August 12, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1180

Turkey Finally Opens Air Bases To U.S., Joins Fight Against ISIS – But It's All About Fighting The Kurds

August 12, 2015 | By R. Krespin*
Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1180


Following the June 15, 2015 takeover of the Syrian border down of Tel Abyad by the Kurdish People's Defense Units (PYG), with U.S. air support, from the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey has massed its military assets along its border with Syria. On June 27, 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP party declared that Turkey would not allow a Kurdish corridor and Kurdish entity along its border, at any cost.[1]

While concern had been expressed among the Turkish military leadership about starting a war without a suitable pretext,[2] the opportunity to do so presented itself on July 20, 2015, when a Turkish ISIS recruit carried out a suicide bombing in Suruc, Sanliurfa, killing 32 young liberal volunteers, mostly university students, who had been en route to neighboring Kobane to help with the rebuilding efforts there. The day after the July 20 massacre, for which ISIS has not claimed responsibility, two Turkish police officers were shot dead in the same area, "in retaliation" for the Suruc massacre, as claimed by the youth branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).[3]

These events appear to have provided the AKP with suitable cause to start a war, ostensibly against ISIS and alongside the U.S. and its coalition allies. Turkey had long resisted the calls from the U.S. and from its Western coalition allies to actively join the anti-ISIS coalition and to open Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to U.S. and coalition forces for launching air raids against ISIS.

The AKP government's priorities have always been to fight the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, oust his regime so that it can be replaced by a like-minded Islamist rule, and establish a safe, no-fly zone along Turkey's border with Syria.[4] ISIS was not a priority target, since it was not considered an enemy by the AKP government.[5] However, on July 22, 2015, following the renewed U.S.-Turkey negotiations prior to the Suruc massacre and the killing of the two police, President Obama spoke with President Erdogan (even though Obama's official counterpart, and the head of Turkey's executive branch, is not the Turkish president but AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu), and the two sealed the agreement on cooperation in the fight against ISIS reached between the two countries. The next day, July 23, the Turkish side declared that Incirlik air base, and possibly a few other air bases, as needed, would be opened for use by the coalition forces, and that Turkey's air force would also participate in the operations against ISIS, as needed.[6]

On July 24, Turkey began its air raids on "all terrorists, irrespective of who they are, and even if one kind [PKK] is known to be fighting the other [ISIS]" as Erdogan stated. However, Turkey's war, ostensibly against ISIS, is actually a cover for Turkey's ongoing three-pronged war against the Kurds, which Erdogan and the AKP government are waging for political reasons - to reverse their loss in Turkey's June 7, 2015 general elections by forcing repeat elections in order to regain their former power.

Turkey's First Front Against The Kurds

Turkey's first anti-ISIS operation followed the killing by ISIS, at Kilis on the Turkey-Syria border, of one Turkish soldier and the wounding of another. This incident occurred when some ISIS fighters were prevented from entering Turkey, in contrast to the free passage that had until then been accorded to ISIS fighters as well as to logistical and material support flowing from Turkey into Syria. On July 24, Turkish rockets struck three ISIS positions, killing one ISIS fighter.

To date, this has also been Turkey's last anti-ISIS operation. An ISIS spokesman later said, in an online interview, that ISIS had sustained no losses in that operation, as the areas hit were merely long-deserted former encampments, where no fighters had been left.[7]

However, since that operation, massive Turkish air raids have continued against the Kurdish PKK camps and positions in the mountains of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, in parts of Syria, and inside Turkey. Hundreds of PKK militants have been killed and more wounded in these daily, round-the-clock attacks, which the AKP government vowed would continue until the total destruction of the Kurdish bases at Mount Qandil. Turkey has denied accusations that during these attacks the Kurdish village of Zergele was also hit and civilians, including women and children, killed there.[8]

The PKK, for its part, continues to attack Turkish police and military installations, convoys, and vehicles, to block roads inside Turkey, and to kill and wound soldiers and police. Its attacks in retaliation for the Turkish military's air operations have spread to large cities; on August 10, 2015, six security personnel were killed in multiple attacks in Istanbul.[9] Turks are grieving as they watch the daily funerals of the victims, with some condemning the "terrorist" PKK as anti-Kurd sentiments rise, while others blame the government for the violence.

A recent report published by Turkey's pro-AKP media disclosed plans for a "giant ground operation" by the Turkish military into northern Iraq and northern Syria, aimed at "eliminating the PKK," according to unnamed military sources.[10]

Mt. Qandil and forests burn following Turkish air raids into northern Iraq. (Photo: Taraf, July 28, 2015)

Turkey mourns its soldiers and police killed by PKK (Photo: Hurriyet, August 5, 2015)

This violence shatters a ceasefire reached three years ago in negotiations between the Turkish government and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999 on Turkey's Imrali Island. The negotiations for the ceasefire and for a democratization package to give Turkey's Kurds more freedoms had been brokered by officials from the Turkish Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) who visited Öcalan in prison and bore his messages to the group, urging it to forego the use of arms, for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish problem through political means.

This "settlement process" of the Kurdish problem, later called the Peace Process, reached a milestone with the February 28, 2015 Dolmabahce Agreement, ground to a halt at an advanced stage, during the campaign prior to Turkey's June 7 general election. In March 2015, and throughout the election campaign, Erdogan took an anti-Kurd position, denying that there was any Kurdish problem in Turkey, and also that there had ever been any negotiating table - thus rejecting the terms of the Dolmabahce Agreement, which had been announced jointly by two AKP ministers and high-ranking HDP officials. The agreement was an important step towards democratization and reforms for building a more pluralistic society in Turkey, that would eventually lead to the disarming of the PKK so as to bring about an end to the three-decade-long armed conflict. Also in his campaign, Erdogan rejected the idea of appointing an independent delegation of observers to oversee the remaining stages of the peace negotiations, as stipulated by the agreement.

As of April 2015, the government has kept ├ûcalan in isolation, and no one has been permitted to visit him. The following week, the PKK declared that this meant the end of both the Peace Process and the three years of ceasefire, when the first shots were fired on April 11.[11]

Turkey's Second Front Against The Kurds

The second prong of Turkey's war on the Kurds is being fought domestically; it includes hunting down Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey. As Turkey conducts its military campaign against the PKK, hundreds of people are being arrested by Turkish police in daily operations in dozens of cities and towns throughout Turkey, allegedly for belonging to ISIS, the PKK, and the Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). However, of the more than 1,300 people arrested in the first few days of this operation, over 80% are Kurds, most of them members of the HDP - a party currently  represented in the parliament with 80 MPs.[12] Of the 140 or so ISIS-affiliated detainees, who had been apprehended at addresses already known to the police, most were foreigners who were then slated for deportation; most of the Turkish nationals among them were later released. While police treated the ISIS suspects courteously, sometimes even forgoing handcuffs, the Kurdish suspects were treated much more harshly[13] - some were even shot and killed during the arrests. On August 6, 2015, HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekda submitted a petition to the UN requesting an investigation into these civilian deaths, asking that they be considered illegal, arbitrary, and extrajudicial killings by the Turkish government, referring specifically to deaths in the Kurdish majority southeastern Turkish provinces of Agri, Diyarbakir, Kilis, Mardin, Mersin and SIrnak.[14]

Additionally, the Turkish government has shut down all 96 pro-Kurdish media websites, while pro-ISIS websites remain online. TRT, the official Turkish broadcasting authority, is boycotting the HDP; while AKP government officials' statements attacking the HDP are given full coverage, no HDP responses are being aired, not even its persistent calls for peace.[15]

Roundup and mistreatment of Kurds by Turkish police.

Arrest of Turkish ISIS leader Halis Bayancuk, aka Abu Hanzala; police walk respectfully behind him and his wife. Photos: Cumhuriyet, July 24, 2015.

At the center of the domestic war on the Kurds are the daily attacks on and defamation of the HDP and its leaders, by Erdogan, the AKP government, and Turkey's right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Although HDP's co-chairs and MPs call, several times daily, for peace and for the two sides - the Turkish government and the Kurds, represented by Öcalan and the PKK and facilitated by the HDP - to return to the negotiating table and resume the peace process, and although the HDP has condemned the killings of soldiers and police by the PKK and criticized the AKP government for fomenting chaos, the AKP government and its Islamist media continue to accuse the HDP of siding with and defending the PKK.

As part of the political lynching of the HDP, the MHP issued a demand that the party be shut down, followed on July 28 by Erdogan's call to the judiciary to strip the party's leaders of their parliamentary immunity so that they can be tried on terrorism charges and, in his words, "pay the price." Heeding Erdogan's call, the High Court (Yargitay) chief prosecutor promptly prepared a summary of proceedings against HDP MPs, which has now been sent to the parliament for it to decide whether their immunity will be revoked - and the AKP, together with the MHP, will have a majority in the parliament so that the revocation of immunity will be a foregone conclusion. For their part, the 80 HDP MPs have submitted to the parliament a motion expressing their desire to be stripped of their immunity, saying that they have nothing to hide or to fear. Additionally, the main opposition CHP party, which is also calling for an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks to stop the bloodshed and to prevent civil war, has said that it stands behind three previous motions that it submitted requesting the removal of immunity from all MPs of all parties.[16]

Threatening, Punishing Kurds For Voting For HDP

Erdogan's personal vendetta against the HDP is the result of the HDP's electoral success in the June 7, 2015 general elections, that eliminated the AKP's parliamentary majority, scrubbed its option for continuing its single-party rule, and laid to rest Erdogan's dream of becoming an executive president with unlimited power.

Erdogan's war against the Kurds is described by many analysts as "an act of revenge." AKP Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said at a July 29 press conference that Erdogan's anger at the pro-Kurdish party, and his ending of the peace process, was because he was provoked: "HDP leader Selahaddin Demirtas' use of the line 'We will not make you the [all-powerful] president' throughout his election campaign was a clear provocation, and this caused tension and harmed the peace process. You [the HDP] cannot oust the AKP [i.e. take away its majority] and then expect it [the AKP] to work with you on the [peace] process."[17]

Shortly before the elections, in a May 21, 2015 televised interview with the pro-AKP A-Haber television channel and news portal, Akdogan threatened the Kurdish electorate: "We should especially tell this to the people who will vote for the HDP: If the [ruling] AKP government loses power as a result of the HDP crossing the [10%] threshold, then there will no longer be a peace process." He went on to warn that this would "not be good for the country."[18]

The AKP government's energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told journalists after attending a meeting of the World Energy Council's Turkish National Committee: "Whether or not there is an early election, I believe that the majority of the HDP's votes will disappear. I expect that when the voters are left without electricity for three days, they will begin to better evaluate their choices." In response, many HDP voters used Twitter to express the view that Yildiz's statement appeared to be a threat to cut off their power for three days so that they would vote for the AKP in the event of an early election.[19]

Villagers Expelled From 37 Areas In Eight Provinces That Were Declared Civilian-Free Military "Temporary Special Security Zones"

Turkey's anti-AKP media have reported that the government has declared "temporary special security zones," that civilians are prohibited from entering. Villagers living within some of these areas have been ordered by the military and local government officials to abandon their homes and fields "for their own safety and protection" or else, they are told, these "cannot be guaranteed." Citizens are fearing a return to the conflict of the 1990s, when some 4,000 Kurdish villages were razed, and tens of thousands, most of them Kurds, were killed in the clashes between the government and the PKK.[20]

The main opposition party CHP sent a delegation of its MPs to the province of Tunceli, one of those areas, to investigate the matter. After meeting with the government's provincial governor Osman Kaymak, a military commander, the mayor of the main city, a number of civil society leaders, and ordinary citizens there, Levent Gok, deputy head of the CHP's parliamentary group, said: "We asked Governor Kaymak about why the authorities resorted to such a measure, creating 14 closed zones in Tunceli, and received an explanation about the dimensions to which the terrorist threats have grown. Based on what we saw, we understood that the state has lost its authority over and control of [terrorism] in Tunceli. This is one of our provinces where the struggle against terrorism has failed, and the governance [there] is bankrupt. We ask: Turkey has provinces and areas where ISIS has taken root. Why is it that to date those ISIS areas have not been declared 'special security zones?' No AKP official answers that."

Gok confirmed that the villagers, who are beekeepers and farmers, had been notified that they must leave their homes and abandon their fields and livelihoods, and that they had not been offered any alternative housing or livelihoods. He said: "We find this unacceptable and will stand against it." He added that there is a Kurdish problem in Turkey and that the CHP was sincere in its desire to resolve this problem peacefully.[21]

Map of the special security zones. Source: Turkey's official news agency AA (Anatolia Agency), August 6, 2015

For its part, the HDP requested a parliamentary investigation into the "special security zones" being established by governors in several eastern and southeastern provinces, that are populated mostly by Kurds. Its statement said that this decision was unconstitutional, as it had been made by an interim government that was no longer in power. It also compared the current government's practices with the prohibited zones of the 1990s, when thousands of Kurdish villages were evacuated and razed by the government and millions of Kurds were forcefully displaced.[22]

Turkey's Third Front Against The Kurds

The third prong of Turkey's war against the Kurds requires international cooperation. Turkey has long demanded the establishment of a "no-fly free zone" along the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border; for a long time, the U.S. and its coalition allies had not agreed to this. The new agreement with the U.S. provides for a 100-km long, 50-km deep de-facto safe zone between Jarablus, west of the Kurdish canton of Kobane, and Azez, near Aleppo and the Kurdish canton of Afrin in Syria, which the U.S. and Turkey agreed to call an "ISIS-free zone." However, what Turkey really wants, and what it appears to have persuaded the U.S. to do, is to block the Kurdish YPG forces' advance in its attempt to unite with the canton of Afrin, thus forming Kurdish territorial contiguity in northern Syria.

On June 15, when Tel Abyad was taken by YPG forces from ISIS, thus uniting the Kurdish cantons of Jazeera and Kobane, Erdogan reacted angrily, declaring that Turkey would not permit a Kurdish corridor along its southern border. On June 26, he also falsely accused the Kurds of carrying out demographic changes there by cleansing the area of non-Kurds - i.e. Turkmen and Arabs - and added that Turkey would not allow this.[23] According to Turkish media reports, Erdogan has now managed to include in Turkey-U.S. agreement - whose terms are vague and have not been completely disclosed, a provision for the "ISIS free zone" to be populated by the two million Syrian refugees, most of them Turkmen and Arab, who are currently in camps in Turkey.[24] This will change the demographic nature of the area and weaken its Kurdish identity.

Map showing the Kurdish areas and the planned safe zone that stretches from Kobane to Afrin cantons. Source: Diken, August 12, 2015; Diken noted that it was taken from BBC-Turkey.

Turkey's Plans For Demographic Change In The "ISIS-Free Zone"

In an interview published August 3, 2015, Fuat Oktay, director of Turkey's Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), told the pro-AKP daily Sabah that after Ankara and Washington agreed to establish a safe zone in Syria along the Turkish border, it would be a matter of only 24 hours for his agency to establish refugee camps in that zone. He said: "Other infrastructure investments, such as building roads and permanent accommodations, are planned as a next step. The Prime Ministry Housing Development Administration (TOKI) has already begun preliminary work to build houses, schools, and a hospital in order to motivate the refugees to return to Syria."[25]

Today, August 12, 2015, Turkish media are reporting that Jabhat Al-Nusra militants have left some areas around the Turkish border, within the designated safe zone just north of Aleppo, and that they are being replaced by Turkmen brigades. However, the reports, including one by the news portal Diken, mention claims that among these brigades, named after some Ottoman sultans, are 600 Turkish soldiers organized by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) who are pretending to be Turkmen, who have entered Aleppo and are fighting against the Syrian army, not against ISIS.

Ottomanist Pro-AKP Media Celebrate New "Safe Zone" As Turkey's New 82nd Province - "Aleppo Province" - And State: "Obama And Erdogan Will Draw The New Maps Of The Middle East"

On August 5, 2015, Islamist pro-AKP media organs published news that they said came from U.S. media and "an angry" British media - that the new "safe zone" in Syria agreed by Turkey and the U.S. is to become Turkey's 82nd province. The report said, in a celebratory tone, that the Turkey-U.S. "Incirlik Agreement" would reshape the Middle East, and that in his upcoming visit to the U.S., Erdogan and Obama will draw the new maps of the region - according to which this "safe zone," between Jarablus and Afrin, including Aleppo and Idlib, down to Latakia will become Turkey's. These media also claimed that the U.S. will pull out any of its personnel working with the YPG, ending Kurdish influence in the area, which according to these reports is already nearly ISIS-free.<[26]

Graphic showing map of territory that pro-AKP media claim will be Turkey's new 82nd province, Halep (Aleppo). Sabah, August 5, 2015

Public And Media Reactions To The War Against The Kurds

Turkey's three-pronged war against the Kurds is being condemned by Turkish intellectuals, liberal democrats, and leftist organizations that sympathize with the problems of Turkey's Kurdish population, oppose discrimination, and want a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. They believe that Erdogan is pushing the country into war - not to fight ISIS, which he has long supported, but to fight the Kurds and all his other opponents inside Turkey. They say that he is blocking the formation of a coalition government in order to take the country to a repeat election, with the hope of keeping the HDP under the 10% threshold so that the AKP can regain its former parliamentary majority.

In a written statement, a group of Turkish intellectuals, including academics, scientists, and former politicians, called on all MPs to return from their vacations and convene the parliament in order to restore peace and democracy. The statement said that the stability of a country cannot be sacrificed for an individual's or a ruling party's political and personal interests: "Waging or ending a war, or continuing or ending an armed struggle against an armed group, cannot be based on the political interests of a ruling party or of one person in a democracy, because these decisions are of national importance, beyond consideration for any individual, any political party, or any political ambitions." The statement was signed by some 30 prominent figures.[27]

In a "A Letter to the People of Turkey," academics from prominent Turkish universities called on the government to implement a cease-fire with the PKK, in order to restore peace in Turkey, and to put an end to the three-decade conflict: "We call on the government to stop using discriminatory and hostile language that will provoke conflicts; [we call on] rational journalists to expose their colleagues who favor war; [and we call] on parliament to enact laws to guarantee the settlement process." The academics noted in the statement that they were pleased with the settlement process launched in January 2013 between the AKP government and imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan, and that they saw it as an opportunity for Turkey to face its realities, find solutions for its problems, and became more democratic.

They added that the government had failed to prevent civil wars in the Middle East from spreading to Turkey, despite warnings by academics, NGOs, politicians, and journalists, thereby leading the country into a war. They had lost many students in the July 20 Suruç massacre, they said, and stressed that they would not sacrifice any more of their students, their sons, or Turkey's youth to a war. "For us," they said, "no conflict is more important than their lives and the future that they will build." The statement concluded by calling on everyone in Turkey to side with peace and democracy.[28]

Cover of August 6, 2015 issue of the Turkish satirical magazine Girgir: Military and civilian dead in coffins to Erdogan: "If not for you, we would not have died." The issue was circulated by the Turkish daily Sozcu.

Cengiz Candar, prominent Turkish columnist, Middle East analyst, and expert on the Kurdish problem for the mainstream liberal Hurriyet and Radikal dailies, wrote on July 26, 2015:[29] "The green light given by the U.S. to fight ISIS is being used to criminalize the PKK and marginalize the HDP, by Erdogan and the [AKP] government whose powers were taken away by the people. In a seizure of power, this temporary government has taken Turkey into a very dangerous war - not because they finally woke up to the dangers of ISIS, but to put an end to the peace process and to start an all-out war against the Kurds for political calculations."

Noting that the July 22, 2015 Obama-Erdogan phone conversation had resulted in heavy bombardment of the PKK rather than of ISIS, he said that it would be very difficult to stop it from becoming an all-out war against the Kurds of Turkey and Syria. He added: "The banning of a large 'Peace March' in Istanbul [similar to the January 11, 2015 march in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre], initiated by the HDP after the Suruc massacre, along with the arrest of hundreds of HDP members across the country in the new hunt for 'terrorists,' are clear signs of the kind of future that awaits Turkey."

The AKP government's plan to create a nationalistic and militarist climate in the country, in which they would again go to elections to return to a single party rule, while giving the impression of launching a comprehensive fight against terrorism, he wrote, is nothing but a plan to burn the country to satisfy their hunger for power. He concluded with a warning that any U.S. plan with Erdogan and AKP government must never allow a war against the Kurdish people to be included with the fight against ISIS.

On July 30, Candar wrote:[30] "The election campaign has already begun, with the noise of the bombs of the air operations on Iraq and partially in Syria, accompanied by the domestic arrests and bans on popular gatherings. Erdogan has put an end to the [peace] process, and has, by demanding that HDP MPs be stripped of their parliamentary immunity, placed the HDP next to the PKK as the target of his campaign for early elections. Targeting the HDP for not distancing itself from terror and violence is a total distortion of the new reality of Turkey; the HDP's raison d'etre is peaceful resolution of the Kurdish problem by political means.

"The HDP is currently the party most negatively impacted by the climate of terror and violence in Turkey, and it is the victim of a relentless lynch campaign on the part of the Palace [i.e. the presidency] to defame and discredit it. It is highly ironic that the accusation that the HDP fails to distance itself from terrorism and violence is coming from a political circle [the AKP] that has not distanced itself from ISIS."

A Frequently Asked Question: "Has The U.S. Sold Out The Kurds?"

Since the announcement of the Obama-Erdogan agreement, Turkish media reports have been conflicting and vague about what it actually includes. The pro-AKP media have been celebrating the agreement that has led to the military operations against PKK, and consider the U.S. acceptance of Turkey's longtime demands to establish a safe, no-fly zone in northwest Syria to be the West's acknowledgement that nothing can happen in the region without Turkey. Additionally, statements from Washington that the U.S. respects Turkey's right to defend itself against the PKK embolden these media in their hostility towards the Kurds and in their attacks on the HDP.

The independent, liberal, anti-AKP media is critical of the AKP decision to end the PKK-Turkey three-year ceasefire and the Peace Process, which many Turks had hoped would solve the decades-long Kurdish problem and bring peace, democracy and freedom to Kurds and all sectors of society. The question frequently asked now is: Has the U.S. sold out its allies, the Kurds, in return for the use of Incirlik airbase?

In a column titled "Has America Sold Out The Kurds?" Amberin Zaman wrote: "Since Turkey's bombs began raining down on PKK targets, the question on the agenda is: Has America sold out the Kurds? To most, the answer is 'Yes.' This is perceived as an absolute truth, and it continues to spread. Ankara is pleased by this perception, and encourages it. If it is true that Turkish artillery recently targeted a Kurdish village west of Kobane and wounded four YPG fighters, they can turn and say that they are operating with the blessing of America.

"During the long bargaining over Incirlik, the two sides were stuck, as their priorities were different. But Turkey took a step back, and the reason it did so was the deepening of the alliance forged between the U.S. and the YPG. Did America say to Turkey, 'Now you can bomb [Mount] Qandil [where the PKK is based]?' According to reliable U.S. sources, Turkey's anti-PKK operations were not part of the agreement, and Turkey was acting on its own. The [U.S.]-Turkey agreement is limited to fighting ISIS, and Washington was pleased with Turkey's participation. Yet Washington's joy was cut short when Turkey began the air raids against the PKK. They found themselves in the conflict of calling the PKK 'terrorist' while calling the YPG an 'ally.' They know that the two are intertwined."

Zaman also noted that the U.S. is serving its own interests in the region, and that it will pursue its cooperation with the YPG as long as the latter continues to be the force fighting ISIS, and that the U.S. will also oppose any Turkish action against the YPG. "But," she continues, "the PKK and YPG are two organs of the same body, and when one is harmed the other is affected too. For now, Turkey is not allowed to strike the YPG - so it attacks the PKK. Time will tell how long [this will last]."[31]

Cengiz Candar also asked whether the U.S. is selling out the Kurds, writing on July 31 that the Suruc massacre by an ISIS militant, that ripped apart 32 young people, had not prompted a change of heart in Turkey suddenly spurring it to fight ISIS. Erdogan and some Turkish circles, he wrote, were alarmed when the YPG took Tel Abyad from ISIS, uniting two Kurdish cantons in northern Syria. "What will happen if they move westward, taking Jarablus from ISIS, and reach the third canton, Afrin, uniting it with the other two? There would be a Kurdish corridor parallel to Turkey's border.

"For AKP's Ankara, ISIS in those places was an acceptable 'neighbor' - but a 'Kurdish corridor' is seen as a strategic threat. Also, the U.S.'s relations with the YPG and the PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party] were becoming stronger, which they [the AKP government] considered harmful for Turkey. There was no other way to win back Washington than to give it Incirlik and to appear to be fighting ISIS.

"Turkey has used the credit card the U.S. gave it for Incirlik for bombing the PKK. When the U.S. says 'Our ally Turkey has a legitimate right to defend itself against the PKK,' it gives a green light to Erdogan's hostile policies against the Kurds.

"Therefore, it is reasonable for many to ask, 'Is the U.S. selling out the Kurds?' Not only because there have been many such examples in the past, but because for Washington, Turkey's 'value' as a large country and a NATO ally supersedes that of the Kurds. It's like throwing out a sprat to catch a mackerel."[32]

Top Turkish Foreign Ministry Official Says U.S., Turkey Will Strike ISIS, YPG Forces In Safe Zone; Foreign Office Issues Correction

On August 11, 2015, the highest-ranking Turkish Foreign Ministry official, Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, who had conducted all the negotiations with the U.S., told journalists: "We have reached an agreement with the U.S. regarding the safe zone. If ISIS, or the Kurdish YPG [forces], ever enter this zone, they will be attacked and hit by both the U.S. and Turkey's air force [emphasis in original]. Units of the Free Syrian Army will be positioned in that zone."[33]

According to the pro-AKP daily Sabah, he also said: "Not only Turkmen, but also Arabs, among others, will be moved into the zone. They will be under air protection from any possible attack by ISIS, the PYD, or the Assad regime. We have a mutual understanding with the U.S. on this matter."[34]

Following Sinirlioglu's statements, the Foreign Ministry released an official statement of correction that said: "As our undersecretary has stated, as per our agreement with the U.S., the 'ISIS-free zone' will be a de-facto 'free zone,' the control and protection of which will be given to Syrian opposition forces, which will have support and air protection from Turkey and the U.S. We request that other parts of the statement attributed to Mr. Sinirlioglu be ignored."[35]

Claims Of Civilian Deaths In U.S. Air Raids In Syrian Border Town; Turkey Washes Its Hands Of All Responsibility

Also on August 11, the Islamist pro-AKP Turkish daily Yeni Safak reported that according to local sources, dozens of civilians, among them women and children, had been killed in U.S. and coalition air raids in the Syrian town of Atme, near the Turkish border. According to the report, the air raids, that had targeted the jihadi organization Jabhat Al-Nusra's weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, hit a tent camp where 70,000 Syrian civilians are sheltered and protected by groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Many of the wounded are in critical condition, Yeni Safak said.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry promptly issued a statement that read: "In the operation conducted by the coalition forces against targets near the Atme region, none of the planes took off from Incirlik air base, and none flew over Turkish air space. Any claims to the contrary are untrue and ill-intended."[36]


* R. Krespin is Director of MEMRI's Turkish Media Project.


[3] Soczu (Turkey), July 22, 2015.

[6] Cumhuriyet and other Turkish media, July 23, 2015. 

[7] T24, July 27, 2015.

[8] A delegation of HDP MPs visited the Kurdish village Zergele in northern Iraq to investigate claims that unarmed civilians had been killed in a Turkish airstrike - allegations that on August 2, 2015, Turkey had rejected, saying that Zergele was a PKK base and refuge. According to the delegation's report, released August 7, the village was a civilian settlement, no PKK were present in or around the village, and eight civilians had been killed in the bombardment. Hurriyet Daily News, August 7, 2015.  

[9] Cumhuriyet (Turkey), August 10, 2015.

[10] Sabah, Takvim (Turkey), August 6, 2015.

[11] Hurriyet (Turkey), April 12, 2015.

[12] Cumhuriyet (Turkey), July 29, 2015.

[13] Cumhuriyet (Turkey), July 25, 2015.

[14] Zaman (Turkey), August 6, 2015.

[15] Cumhuriyet (Turkey), August 2, 2015.

[16] Hurriyet Daily News (Turkey), July 29, 2015.

[17] Hurriyet, T24 (Turkey), July 29, 2015.

[18] Hurriyet Daily News (Turkey), May 21, 2015.

[19] TodaysZaman (Turkey), August 4, 2015.

[20] Zete (Turkey), August 4, 2015.

[21] Hurriyet, August 7, 2015.

[22] Zaman, August 7, 2015.

[24] Sabah (Turkey), July 28, 2015.

[25] Sabah (Turkey), August 3, 2015.

[26] Sabah, Takvim, TGRT Haber (Turkey), August 5, 2015.

[27] TodaysZaman (Turkey), August 2, 2015.

[28] TodaysZaman (Turkey), August 7, 2015.

[29] Hurriyet, Radikal (Turkey), July 26, 2015.

[30] Radikal (Turkey), July 30, 2015.

[31] Diken (Turkey), July 27, 2015.

[32] Radikal (Turkey), July 31, 2015.

[33] Diken, Hurriyet, Cumhuriyet (Turkey), August 11, 2015.

[34] Sabah (Turkey), August 11, 2015.

[35] Hurriyet (Turkey), August 11, 2015.

[36] Yeni Safak (Turkey), August 11, 2015.

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