State Dep’t to Turkey: Don’t Wage Your Anti-PKK War at Expense of the Anti-ISIS One

By Patrick Goodenough | April 25, 2017 | 10:07 PM EDT

Turkish Air Force aircraft. (Photo: Turkish Armed Forces/Flickr)

( – Turkey should not pursue its fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at the expense of the broader campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), the State Department cautioned on Tuesday.

Spokesman Mark Toner was speaking after Turkish warplanes bombed locations in north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq, killing not just PKK fighters but also Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an anti-ISIS group backed by the U.S.

Moreover, the strikes early on Tuesday morning also killed at least five fighters of the peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq who are another U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS.

Toner said the U.S. was mindful of the threat posed to Turkey by the PKK.

However, “Turkey cannot pursue that fight at the expense of our common fight against the terrorists that threaten us all, and that obviously means ISIS,” he said.

“We recognize their concerns about the PKK, but these kinds of actions, frankly, harm the coalition’s efforts to go after ISIS and, frankly, harm our partners on the ground, who are conducting that fight.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized the deaths of the peshmerga as a regrettable mistake.

He pointedly did not do so, however, in the case of the SDF fatalities – members of the YPG, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD).

Ankara regards the YPG/PYD as a terrorist group due to its affiliation with the PKK, an organization that has waged a violent separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades. An attempted Turkey-PKK peace process and ceasefire broke down in July 2015.

The U.S. has designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997, but does not hold the same view about the YPG/PYD, which has proven an effective ally in the fight against ISIS.

In a statement, the YPG said its headquarters in the Karacok mountains of north-eastern Syria, where a media center, radio station, communications facilities and military institutions are located, had sustained an “intensive air attack.”

“As a result of this brutal attack, a number of our fighters lost their lives while some others got wounded,” it said.  Separately, a YPG spokesman said 20 fighters had been killed there and 18 more injured, Kurdish media network Rudaw reported.

Turkey’s military general staff said the operation had killed 70 “terrorists” – 30 in Syria anhd another 40 in Iraq, the Anadolu state news agency reported.

It said the airstrikes and were aimed at preventing terrorists from sending fighters and weapons into Turkey and had been carried out “within the scope of the international law”

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi accused Turkey of violating Iraqi sovereignty.

The episode, in which a U.S. NATO ally attacked U.S. partner forces in the anti-ISIS campaign, illustrated again the convoluted nature and sometimes conflicting agendas of the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

“Given the very complex battle space in these areas,” said Toner, “ it’s vital that Turkey and all partners in the effort to defeat ISIS coordinate their actions as closely as possible as we work together to maintain pressure to destroy ISIS on the battlefield – in order to ensure that we meet that goal, but also that we ensure the safety of all coalition personnel who are operating in … that theater.”

Toner said the SDF forces confronting ISIS in Syria were reflective of the demographic breakdown in the area concerned, and include Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and others.

“The Syrian Democratic Forces are, by their very nature, a multiethnic and multisectarian organization, and that’s, frankly, one of the reasons why we’re working with them,” he said.

“The other reason is that they’re very effective and very brave and courageous in going after ISIS.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow