Turkey has finally entered in force into the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State group, but the move also has exposed the contradictions and confusion at the heart of U.S. policy, with the Obama administration struggling Monday to balance its promises to warring allies in the region and to prevent a deeper U.S. ground force engagement in the fight.
As NATO ambassadors prepared to gather Tuesday for only the fifth emergency session in the alliance’s 66-year history to discuss the crisis, the Pentagon denied that it was setting up a no-fly zone over war-torn Syria while the State Department faced sharp questions over the extent to which President Obama was abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in its haste to enlist Ankara in the fight against the Islamic State.
On one hand, U.S. officials praised the expanding Turkish military role against the extremist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, which is based in neighboring Syria and Iraq. But on the other, they acknowledged how complicated the development is amid concerns that Turkey is using its campaign as a pretext to crush Kurdish militants whom Washington has relied upon as the go-to ground forces in northern Syria and Iraq.
Such concerns were highlighted Monday as reports swirled about Turkish fighter jets targeting not just Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria, but also positions held by the Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — an ultra-leftist, Kurdish nationalist outfit that has waged an insurgency for decades in Turkey and maintains bases in remote parts of northern Iraq.
The situation poses a direct challenge aimed at the heart of the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State.
The U.S. has long listed the PKK as a terrorist organization. But with no reliable “moderate” fighters to confront the Islamic State on the ground, the Obama administration has engaged in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement with the Kurdish group because it has proved so effective as a ground force against the jihadi extremists.
The situation is similar in Iraq, where the Obama administration finds itself on the same side as Iran-backed Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State.
The Pentagon and the State Department faced hard questioning Monday over a suspected quid pro quo with Ankara — giving Turkey the green light to pound the Kurdish militants in exchange for U.S. access to coveted military installations inside Turkey.
Officials announced last week that Turkey would begin allowing U.S. fighter jets and drones to fly bombing sorties from its military bases, dramatically shortening the distance and time required to hit Islamic State targets in the region.
Obama administration officials adamantly deny any special agreement to sacrifice the PKK, or the Kurds in general, to enlist Turkey in the fight.
Brett McGurk, Mr. Obama’s deputy special presidential envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State, tweeted over the weekend that “there is no connection between these airstrikes and recent understandings to intensify U.S.-Turkey cooperation against ISIL.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby went further Monday. “I understand the coincidence of all this, but it is just that,” he said, denying that Washington has ever coordinated with the PKK.
“We have long recognized the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, and we recognize Turkey’s right to defend itself against this group,” Mr. Kirby said. “I recognize that in some cases, the PKK have fought against ISIL, but they are a foreign terrorist organization; we’ve designated them that as an FTO.
“Our fight against ISIL is not in cooperation with, coordination with or communication with the PKK.”
But other U.S. officials suggested that the prize of having Turkey finally engage in the fight against the Islamic State is far greater than a ground alliance with controversial Kurdish militants.
One senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said discussions are well underway with Turkey on a joint campaign to carve out an Islamic State-free zone along a 68-mile stretch of territory along the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
The U.S. already has begun conducting airstrikes along the territory and will accelerate the strikes now that Turkey has agreed to allow them to be launched from bases inside Turkey, the official said.
Carving out a safe haven
A Pentagon spokesman said any final deal on the creation of a zone along the border to stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria — and to provide a safe haven for millions of Syrian refugees — is likely weeks away.
Although details of the plan have not been announced, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara and Washington have no intention of sending ground troops into Syria, but wanted to see Syria’s moderate opposition forces replace the Islamic State near the Turkish border.
“Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened, a structure will be created so that they can take control of areas freed from ISIL, air cover will be provided. It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it,” Mr. Davutoglu told Turkey’s A Haber television.
The developments signal a major tactical shift in Turkey’s approach to Syria’s war. Some analysts believe it is driven by a desire to contain Kurds as much as it is concern about the Islamic State.
“The reason Kurdish groups gained strength in the fight against ISIS in the first place is the fact that Turkey didn’t do its job in the fight against the group,” said Cenk Sidar, who heads the Washington-based research and strategic advisory firm Sidar Global Advisors.
“Turkey dragged its feet because its primary motivation was to fight against the Assad regime in Syria, not ISIS,” Mr. Sidar said. “Now, I think Turkey is uncomfortable that Kurdish groups are becoming more legitimate and are the U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS, so the Turks now feel that they need to get involved.”
Although Mr. Sidar called the PKK “a terrorist organization,” he stressed that Turkey is seizing the opportunity to go after the group and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely has domestic political motivations in mind.
Smarting from a setback in Turkey’s June elections, when Mr. Erdogan’s political party lost its majority and a pro-Kurdish opposition party secured enough votes to enter parliament for the first time, the Turkish president appears to be keen to win back nationalist support.
Mr. Sidar said it’s likely that the Erdogan government aims to inflame Kurdish unrest in the region in the hopes that it will tarnish pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey, undercut coalition talks and set the stage for new elections in the fall.
Turkey, meanwhile, has called a meeting of its NATO allies for Tuesday to discuss threats to its security and its airstrikes. Mr. Davutoglu said “NATO has a duty to protect” Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq, and that Ankara will seek the alliance’s support for its actions.
Turkey requested the extraordinary meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels under Article 4 of the treaty that founded the U.S.-led alliance, which empowers its 28 member states to seek such consultations when they consider their “territorial integrity, political independence or security” to be in jeopardy.
The Turkish-U.S. plan for a safe zone raises the question of which Syrian rebel forces would be involved in a ground operation against the Islamic State.
Despite providing air cover for Kurdish militants in the area, U.S. officials have long complained about having no reliable “moderate” partners on the ground.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged this month that the U.S. has only 60 trainees in a program to prepare and arm thousands of moderate Syrian rebels.
• Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this article which is based in part on wire service reports.