Turkey squabbles with PKK over who is actually leading fight against Islamic State

Turkey squabbles with PKK over who is actually leading fight against Islamic State
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Turkey blamed the attack on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish faction that for decades has been at war with the Turkish state.

The YPG is also the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-led international coalition’s local partner fighting IS in the country.

Both Syrian government forces and YPG fighters have been killed in the Turkish retaliation to the Istanbul bombing. The PKK, YPG and SDF denied any involvement.

Now, with the ground offensive looming, the PKK and Turkey are fighting for regional legitimacy by amplifying the threat posed by IS and their own role in combating the group. Up for grabs are regional and political clout. Leading the charge against IS brings, in theory at least, the favour of the 84 countries in the international coalition, in particular the US.

Turkey launched its first invasion of Syria in 2016, with the aim of depriving Kurdish fighters of a base along its border. Two more military forays followed in 2018 and 2019, giving Turkey and its Arab allied armed groups control over large swaths of Syrian territory.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey will continue to target YPG forces within the 30km area south of its border declared a buffer zone in September 2018 in a set of deals with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s patron Russia.

Last week, Erdogan said that Ankara wants to normalise ties with the Syrian government through trilateral contacts that would include Russia.

In August, he said that Ankara isn’t seeking to unseat Assad, a shift from his decade-old policy of backing the uprising against Assad’s government.

IS still poses a danger in the region, despite losing its territory, as shown in the deadly prison break earlier this year and almost daily bombings in northeastern Syria.

Both Turkey and the SDF have insisted they are the principal threat to the group.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said recently that Turkey is “the only country fighting Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS]”, warning allied countries not to support the PKK, which it described as “a bloody terrorist organisation”.

“Turkey, which has neutralised 4,500 radical Daesh terrorists in northern Iraq and Syria, is ready for all kinds of cooperation to combat Daesh and all other terrorist organisations,” said Akar.

Turkish authorities are thinking of next year’s elections as they push to monopolise the fight against IS, according to Yahya Hakoum, a PhD candidate in political studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.

Eliminating what they see as the threat of the PKK from their southern border would be a win for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the run-up to the June vote. He could “present a model of victory for the Turkish people over the enemy – represented by the PKK”, said Hakoum.

Turkey’s muscle on the ground is the Syrian National Army, composed mainly of non-state armed groups that once fought against IS in the areas of Al-Bab, Jarabulus and the northern Aleppo countryside in mid-2017.

For its part, the SDF has warned that a Turkish ground incursion would jeopardise its fight against IS, diverting resources from protecting a prison holding IS fighters or fighting IS sleeper cells waging hit-and-run attacks.

Increasing numbers of SDF officials have threatened to abandon their duties if there is no international intervention to stop the Turkish attacks.

On 23 November, the head of the SDF Media Centre, Ferhad Shami, tweeted that a Turkish warplane had struck one of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces’ – or Asayish – checkpoints near the Al-Hol camp, which contains more than 60,000 residents, mostly wives and children of former IS members. Several pro-SDF news websites also indicated that some IS families escaped from the camp in the chaotic aftermath.

Naima Um Ahmed, a Syrian woman who lives in the fifth section of the camp, told MEE that the camp was never bombed, although Turkish airstrikes targeted Al-Bahra road, five or so kilometres north of the camp. “There were no cases of escape from the camp that day because it is completely surrounded by walls and fences, like a prison,” Um Ahmed said.

Naima adds that she has not seen any change in the security measures inside Al-Hol camp since Turkey intensified its attacks: “We have not noticed any decrease in the number of SDF guards. The SDF’s security grip in the camp is still the same.”

What’s more, the part of the SDF that would confront a possible Turkish ground attack is entirely separate from that which carries out security operations against IS, Muhammad Othman, a media activist from Raqqa, told MEE.

“The responsible component for protecting the borders of the SDF with the areas of Turkish control in northern Raqqa and Hasakah is SDF Army Forces, which consists of fighters and those who are compulsorily recruited from among the young men who the SDF arrests in its areas of control,” he said.

“These forces are backed by the deployment of the Syrian regime forces and its auxiliary militias… under direct Russian supervision,” he added.

The Asayish, the security forces leading operations against IS, meanwhile, were trained specially by the International Coalition and therefore aren’t allowed to interfere in the fight against Turkey. Plus, most are Arabs, not Kurds, making them less of a priority for Turkey.

Islam News