“The pathway to defeating Islamic State runs through Kurdistan and starts in America” was the title of an article published by The Jerusalem Post on July 29th. The authors, Robert Sklaroff and Sherkoh Abbas, the president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, described what the United States needs to do to help the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.
One of the things that must be done, they wrote, is the implementation of the bi-partisan amendment (SA-1549) to the Department of Defense funding bill proposed by Senators Boxer, Ernst, and Graham. That amendment would authorize providing direct U.S. aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The article was published a couple of days after it became clear that President Obama had closed a deal with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan that will effectively spell the end of Kurdish-American cooperation in the war against the Islamic State.
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As Western Journalism reported last week, under the deal, the U.S. Air Force could use the Turkish Incirlik Air Base for the air campaign against the Islamic State and, in return, the U.S. would help Turkey by creating an ISIS-free buffer zone along the Turkish border. We also reported that Turkey demanded oversight of the targets the U.S. Air Force would strike in Syria and Iraq. Strikes that would help the YPG seize more territory along the Turkish border would be vetoed, according to the Turkish outlet Today’s Zaman
Soon after the first reports about the deal were published, other details about the implementation of the agreement and the reason why Erdoğan decided to change his position on the war against ISIS began to emerge.
Let us first look at the implementation of the deal.
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The day after Obama spoke on the telephone to Erdoğan and reportedly finalized the deal that had been negotiated intensively for months, the Turkish Air Force and Army began to bomb Kurdish YPG and PKK positions in Syria and Iraq. These attacks and the controlling of Kurdish airspace have only intensified in the last couple of days. Two hundred and sixty Kurds reportedly died, and 400 have been wounded as a result of the Turkish campaign after the deal with Obama was closed.
The Anadolu Agency press agency, which is run by the state, reported on Saturday that 26 Turkish F-16 jets attacked 65 PKK targets in northern Iraq after hitting more than 100 targets a day earlier.
At the same time, Turkey has started to work with Islamist groups in Syria who are supposed to drive the Islamic State out of the area along the Turkish border. Foreign Policy interviewed a commander of Thuwar al-Sham in Syria who said the Turks had organized a meeting with Sunni rebel leaders on July 27th to discuss a new effort to drive the Islamic State out of the remaining area on the Turkish border it controls.
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The Turks also pushed for the establishment of a joint military operations room to coordinate an upcoming assault against Islamic State strongholds in the 60-mile stretch of land between the cities Jarabulus and Azaz in Syria. A day after the meeting on July 27th, a similar conference was held with the Turks, rebel commanders, and “members of the Military Operations Center, known as the MOM, which includes many of the foreign powers that are supporting the armed opposition, including the United States,” Foreign Policy reported.
The overall Turkish strategy is directed at the creation of a buffer zone free of ISIS, in which it will relocate the 1.5 million Sunni refugees now living in Turkey, and to control the zone via its ally in Syria – the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) Islamist rebel coalition that includes al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Kurds also report that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has limited or completely stopped its air support for the YPG and Peshmerga Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. Jerusalem Post analyst Caroline Glick wrote that Kurds in the Syrian city of Jarablus reported the U.S. has stopped providing air support for the YPG militia. Instead, the YPG forces were bombed by Turkish F-16’s.
The desired result of the Turkish intervention is to prevent further Kurdish advances along the 800-kilometer long border in Syria and to prevent the Kurds from establishing an autonomous area or an independent Kurdish state.
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Another motive for the Turkish intervention in Syria is the internal political situation in Turkey.
Erdoğan’s AKP won the election, but lost 8 percent of the votes to the Kurdish-dominated HDP party, which won more than 13 percent of the vote.
Since the election, AKP has tried to form a coalition with the help of nationalistic parties, but to no avail thus far, making a fresh election more likely by the day. The opposition in Turkey accused Erdoğan today of blocking coalition efforts.
Erdoğan’s opponents in Turkey say he is dragging the country into conflict to seek revenge for the loss of the absolute majority in parliament. By reviving the old conflict with the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and by preventing PKK affiliate YPG in Syria from establishing an autonomous entity, Erdoğan seeks to undermine support for the pro-Kurdish HDP ahead of the new poll. When he stirs nationalistic anger against the Kurds, Erdoğan might regain the majority and change the constitution in order to increase his power.
U.S. administration officials called the Obama/Erdoğan deal a “game changer.”
That might be true, albeit perhaps not in the way they envisioned it.
The deal has already hampered the war effort against the Islamic State because now the Kurds have to defend themselves against another mighty foe in the north and seem to have lost the air support that was instrumental in their successful campaign against the Islamic State.
The fragile cease-fire between the Turkish government and the PKK has collapsed as a result of the deal, and the Turkish population once more goes through a period of fear and stress after the PKK’s renewal of its terror attacks on Turkish targets. Police in Istanbul issued warnings of imminent bomb attacks on crowded places and the German Foreign Ministry warned that the metro in Istanbul could be targeted as well.
“There could be increased attack activity by the PKK,” the German Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website. “Beyond that, there are indications of possible attacks on the underground rail network and bus stops in İstanbul,” the ministry added, according to Today’s Zaman.
Furthermore, the situation in Syria has become even more complicated as a result of the Turkish intervention, and the Sunni-Shia conflict could further escalate as a result of Erdoğan’s Ottoman aspirations.
In the meantime, no U.S. airplane has taken off from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, The Independent reported. Like with the Iran deal, there are apparently differing opinions over what was exactly agreed upon.
The Independent reports:
It is now becoming clear that two crucial parts of the accord were not agreed at the time of the historic announcement. The US Air Force was desperate to get the use of Incirlik, 60 miles from the Syrian border, in order to intensify its bombardment of Isis. American planes currently have to fly long distances from Bahrain, Jordan and an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. The failure of the US air campaign to prevent Isis fighters capturing Ramadi and Palmyra in May intensified the sense of urgency.
At the time of writing, US aircraft have not started using Incirlik and the reason is that Turkey does not want US aircraft using it to launch air strikes in support of the Syrian Kurds who have hitherto been America’s most effective military allies against Isis in Syria.
Al Jazeera also reported disagreements between Turkey and the United States about elements of the deal.
The two sides argue about two aspects of the deal. One is indeed the use of Incirlik for strikes against ISIS. Turkey says the decision to allow U.S. jets to use Incirlik doesn’t involve “helping a terrorist organization,” a clear reference to PKK affiliate YPG.
Another point of disagreement between the sides is over which opposition group will fill the vacuum once the area along the Turkish border is cleared of ISIS.
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