Turk Shelling of U.S.-Allied Kurds in Syria Muddles IS Fight

Updated on
  • Turkey concerned Kurdish gains will lead to independent state
  • Syrian PYD is linked to Kurdish PKK warring with Turk forces

Turkish artillery units shelled Syrian Kurdish forces suspected of trying to seize more territory along the border with Turkey, in a new eruption of violence complicating efforts to defeat Islamic State.

Turkey returned fire over the weekend at four positions of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party, or PYD, in northwest Syria, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz told a parliamentary committee, including the Mannagh air base the Kurds captured last week. Turkey’s foreign ministry said forces on Monday responded to fire from within Syria on a border outpost in Hatay province.

The U.S. Defense Department said that the violence threatens its efforts to quell Islamic State, and attempts were being made to ease tensions.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to reassure Turkey that U.S. efforts were being made “to discourage Syrian Kurdish forces from exploiting current circumstances to seize additional territory near the Turkish border,” his office said in a statement Sunday. Biden urged Turkey “to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes in the area,” the statement said.

Davutoglu, speaking in Ukraine on Monday, said the PYD was trying to gain territory while seeking international legitimacy under the pretext of fighting Islamic State. He said the group and its military wing had become “pawns” of Russia, and would “be met with the strongest reaction if they approach” the city of Azaz. “We will not allow Azaz to fall, the whole world should clearly know this.”

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The U.S.-backed PYD is allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been warring with Turkish troops for decades in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and European Union.

Ankara also classifies PYD as a terrorist organization, putting it at odds with Western allies over how to deal with Sunni militants fighting in Syria, including Islamic State. The Turkish shelling followed a visit earlier this month by Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s envoy for the international coalition against Islamic State, to the Syrian town of Kobani, where Kurds fought back a siege by Islamic State near Turkey’s border last year.

Turkey is worried that the growing strength of PYD will lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its border, fueling the aspirations of its own Kurdish minority to self-rule in the southeast. It has deployed hundreds of tanks and guns on the Syrian border amid concerns the Syrian Kurdish forces may seek to capture territory that would allow them to link the region it controls at Syria’s northwestern edge with Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates River.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu repeatedly urged the U.S. over the past week to reconsider its “wrong” stance on the PYD, asking Washington to “choose its side.”

Turkey is also worried that YPG is trying to cut off supply lines between Turkey and Saudi-backed rebels in Aleppo, who are under sustained pressure from Russian airstrikes in support of the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Every single territory gain by PYD means new refugees for Turkey, there is an ethnic cleansing in an area” populated by Arabs and Turkmens, Yilmaz said. “If everyone stays where they are, Turkey won’t do anything but if a new territory gain threatens Turkey, then Turkey will respond as necessary.”

Turkey has sought U.S. support for creating a safe zone inside Syria for refugees and rebels fighting Assad. The Obama administration has been cautious about the military and financial risks this would pose. Yilmaz denied allegations of a planned Turkish incursion into Syria.