Turkish jets carried out airstrikes Tuesday and Wednesday against Kurdish forces in northern Syria and northern Iraq. Ankara said the raids targeted “terrorist hotbeds” of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG). The attacks came one day after a flashy front-page warning by the Turkish General Staff that it might hit PKK targets in northern Iraq. The operation is as much a PR campaign as a military operation, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to divert attention from electoral fraud accusations in last week’s presidential referendum.
The strikes did help foment a rally-around-the-flag effect and alleviate Erdogan’s post-referendum legitimacy crisis, but they have complicated further Turkey’s already-strained relations with regional actors. Ankara has long aimed to push the PKK out of northern Iraq’s Sinjar region to bring it back under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) control. In the poorly planned and executed attack, however, six members of the KRG’s Peshmerga forces died, and eight others were injured.
Following this embarrassing case of friendly fire, the Turkish president and prime minister called KRG President Masoud Barzani to offer condolences. While Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party pointed the finger more at the PKK than Ankara, other Kurdish parties in the KRG issued a joint statement strongly condemning Turkey. Similarly, Baghdad protested what it saw as a “violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” and Moscow expressed serious concern.
The strikes have also strained Turkey’s relations with the United States. U.S. special forces were reportedly operating within six miles of the strike and narrowly escaped harm. U.S. military brass complained that Turkey gave only vague prior notice, less than an hour before the strikes, thereby putting U.S. and other coalition troops at risk. They said that the coalition’s Combined Air Operations Center tried to stall the Turkish strikes, but failed. Altogether, Turkey’s conduct points to significant shortcomings in its intelligence gathering and deconfliction procedures with coalition members, as well as lack of trust between Ankara and its NATO allies.
Turkey’s ongoing raids are also complicating the campaign against the Islamic State. YPG fighters targeted by Ankara are the dominant force in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which will likely be Washington’s key partner in the upcoming operation to liberate the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. U.S. officials have been working hard to maintain a delicate balance between Ankara and the SDF, which the former sees as a front for the YPG, and consequently the PKK. Following the Turkish strikes, the co-chair of the SDF’s political wing demanded the U.S. establish a no-fly zone to protect their forces from further Turkish attacks.
Washington was reluctant to launch the Raqqa operation before Turkey’s April 16 referendum to avoid potential complications with Ankara. But Turkey’s unbridled post-ballot military campaign against PKK and YPG fighters has brought another unanticipated challenge to coalition efforts against the Islamic State. The longer the Turkish campaign continues, the harder it will be for Washington to hold together a coalition. In fact, tensions among coalition members have been one of the key factors for the Islamic State’s continued survival.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.