Turkey has lashed out against an Iraqi Kurdish group that shares power in Iraqi Kurdistan over its alleged ties to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants who are waging an armed insurgency against the Turkish state, accusing the former of succumbing to the PKK’s grip. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkey’s pro-government A Haber news channel Monday that the PKK had taken “full control” of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second largest political party in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and junior partner in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). “Their high-level officials deny this when we raise it with them,” Cavusoglu said.
Cavusoglu’s comments follow the April 8 drone strike targeting the US-led coalition’s top ally in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Commander in Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces Mazlum Kobane and Ilham Ahmed, leader of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) — a top government body in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria — were in a convoy en route to Sulaimaniyah International Airport together with three US military personnel when the drone struck the perimeter of the airport. US Central Command and the Pentagon confirmed the presence of US staff in the cortege, saying their lives were imperiled and that an investigation was underway. Cavusoglu made no reference to the drone strike.
The Iraqi president’s office blamed Turkey for the attack and is demanding that Ankara apologize for its actions. The president, Abdul Latif Rashid, was nominated to the post by the PUK. Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last month, has not commented on the affair.
Kobane also held Turkey responsible for the drone strike, describing it as Ankara’s latest attempt to kill him in an interview with Al-Monitor. Western officials speaking on background to Al-Monitor said Turkey had carried out the strike. The Wall Street Journal, which was the first to report the presence of US military staff in the targeted vehicles, cited Western officials blaming Turkey as well.
However, none of the SDF’s coalition partners have issued statements on the incident so far, most notably the White House and the State Department where discussions are reportedly underway on how to publicly respond.
At a Monday press conference, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel would only say that the Pentagon is investigating the attack, and that the department "forcefully oppose[s] any action that threatens the safety of US personnel." Patel referred questions on the incident to the Pentagon, adding that "any action in Iraq should respect Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity. And we encourage governments to work together to de-conflict cross-border military operations.”
The State Department did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.
It is standard protocol for Turkey to notify the United States ahead of any attacks for deconfliction purposes. However, it is unclear that it applies the deconfliction protocols for drone strikes.
Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at War on the Rocks and author of "The US War Against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate," told Al-Monitor, "Ankara could simply choose not to inform the United States, which, I would believe, does not not have full radar coverage over Sulaiymaniyah."
Stein added, "The US Air Force assets responsible for Syria and Iraq are, I would think, more interested in doing this to target the Islamic State than fly over a city that has no security interests for the United States."
Sinam Mohammed, the SDC’s representative in Washington, told Al-Monitor, “We would like to hear our coalition partners say that General Mazlum is a good and valued ally who has played a critical role in defeating our common enemy, the Islamic State. We are the main force combating terrorism on behalf of all of those countries.”
Mohammed said she had reached out to the State Department, the White House and relevant congressional members to hold a virtual meeting with SDC and SDF officials to discuss the matter. They have yet to respond.
Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador with intimate knowledge of Kurdish affairs, told Al-Monitor, “It would be extremely unwise of anybody to try to kill two of the most moderate and sensible Kurdish leaders around.”
The prevailing consensus is that Turkey deliberately avoided striking the vehicle carrying Kobane, knowing that US military officials were in it. Rather, it sought to send a clear message of displeasure over CENTCOM’s decision to continue flying the SDF commander in and out of the Sulaimaniyah airport. “I think it was a warning,” Mohammed said. Turkey wants the United States to end its partnership with the SDF and work with Turkey and its Sunni rebel allies instead. More recently, however, Turkey has begun demanding that US troops pull out of northeast Syria just as Ankara seeks to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through Kremlin-brokered talks.
The drone strike followed Turkey’s announcement on April 5 that it was sealing its airspace to flights to and from Sulaimaniyah until July 3 on the grounds that the airport was “infiltrated by PKK terrorists.” Turkey insists that the SDF is the PKK in a different guise because many of its top leaders rose through the latter’s ranks before shifting their fight to Syria against IS. The United States and the European Union have designated the PKK as terrorists but insist that the SDF and its lead component, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, are different.
SDF officials coming to Sulaimaniyah on coalition business are usually ferried in helicopters that use a small US base that is not located within the airport. However, Kobane was to be flown out in a US military plane on this occasion.
Turkish claims of a “terror corridor” between northeast Syria and Sulaimaniyah emerged after a pair of helicopters carrying members of an elite SDF-linked counterterrorism team, including Kobane’s nephew, Sherwan, crashed in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Dohuk province on March 15 killing all nine people on board. Cavusoglu told A Haber, “According to our information, the helicopters used by the terrorists were purchased by the PUK … from France and were allocated to the terrorists for their use.” The helicopters were identified by Kurdistan Regional Government authorities as French-manufactured AS350 Eurocopters.
Cavusoglu continued, “As far as we know, there is no evidence that they are in possession of airplanes."
"They use civilian airports used by everyone. The PKK has penetrated [civilian airports]. The PKK has taken control of everyone in Sulaimaniyah and especially Talabani’s party,” he said.
The foreign minister was alluding to Bafel Talabani, the PUK leader. The latter forged close ties with Kobane since seizing full control of the party, ousting his cousin and intelligence czar, Lahur Talabani, in a bloodless coup in 2021, in part to enhance his popularity among the Kurdish masses.
Kobane is arguably one of the most admired Kurdish figures in recent times among Kurds of all persuasions and creeds.
Kobane swiftly rose to Talabani’s defense with a volley of laudatory tweets and videos underscoring the stout partnership between the SDF and the PUK’s Counter Terror Group whose members were also present in his convoy, he said. Cavusoglu asserted that PUK members themselves had admitted that “the PKK totally controls the PUK.”
Turkey’s top diplomat meanwhile accused the PKK of seeking to penetrate Erbil, the administrative capital run by Ankara’s top Iraqi ally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), saying it had failed in that mission.
Relations between the KDP and the PUK took a further nosedive following the drone strike, with each blaming the other for leaking intelligence to Turkey as to Kobane’s whereabouts. Turkey’s national spy agency, the MIT, has been carrying out targeted assassinations of PKK and SDF figures using killer drones in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria in recent years and is widely believed to have intelligence assets across the region.