With U.S.-Turkish ties already in a bad state, the fallout from this week’s terrorist strike in the heart of Ankara has sent tensions to new heights, with Turkish leaders declaring that Washington’s muddled policy in neighboring Syria is fueling a widening security crisis inside their country.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu set nerves on edge in Washington on Thursday by saying the suicide car bombing Wednesday in his country’s capital was carried out by Kurdish militants — the same militants whom U.S. officials are backing as proxies in their fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
In televised remarks, Mr. Davutoglu said the attack, which killed 28 people, was the work of a Syrian Kurdish outfit known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — a group that Ankara deems a terrorist organization despite Washington’s use of it against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The clash marked another ill omen for a cease-fire in Syria that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart helped broker this month and is supposed to take effect Friday.
The Obama administration responded carefully to Mr. Davutoglu’s assertions, which he made just as news broke of a second bombing that killed six Turkish soldiers near the nation’s southeastern border with Syria and Iraq.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the administration “obviously condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms the attacks,” but that U.S. officials are not so certain about who carried them out.
“We as a government have not settled upon assignment of responsibility,” he said, adding that the administration previously sought to ease Ankara’s anxiety over U.S. collaboration with the YPG and other Kurdish militias against ISIS.
Mr. Earnest stressed that American officials have put pressure on the militias to avoid carrying out attacks against Turkey — or do anything else that could damage Washington’s alliance with Turkey, a NATO ally.
U.S. officials have “made very clear” to the Kurdish groups the “importance of them not engaging in efforts that would undermine what should be our focus, which is the shared threat of ISIL,” the White House spokesman said. “This is something [that] we’ll be talking directly to Turkey about. We’ll of course want to make sure that their security concerns as an ally are taken very seriously.”
Such assurances seem unlikely to dissuade Turkey from taking unilateral action against what government leaders see as an existential threat.
Mr. Davutoglu said Turkish armed forces would hit positions inside Syria held by the YPG. Hours later, Turkish warplanes were reported to be pounding territory in northern Iraq held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The Turkish prime minister said the PKK, which has been engaged in a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, collaborated with the YPG in carrying out Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Ankara.
Turkey fears that an autonomous Kurdish region is gradually being carved out in Syria — similar to the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq — and that its existence eventually will spur violent separatist ambitions among the Kurdish population in Turkey.
With that as a backdrop, the Obama administration for years has called on Turkey to halt its on-again, off-again military strikes against the Kurdish militants.
But friction over the issue between Washington and Ankara is seen to have mounted significantly in recent weeks.
Sparks flew Feb. 7 when Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy to the international coalition against the Islamic State, paid an unannounced visit to YPG members in control of the Syrian town of Kobani.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who deems the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to be terrorists, publicly fumed over Mr. McGurk’s visit.
Mr. Erdogan went so far as to suggest that Washington must make a choice between aligning with “terrorists” or working with Turkey. “How can we trust [you]?” he said, according to Turkish media reports. “Is it me who is your partner or the terrorists in Kobani?”
Pressed on the issue Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington, “It’s not about choosing sides here.
“There’s no doubt about Turkey’s membership in the coalition [against the Islamic State],” Mr. Kirby said, adding that there is also “no doubt about our commitment to a fellow NATO ally.”
There is little question how delicate the issue is for the Obama administration. Mr. Kirby said Thursday that “some of the strongest fighters against [the Islamic State] inside Syria have been Kurdish fighters.”
He made the comments after Mr. Erdogan expressed fresh annoyance with Washington.
“I have difficulty in understanding America, which still hasn’t called or still cannot call the PYD and the YPG as terrorists and which says, ‘Our support for the YPG will continue,’” Mr. Erdogan said at his presidential palace.
He also slammed the United Nations for its supposed aloofness toward what he described as “a crime against humanity” being committed by Russian forces backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Turkey’s English-language Hurriyet Daily News.
Tensions between Moscow and Ankara have soared since the Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet that crossed into Turkish airspace in late November.
The Kurdish issue has added another layer of complexity to those tensions as well, since the recent wave of Russian airstrikes in support of forces loyal to Mr. Assad are seen to have helped the YPG gain territory in the war zone.
The group has particularly taken advantage of a major Syrian army offensive around the northern city of Aleppo to seize ground from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border.
In his remarks Thursday, Mr. Davutoglu suggested that Russia may be bent on using the Kurdish militant group to foment unrest inside Turkey.
“Russia condemned yesterday’s attack, but it is not enough,” the Turkish prime minister said. “All those who intend to use terrorist organizations as proxies should know that this game of terror will turn around like a boomerang and hit them first.”