Turkey shells US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria

Turkey has spent two consecutive days shelling Islamic State and Kurdish YPG targets. If Turkey's forces drive out ISIS, it could lead to a messy confrontation between the Turkish government and the US-backed YPG, say analysts.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (center) walks with military commanders and ministers to pay respects at the mausoleum of Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey, on Tuesday. Turkish media reports say Turkish artillery launched new strikes at Islamic State targets across the border in Syria on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Turkey entered its second consecutive day of shelling Islamic State and Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, amid reports that more than 1,500 Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have gathered in Turkey to launch an offensive against Jarablus, the last town controlled by ISIS on the Turkish border.

The Turkish offensive strategy may exacerbate political tensions in the region, even if ISIS forces are successfully driven out of Jarablus.

Turkey is an important player in the Syrian conflict. In addition to being on the geographic front lines against the expansion of ISIS, Turkey has one of the most powerful armies in region. It is a member of NATO and occupies an important geographic position between Syria and Europe.

But Turkey's involvement in Syria is at odds with the US, the biggest player in NATO and the largest Western player in the conflict. While both Turkey and the US oppose ISIS, the countries differ on who should take control after the so-called Islamic State is dismantled. The US has backed various rebel forces in Syria, including the Kurdish YPG militia, while Turkey is actively shelling Kurdish rebels in addition to ISIS. 

Turkey has a complex history with the Kurds, an ethnic group found in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In 1978, a group of left-wing Kurdish nationalists founded the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, which quickly embraced violent tactics in an attempt to win more autonomy for Kurds, the country's largest ethnic minority. The PKK is outlawed in Turkey, where it is considered a terrorist group – a label the US applies as well. 

In Syria, however, due in part to US backing, the Kurdish YPG militia has proven the most successful rebel faction against ISIS

For Turkey, the successes of Kurdish groups against ISIS are unpalatable because of ties to the PKK, which, along with ISIS, have been accused of several terrorist bombings in recent months. Some Turkish officials worry that an autonomous Kurdish nation on Turkey's southern border would cause unrest among its Kurdish minority.

Jarablus, in addition to being the last ISIS-held town on the Turkish border, separates Kurdish-controlled forces in northern Syria. If the Turkish-backed rebel offensive drives out the Islamic State, analysts say that there is a high potential for a messy confrontation between the Turkish government's forces and the US-backed YPG.

While the US and Turkey are NATO allies, US support for the YPG against ISIS has done a great deal to cast the United States in a bad light among Turks.

"There is considerable anger in Turkey about perceived Western disregard for Turkish security concerns, either through the ongoing Gülen saga or because of American support for the YPG in Syria," says Aaron Stein, a Turkey specialist at the Atlantic Council. "The Turkish government has stuck with a mantra that does not differentiate between terror groups, ranging from followers of Gülen to ISIS to the PKK."

Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish cleric currently living in exile in Pennsylvania, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly accused of orchestrating the attempted coup on July 15.

"The Turkish media has taken this one step further, alleging that Gülen controls ISIS and the PKK – and that the US controls Gülen," says Mr. Stein. "This muddies the water and allows for the government to wrap itself in the flag, without having to answer tough questions about its approach to the PKK and ISIS."

Mr. Erdoğan stands to benefit a great deal from blaming the country's problems on outside forces like Gülen and the PKK, many observers fear. After the coup attempt, a state of emergency was declared in Turkey that has allowed Erdoğan to bypass parliament to create laws, or suspend rights and freedoms of citizens. Many critics say the state of emergency as a transparent excuse for the president to increase his authoritative hold on the country. 

"After the coup, they [Erdoğan's party] aim to increase an already repressive, anti-democratic system," İdris Baluken, parliamentary group leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish organization, told The Christian Science Monitor in July. "This would be the biggest mistake that can be made."

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