Turkey stepped up its bombing campaign against Kurdish militants outside its borders on Tuesday, killing as many as 20 U.S.-backed fighters in Syria and expanding its strikes in Iraq, an escalation that could complicate efforts to combat the Islamic State.
The Turkish military said the pre-dawn raids targeted “terrorist hotbeds” and supply routes used by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to smuggle ammunition, weapons and explosive material into Turkey, where it is waging an insurgency.
But the PKK’s Syrian affiliate targeted in the strikes – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG – has played a key role in turning back Islamic State militants and is a major component of U.S.-backed forces preparing for an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. In a statement, the YPG said 20 of its fighters were killed.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly anxious at the growing sway of Syrian Kurdish fighters across Turkey’s southern border and has repeatedly asked the United States to abandon its support of the YPG. Turkey has fought an intensifying war with Kurdish militants since the collapse of peace talks with the PKK in 2015.
On Tuesday, Turkey also struck targets near Mount Sinjar in Iraq for the first time, widening its air campaign there. The PKK has been expanding its presence in the area since it helped rescue thousands of Yazidis trapped there during Islamic State’s 2014 rampage.
Turkey and the government of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan have repeatedly asked the group to leave. The tension has erupted into clashes in recent months, with several PKK-affiliated Yazidi fighters killed in fighting with the Kurdistan region’s peshmerga forces. Local officials say this is distracting from pressing issues such as expelling the remaining Islamic State militants from the area and rebuilding.
Khalil Adar, a spokesman for the PKK in Sinjar, said none of the group’s bases were targeted in the raid. Instead, locations of its Yazidi affiliate were hit, he said.
Zerdasht Shengali, a spokesman for the Yazidi forces, said the Turkish strikes hit a radio station, a cultural center and a media center. One civilian was killed, he said.
He called on all Kurdish parties to unite against Turkey. “We need to be one hand against our enemy,” he said.
Turkey’s state news agency published aerial footage of what it said were the airstrikes in Iraq, showing large explosions at what appeared to be three locations, including a site with a tower that crumpled after being hit.
One strike also appeared to misfire, killing five peshmerga soldiers allied with Turkey. The peshmerga ministry described the attack as “painful and unacceptable” but blamed it on the PKK presence.
The central government in Baghdad also condemned the attack, calling it a “violation against Iraq’s sovereignty.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Loveday Morris, Kareem Fahim