(CNSNews.com) – A rift between two U.S. allies threatened to deepen Tuesday as Turkey’s foreign minister warned his country could launch a military ground operation in Iraq if it feels its interests there are threatened.
U.S. officials reiterated longstanding policy that all foreign involvement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq must be done in coordination with and with the permission of the Iraqi government.
Turkey worries that the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will have the effect of strengthening the presence there of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a separatist struggle with the Turkish state for three decades.
Foreign Minister Mevlit Cavusoglu told Turkish television the government will not tolerate the PKK using northern Iraq as a base.
“If there is a threat posed to Turkey, we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation ... to eliminate that threat,” the Hurriyet daily quoted him as saying.
The PKK has an armed stronghold in the Qandil mountains along the Iraq-Iran border – not far from Turkey’s southeastern corner – and Cavusoglu said Turkey will not sit back and watch the group establish a “second Qandil” in the area west of Mosul.
Cavusoglu claimed that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had earlier raised the possibility of using the PKK in the battle against ISIS. He accused the government in Baghdad of “tying itself to a terrorist organization.”
Turkey has some 500 troops at a camp in Bashiqa, a town near Mosul, where they have been training local Sunni and Kurdish forces in preparation for the campaign – now underway – to oust ISIS from Iraq’s second city.
Ankara says it wants to protect ethnic Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in the Mosul area, and worries that they will be targeted once the forces of Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, possibly aided by Shi’a militia, wrest the historically Sunni-majority city from ISIS’ control.
The Turks are in Bashiqa with the permission of the autonomous Kurdish regional government – but not Iraq’s central government, and their presence has caused tensions with Baghdad.
The U.S., which heads a coalition established to defeat ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, has been trying to mediate between the two, without offending either.
State Department spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday reiterated the administration’s stance that “all military activity should be coordinated as part of the larger Iraqi effort to expel Daesh [ISIS] from their cities, their towns, their communities.”
“And any nation’s participation in that effort we want to be done by, through, and with the Iraqi government’s express permission and coordination,” he added.
Kirby declined to say directly what effect an unauthorized Turkish military operation inside Iraq could have, but said the U.S. believed that any military action that is not coordinated would be “ultimately counterproductive to the overarching goal of defeating and degrading Daesh inside Iraq.”
“We want all military activities to be coordinated and with the permission and approval of the Iraqi government,” he repeated.
Kirby said the U.S. has made that clear publicly and in private discussions and urged Turkish and Iraqi officials “to have a meaningful dialogue towards the best and most effective way forward.”
At a press briefing in Baghdad, the U.S. special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, also addressed the issue.
McGurk said although Turkey was part of the anti-ISIS coalition, its troop presence at Bashiqa had not been established under the umbrella of the coalition, as it had not been in line with the “bedrock principle” of the coalition – Iraqi sovereignty.
At the same time, he said ISIS and the PKK both pose threats to Turkey. He noted that the former has attacked Turkish targets – including Istanbul airport earlier this year – while the PKK “is a terrorist organization” that has had a presence in Iraq for decades.
“Obviously this is something that is a deep concern to Turkey,” he said.
“So there are a lot of interests here that are mutual and overlapping,” McGurk said. “But anything that happens here in Iraq requires the consent and approval of the Iraqi government, and that's why we, as the United States, are working to try to find a diplomatic way forward on that issue.”
He stressed again that “there should be no military presence in Iraq without the consent of the Iraqi government.”
“The Iraqi government is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the camp at Bashiqa, and we are trying to facilitate that resolution.”