As most observers predicted, Turkey’s campaign against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) has quickly become a cat’s-paw for a war against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Whereas Turkey’s July 23 assault on ISIS involved a single sortie against a small cluster of targets in Syria, from July 24 to July 26 the Turkish air force conducted over 150 sorties against more than 300 PKK targets in Iraq. And, as of July 30, whereas the Turkish military had killed somewhere around nine ISIS fighters, it reportedly killed 190 PKK militants and wounded over 300.
The goal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government is clear. They want to unravel the partnership between the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the United States. U.S.-supported PYD victories against ISIS have enabled the party to build a contiguous stretch of territory in northern Syria, which runs from Kobani to the Iraqi border. Facing the prospect of the PYD joining its third canton to this corridor to form an autonomous Kurdish region, called Rojava, along Turkey’s southern border, Turkey’s president had to act.
Erdogan’s recent campaign has already achieved some immediate tactical success, notably in the form of Washington’s assent for Turkey’s creation of an “ISIS-free zone” in northwestern Syria. But the AKP’s attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and the PYD may prove a strategic blunder, dangerously eroding Turkey’s already weak position in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Turkey’s initiative will likely turn the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra into northwest Syria’s leading force, providing Nusra’s Saudi and Qatari patrons a foothold on Turkey’s border. Worse still, the PYD and the PKK could strike an alliance with Iran, bringing about the strategic nightmare that Ankara fears most: a PKK-led Kurdish entity spanning Syria and Iraq that would be ready to do Tehran’s bidding.
The U.S.-Kurdish alignment that followed ISIS’ June 2014 invasion of Iraq has vexed
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