As if the fledgling campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria could not get any more complicated, Turkey decided to finally open up its airspace and bases for Allied aircraft and began flying its own airstrikes on targets in Iraq and Syria. The only problem: it also flew air strikes of Kurdish PKK targets in Northern Iraq. The same Kurdish PKK that has been fighting valiantly against ISIS.
Turkey has been reluctant to take part in the fight against ISIS, even though it was happening right along its southern border. After a year of coalition air operations in both Syria and Iraq, Turkey did an about-face on abstention policy and announced that it would open its bases to aircraft associated with Operation Inherent Resolve and that it would use its own massive and highly modern air arm to fly missions against the Islamic State.
This decision was made after two deadly border incidents occurred last week, both of which were blamed on ISIS. The first occurred when a Turkish soldier was killed during a border clash with ISIS fighters, and the second came when 30 people were killed by a suicide bomber in the town of Suruc.
Meanwhile, an indigenous and hardened fighting force that has been valiantly battling ISIS on the ground, the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, happens also to be an enemy of the Turkish Government. The militant Kurdish faction that has fought for four decades against Turkish Government forces for their own autonomous state along Turkey’s southern border is seen as a terror group in Turkey and classified as such by the U.S. as well. But it’s too simple to think of them as “bad guys,” as their men and women have fought ISIS forces in Northern Syria with little direct support, helping to push them out of key border cities like Kobane.
There is no doubt that the PKK and its affiliates have used asymmetric terror-like tactics to strike at Turkey over many decades of tit-for-tat fighting, during which it is estimated about 40,000 have died. Turkey’s operations against the PKK have also been heavy-handed, to say the least, although there was actually a shaky truce in place since 2013, which has slowly dematerialized to the point of total irrelevance after last Friday’s air strikes.
Friday’s air strikes on PKK installations in Northern Iraq also came as a massive roundup of suspected terrorists, supposedly of both ISIS and a Kurdish origin, occurred throughout Turkey, with over 600 people being arrested. Meanwhile, the larger Kurdish Regional Authority condemned the attacks and called the Turkish Prime Minister in an effort to deescalate the situation and to ask the Turkish Government not to order follow on strikes on PKK targets.
While Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have fought on the same side as American forces for decades and have been key in stopping ISIS’s Blitzkrieg across Iraq, they are not aligned with the PKK. Generally speaking, Turkey has a much more positive view of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, even allowing them to cross into Syria from the Turkish border during the battle of Kobane.
The U.S. seems to have little interest in the PKK’s plight, even though they have been brutally effective against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. and coalition aircraft have been flying sorties into Syria over long ranges for ten months, so the prospect of flying them from nearby Turkey is a dream come true, putting the ISIS defacto capitol of Al-Raqqa within about 55 miles on Turkey’s southern border. Basing strike aircraft and slow unmanned aircraft in southern Turkey could greatly enhance sortie tempo, on station time, and the effectiveness of surveillance and attack missions over and near Al-Raqqa. Also, combat search and rescue and special operations aircraft could be based far closer to the terror group’s home- than they are today, which would decrease risk for pilots flying over the area while also increasing ISIS vulnerability to highly targeted special operations raids.
Bringing the Turkish Air Force into the fight also has its clear benefits. Turkey has one of the most advanced and largest air arms in the world, and their pilots know the area, and the multiple threats within it, very well. With about 230 advanced F-16s and some of the newest Airborne Early Warning and Control and surveillance aircraft around, as well as KC-135 tankers, the Turkish Air Force brings a massive new force to an allied bombing campaign that has had questionable results at best. It also poses a great threat to survivability of Al Assad’s embattled regime if the focus of the air campaign were to change from a counter-terror and counter-insurgency operation to regime change sometime in the future.
With Turkey experiencing a massive refugee crisis that began with Syrian Civil War and with the ISIS threat now creeping over their own borders, it’s increasingly hard for the Turkish Government to justify to their allies and certain parts of their constituency that a hands-off approach to the situation is logical. As such, a whole new facet of the anti-ISIS air war has begun.
Yet, what this war needs more than anything else are fearless fighters to take on ISIS on the ground, and Turkey’s move to bomb targets affiliated with people who have done just that, on the Turkish Air Force’s very first night of sorties no less, in troubling.
With the Obama Administration desperately holding on to the farcical belief that air power alone will crush ISIS, it is understandable how getting Turkey involved would have been a top priority, regardless of their actions against the PKK.
Although basing American and allied aircraft in Turkey will be a huge logistics victory for Operation Inherent Resolve, it is far from a game-winning blow. In the end, it will take boots and rifles, not oxygen masks and F-16s, to defeat ISIS, and so far the Kurds, whichever political flavor your choose, have been the only ones willing to take on ISIS face-to-face for sustained periods of time.
Photos via Aldo Bidini/wikicommons (top shot), E-7 shot Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/wikicommons, F-16s landing via AP
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com