Posted by Arab American Institute on August 12, 2015 in Blog

By Anna Toth

“Who is shooting at whom at this point?” was just one of the many questions posed to John Kirby, spokesperson for the State Department, at the department’s daily press briefing on July 27th. Turkey and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) had recently resumed fighting after two years of cease-fire, and reporters were eager to know the U.S. view of the situation.

While the “PKK has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for decades,” until recently Turkey and the PKK were able to put aside their differences and focus on the much larger threat to their region, ISIL. Kurdish groups have been especially effective in their efforts against ISIL, on their own and in cooperation with US forces. Although the United States labels the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, the PKK and other Kurdish groups' efforts  against ISIL, along with their Syrian allies, have not gone unnoticed—one reporter at the July 27th press briefing confronted Kirby with the statement that, “the PKK has been very effective against ISIL.” And with the United States’ recent cooperation with Turkey, which now allows the U.S. access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, just 60 miles from the northwest Syrian border, the United States will be able to quickly and efficiently launch air attacks against ISIL in northern Syria. In the same press briefing, Kirby stated “We are grateful for Turkey’s cooperation against ISIL,” but “separate and distinct from that, Turkey has continued to come under attack by PKK terrorists, and we recognize their right to defend themselves.” While Kirby concedes that Turkey’s air strikes against the PKK and increased U.S.-Turkish cooperation are suspicious, they are a “coincidence” and nothing more.

Many are concerned that Turkish retaliation against the PKK will hinder the fight against ISIL, since this in effect can weaken one of the most effective opponents of ISIL. Iraq’s Kurds have been especially vocal in their desire to resume a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK. The Iraqi Kurdistan foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, is an advocate of a ceasefire and starting peace negotiations. Bakir reiterates that “ISIS is a problem, a terrorist organization...There is an anti-[ISIL] coalition and we want to be partners in this. We welcome Turkey’s participation.... Yes, the PKK is a problem. It has to be dealt with. But in a different way.” This statement is in reference to the nearly simultaneous and destructive attacks Turkey conducted against both ISIL and the PKK in recent weeks. Some have questioned Turkish President Erdogan’s motives in the war with ISIL and believe that he is using it as a cover for preventing Kurdish gains, citing that the retaliations against the PKK attacks have been far more devastating than those conducted against ISIL. Erdogan has vowed, after conducting 17 air strikes against PKK targets that, “[Turkey] will continue our fight until weapons are laid down…and not one single terrorist remains within our borders.”

Leaders in Turkey and the US must now decide if it is wise to subside Turkish attacks on the PKK because its utility in the fight against ISIL makes it the lesser to two evils. 

Anna Toth is an intern with the Arab American Institute