Even as U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish forces make significant gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, rising friction between Turkey and America’s key regional allies threatens to scuttle the hopes of coalition forces to drive the terrorist group from the region.
Ankara’s resistance to a coordinated strategy as it seeks to protect its own interests in the region is causing growing concern among U.S. officials and drawing the ire of Washington’s Middle East allies.
Turkey’s willingness to help American and allied forces combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is balanced by a need to extract a steep price for its cooperation, alienating its partners in the fight, outgoing Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily said this month.
“We have high expectations of Turkey to stand up to that challenge of looking at the bigger picture and not looking at it through any other prism,” Mr. Faily said during a speech in Washington. “If they [continue] to view that this is a transaction [instead] of a strategic view, then we will all lose out.”
Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has argued that its interests are too often overlooked in the U.S.-led fight, including its long battle with militant Kurdish separatist groups and the burden it has had to shoulder as vast numbers of Iraqi and Syrian refugees have flooded across its borders.
Tensions have surfaced in recent weeks as U.S.-led operations against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria heat up.
Most recently, American commanders responsible for U.S. military trainers on the ground in Syria rebuffed an offer by Turkey to conduct joint operations to retake the strategically critical northern Syrian district of Manbij from Islamic State fighters.
Roughly 100 miles southeast of the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, Manbij is the main artery for weapons and equipment coming from Turkey bound for the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
Turkey offered to provide troops and artillery support to Syrian militias and their U.S. special operations advisers in the Manbij offensive. But for Turkish forces to participate in the battle plan, American advisers would have to shun the Kurdish members of the People’s Protection Unit, also known as YPG, the armed faction of the Kurdish Workers’ Party — a group deemed by Ankara to be on par with the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.
YPG fighters in Syria and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been among the most stalwart allies to American efforts against the Islamic State. As a result, Syrian Arab militias, YPG units and U.S. special operations forces moved into Manbij without Turkish support.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel attempted to appease Ankara regarding the Manbij operation, noting that nearly 85 percent of local forces fighting in the district were Syrian Arabs and that YPG forces had little involvement on the ground.
But Turkey’s absence from the Manbij assault highlights a perception that Ankara and Washington remain at cross-purposes in the fight, unable to agree on priorities or even the real enemy.
A NATO ally
Ankara’s largest contribution to the fight has been allowing U.S. warplanes to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.
Turkish forces have conducted cross-border shelling of suspected Islamic State positions along the country’s border with Syria but by and large have kept out of the fight. Its military has also launched multiple rounds of airstrikes into northern Syria on Islamic State targets.
However, those artillery barrages and airstrikes more often than not find their targets among fighting positions of YPG and other Kurdish militia groups fighting near Aleppo and other areas in northern Syria.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that Turkey aims to use the campaign against the Islamic State as a pretext to crush the very Kurdish militants whom Washington wants to play a major role in retaking territory in northern Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s ambassador shares that concern.
“We certainly were expecting much more from Turkey” in the regional fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Faily said.
The deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group to the Mediterranean Sea this month has raised questions about whether Washington is preparing to bypass Incirlik altogether.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook reiterated the Defense Department’s support for Turkey’s participation in the fight against the Islamic State, but he added that the naval deployment was intended to send a clear message.
“This is a message to our coalition partners that, again, the kind of force we can bring to bear, [and] one that we think the region certainly will look at,” Mr. Cook told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
“We’ve worked closely with Turkey. We’ve worked closely to try and address some of [its] concerns and we remain confident that we’ll be able to continue to work closely with Turkey in the fight against ISIL and in a range of other defense issues where their interests and U.S. interests closely align,” he said.
Turkey’s concerns are not without just cause, analysts say, as members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, continue to claim credit for terrorist attacks inside Turkey.
The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, which is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, claimed responsibility for a rush-hour car bombing that killed 11 people and injured scores of others in a central tourist district in Istanbul.
In a statement posted online Friday, the TAK denounced Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and said it had carried out Tuesday’s car bombing in Istanbul as a retaliation for a Turkish army operation that Mr. Erdogan authorized in the nation’s Kurdish-dominated southeast.
The action was carried out “to counter all the savage attacks of the Turkish Republic in Nusaybin and Sirnak and other places,” the group said, referring to the areas in the southeast where the army had been operating, according to the news service Agence France-Presse.
“We again warn foreign tourists who are in Turkey and who want to come to Turkey: Foreigners are not our target, but Turkey is no longer a reliable country for them,” it said.