Turkey bombs Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 20
ERBIL // More than 20 Kurdish fighters were killed on Tuesday when Turkey launched a series of air strikes against Kurdish militia groups in Syria and Iraq, attacking a key US ally in the fight against ISIL in Syria and escalating the standoff between rival Kurdish parties in Iraq.
Turkish warplanes struck positions of groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province and in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq in the early hours of Tuesday.
“To destroy these terror hubs which threaten the security, unity and integrity of our country and our nation and as part of our rights based on international law, air strikes have been carried out,” the Turkish army said on Tuesday, vowing continued action against groups linked to the PKK which has been engaged in a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
The army said it had killed 70 militants in the strikes but the groups targeted gave much lower tolls.
In Syria, the attacks targeted the Peoples’ Protection Units – Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG – on Mount Karachok, near the city of Derik in Hassakeh province. At least 20 militia fighters were killed and 18 wounded, according to YPG spokesman Redur Khalil.
Due to its ties with the PKK, Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist organisation that threatens its internal security.
The YPG is receiving training, equipment and air support from the United States, and is widely regarded as ISIL’s most capable opponent in Syria.
It is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organisation that is only a few kilometres from Raqqa – ISIL’s self-declared capital.
In Iraq, Turkey’s air force targeted positions of the YBS, a Yazidi affiliate of the PKK, in Sinjar. The strikes killed and wounded a number of its fighters, according to Zagros Hiwa, a PKK spokesman in Iraq.
But five members of the Iraqi Kurdish armed forces, the peshmerga, also died in the attacks, while nine were wounded, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It said one member of its internal security service was also killed.
The ministry of peshmerga called the deaths of its fighters “unacceptable” but was quick to blame the PKK for the incident.
“We announce that all these problems are due to the presence of PKK in the area as they have made issues for the people of the Kurdistan Region,” it said.
The Kurdistan Regional Government and the PKK have been jostling for control over Sinjar ever since ISIL was expelled from much of the area in November 2015.
Turkey has thrown its weight behind the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the dominant Kurdistan Regional Government party in Sinjar, in a bid to stymie the PKK’s influence in the region near the Syrian border.
“[Turkey] views northern Iraq from Kirkuk upwards as its sphere of influence. The strategic goal is to ensure KDP dominance in the area. Turkey can only exercise real influence through the KDP ultimately,” said Kirk Sowell, head of the Utica Risk Services consultancy and publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
Sinjar is part of a broad swathe of territory straddling the automous Kurdish region that is claimed both by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government, and the dispute offers Turkey a chance to build its influence in an area nominally under Iraqi control.
The town of Sinjar and the surrounding area are the heartland of the Yazidi religious minority. When ISIL launched a lightning attack into Sinjar in August 2014, the peshmerga stationed in the area retreated, allowing the extremists to kill and abuct thousands of Yazidis.
The panicked survivors were surrounded on Mount Sinjar, the craggy ridge line that dominates the landscape in the area. A YPG attack launched from Syria in December 2015 broke through the encirclement, allowing tens of thousands of Yazidis to escape to safety.
The ISIL assault dented the Turkey-backed KDP’s popularity among the Yazidi community, while leading to a surge in recruits to the Yazidi-affiliated YBS.
Both the peshmerga and the PKK maintained a heavy presence in Sinjar after ISIL was driven out of the city in 2015, and relations have remained fraught.
ISIL remains lodged in the southern edge of the Sinjar region. But reconstruction and returns to the area have also been hampered by the intra-Kurdish rivalry and hundreds of thousands of Yazidis still live in displacement camps, unable or unwilling to return to their homes.
“The tensions between the KDP and the PKK is the main reason people aren’t moving back to their homes. They expect a fight, and if they fight there will be a war,” said Dakheel Ismail, a Yazidi who joined the peshmerga and is stationed on the front lines with ISIL in Sinjar.
Turkey regularly conducts air strikes against PKK bases in the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border.
Before Tuesday it had refrained from bombing the PKK or its YBS subsidiary in Sinjar, but had been anxiously watching the area becoming a transit hub between Qandil and the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, from where the Syrian Democratic Forces is launching a campaign to take Raqqa.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters