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Turkey Signs Off on US Bombers Attacking Islamic State From Its Territory

American and allied aircraft will now be able to launch attacks on IS from southern Turkey, while Turkey's own jets have already begun to pound Kurdish militants in Iraq and Turkey.
July 29, 2015, 7:50pm
El parlamento turco se reunió este miércoles en Ankara para discutir los bombardeos contra Estado islámico y el Partido de los Trabajadores del Kurdistán /EPA

Turkey has formerly signed a deal allowing aircraft from the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition to operate from a strategic base in the country's south, as its own jets concentrated on bombing Kurdish militants.

American and allied aircraft will now be able to launch attacks on IS from southern Incirlik airbase, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday. It will allow the coalition to intensify its air campaign against the jihadists by beginning missions just 60 miles from the Syrian border.

It marks a significant policy shift for Turkey, which had not taken on a prominent role in the battle against IS despite intense international pressure and criticism.

Turkey also began bombing IS on Friday, after militants fired on a Turkish border post, killing a soldier, and a suspected IS suicide bomb left 32 pro-Kurdish activists dead earlier in the week.

Related: Turkey Accused of Shelling Syrian Kurds While Fatal Clashes Break Out in Istanbul

Ankara began an almost simultaneous air campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and subsequently Turkey. It has since launched far more raids on the PKK than IS, culminating in overnight attacks that authorities said hit a number of the group's bases and storage facilities, and an official told Reuters were the heaviest since strikes began last week.

The disparity has led Kurdish activists to suggest that the move against IS was instead a cover for a broader crackdown by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aimed at blocking Turkey's long-suppressed Kurdish minority's political and territorial ambitions.

Turkey, as well as the US and the European Union, view the PKK as a terrorist organization due to a history of attacks on civilian and military targets during a 30-year fight for autonomy that claimed more than 40,000 lives.

But a landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement brought a fragile peace to Turkey's majority Kurdish southeast and granted more rights to the Kurdish population, long subject to restrictions on use of its own language and cultural practices. Attitudes towards the PKK have also softened internationally, thanks to its members role fighting IS in Kurdish Iraq alongside the regional government's Western-backed peshmerga forces.

On Saturday, in response to the airstrikes, the PKK said that conditions were no longer in place to adhere to the ceasefire, blaming Ankara for the violence. "By carrying out the recent attacks Turkey has practically and unilaterally ended the state of non-conflict and the peace-process," Zagros Hiwa, a spokesman for the PKK's executive political council, the Kurdistan Communities Union, told VICE News on Monday.

"As the Kurdish Freedom Movement we will defend ourselves and our peoples against the attacks of [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's Administration," he said. "A new era of struggle and resistance has started for the Kurds."

The group has since launched a number of attacks on army and police targets, killing several members of the security forces.

Erdogan said on Tuesday that peace deal was now impossible.

Related: Assad Admits Syrian Army's 'Shortage of Manpower' — But Vows to Win Bloody Conflict

But Turkey's pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party HDP called for an end to hostilities, with co-leader Selahattin Demirtas urging a resumption of the peace process.

"We need to immediately create the conditions for an immediate return to the environment of truce and to the process of dialogue," Demirtas said, according to remarks carried by the Associated Press.

But the HDP has come under attack by the AKP. On Tuesday, Erdogan called for HDP lawmakers to be stripped of their parliamentary immunity, opening them for prosecution over alleged PKK links. In 1994, the Turkish parliament made a similar ruling with regards a number of Kurdish parliamentarians, eventually charging eight of them with treason and separatism for alleged collaboration with the PKK, according to a Human Rights Watch report at the time.

The HDP secured a place in parliament for the first time by passing the crucial 10 percent vote threshold in June's elections. In the process it deprived Erdogan's ruling AKP of an overall majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002, and blocked his dreams of changing the constitution to a presidential system in order to boost his dominance of Turkish politics. The AKP will now have to form a coalition government or stage snap elections, and some opponents have alleged that the war on terror is designed to boost its appeal to nationalists and divert attention from internal failings should the latter scenario play out.

Related: Turkey Drops Bombs on Kurdish Group That Has Fought the Islamic State in Iraq

Nevertheless, NATO expressed "strong support" for Turkey on Tuesday, after holding an emergency meeting in Brussels over Ankara's two-pronged "war on terror."

Representatives from all 28 NATO members were in "full agreement" on their solidarity with Turkey and condemned terrorism "in all its forms," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters afterwards.

But the Kurdish strikes also put US President Barack Obama in an awkward position. Much of the area adjacent to the Turkish border in Syria is held by the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), fierce opponents of IS. America views it as a key partner in the fight against the jihadists, and provides its fighters with widespread air support. Turkish leaders have also branded the YPG as "terrorists" and have been alarmed at a recent expansion in territory under the group's control due to gains against IS.

Turkish Foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said today that the Incirlik deal did not include US air support for the Kurds fighting the IS, Reuters said.

On Monday, the YPG accused Turkish troops of shelling both it and allied Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels in a village close to the Islamic State (IS) held town of Jarabulus on Friday, injuring four FSA members and a number of civilians, then targeting Kurdish forces in the same village on Sunday, as well as a YPG vehicle east of the border enclave of Kobane.

"Instead of targeting IS terrorists' occupied positions, Turkish forces attack our defenders positions," the YPG said in a statement. "This is not the right attitude. We urge Turkish leadership to halt this aggression and to follow international guidelines. We are telling the Turkish Army to stop shooting at our fighters and their positions."

Turkish officials later said that they were investigating the claims, and that the YPG had not been intentionally targeted.Follow John Beck on Twitter: @jm_beck

Watch the VICE News documentary, From Grief Over Kobane to Chaos: Istanbul's Kurdish Riots here: