’s mountain-range sanctuary in northern Iraq that extends 30 kilometers into Turkey and contains the separatist movement’s military training camps.
US abandoning Kurds?
Now eager to bring the Turks even more into the fight against IS, the U.S. is facing Kurdish accusations that it is ready to trade them in.
Last week, the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party denounced a plan under discussion between Ankara and Washington to create a safe zone in northern Syria, saying it’s just an attempt to keep the Kurds from forming their own territory. Selahattin Demirtas, chairman of the People’s Democratic Party, told the BBC that Turkey’s operation against the Islamic State was just an excuse to target PKK Kurds in northern Iraq and to block Kurds in Syria.
“Turkey doesn’t intend to target [IS] with this safe zone. The Turkish government was seriously disturbed by Kurds trying to create an autonomous state in Syria,” he said.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismisses Syrian Kurdish fears that Washington will abandon them, saying the Obama administration values what the Syrian Kurds have been doing in the fight against IS. But he admitted there were complications and that it would be “increasingly tricky” to appease both Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. “Both are crucial partners for us,” he added.
Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said the Turkish government has insisted it is not targeting Kurdish militiamen inside Syria. ”We note that the Government of Turkey has clarified that its military action is directed solely at [IS] inside Syria, and, in response to PKK attacks in Turkey, against PKK encampments in Northern Iraq,” she said in a statement.
Mutlu Civiroglu contributed to this report.