Turkish Air Strikes Target U.S.-backed Peshmerga Forces Fighting the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq 2

The Turkish military launched a series of air strikes this early this morning against U.S.-backed forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq today, killing several.

Turkish forces launched up to 39 sorties and air strikes, killing at least five Kurdish Peshmerga forces and 18 members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) according to Peshmerga authorities. The air strikes also hit areas held by the Yazidi Protection Units (YBS). Turkey, a NATO member-nation, along with various Kurdish forces, including the Peshmerga and YPG, are allied with the United States against the Islamic State, aka ISIS. The “Pesh” as referred to by U.S. military forces, have been a longtime ally of the U.S. going back to the first Gulf War in 1990-91. The Peshmerga are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. views the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, as key allies in the fight against ISIS. Turkey views the group as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Turkish insurgent group that has conducted a decades long insurgency that’s killed thousands. Both Ankara and Washington consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

According to the Turkish Government and a Turkish military statement, the air strikes were intended to prevent Kurdish fighters, arms, ammunition and explosives belonging to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from entering into Turkey. The Government of Turkey regards the YPG as being linked to outlawed Kurdish separatists. Further, Turkey considers the PKK, which has ties to the YPG, as a terrorist organization.

The YPG is a Kurdish militia in Syria and the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The YPG is mostly ethnically Kurdish, but it also includes Arabs, foreign volunteers, and the Syriac Military Council (MFS) elements, which is a militia force of the Assyrian Christians. The YPG was formed in 2004 as the armed-wing of the Kurdish leftist Democratic Union Party. It expanded rapidly during the Syrian Civil War and came to predominate over other armed Kurdish groups in the Turkish border region, both inside Turkey and in Syria and Iraq.

In addition, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, friendly to Turkey, also reportedly suffered fatalities. The Iraqi government condemned the air strikes and rejects the strikes carried out by Turkish aircraft on Iraqi territory.”

Peshmerga authorities responded to the air strikes by blaming the PKK’s presence among other factions, particularly the Sinjar mountain region, the historical ancestral home of many Yazidis in northern Iraq. “The death of the Peshmerga is regrettable and the air strike on the Peshmerga forces by Turkish Air Force fighters jets is unacceptable … further noting that these problems and tensions are all because of the PKK’s presence,” the Peshmerga leadership said in a press statement. The Kurdish Regional Government, which controls the Peshmerga, is a rival to the PKK and likewise maintains a close relationship with Turkey. The U.S.-backed Popular Protection Units (YPG), fighting against ISIS, said their positions were hit multiple times.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based human rights monitoring organization, said the dawn air strike today targeted Kurdish positions in Hassakeh province in north-east Syria, also hitting a media center and radio station. In a separate series of air strikes, Turkish F-16 fighters hit a base near Sinjar in northern Iraq, close to the Syrian border.

Turkey’s strikes potentially complicate the ongoing U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State. The YPG and YBS are both fighting the terrorist group in northern Syria and Iraq. But Turkey is also involved in the fight, and Turkish bases are an important operational element in the conflict providing access to U.S. airpower in this region of the Middle East.  A Turkish military statement said the pre-dawn strikes hit targets on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq and a mountainous region in Syria. It said the operations were conducted to prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey. The military said in a later statement that the air strikes hit shelters, ammunition depots, and key control centers, adding that some 40 militants in Sinjar and some 30 others in northern Syria were “neutralized.”

U.S. and Russian troops in the areas of the air strikes were warned about an hour before 24 U.S. supplied Turkish F-16 fighter jets and two Turkish drones bombed locations in northern Iraq and northeast Syria. Senior Russian officials contacted U.S. counterparts to try to get the Turkish government and military to back-off the strikes, but those pleas were ignored by the Turks. Pentagon officials said that the U.S. officials and military leadership are now meeting with leaders from all sides to assess and resolve this situation and to deescalate tensions in Sinjar region of northern Iraq, and the area around Derik in northeast Syria. The U.S. has expressed “deep concern” at the Turkish air strikes that killed about two dozen Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq. There were no U.S. troops among the fighters who were hit. The closest U.S. soldiers were about six miles from the site of the air strikes.

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC -- which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy, and strategy assessments for the U.S. and foreign private sector and governments entities, media groups and outlets, and to political groups, forums, and political candidates. He is an author and writer providing regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and for both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private groups on national security matters – focusing on international strategic policy and engagement, and strategic intelligence, and subject matter expertise on special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric warfare and conflict.