Turkish commander accuses US of sabotage

Distrust between the United States and Turkey is at a new low as an anonymous Turkish commander claims that US-manufactured and supplied bombs dropped on Kurdish separatist targets were duds.

al-monitor US Air Force personnel transport a 5,000-pound class "bunker buster" bomb while training for weapons loading at the Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson County, Missouri, Oct. 30, 2002. Photo by REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

ypg, syrian kurds, kurdistan workers party, pkk, turkish military, turkey-syrian border, us-turkish relations

Dec 19, 2017

Turkish claims of American mischief have grown louder and ever more outlandish since last summer’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with many of his supporters agreeing that the “real” mastermind is Washington.

But a Turkish gendarmerie commander clearly deserves credit for carrying these claims to virgin terrain. In a column published in the pro-secular Sozcu today, the commander, whose name was withheld, illustrated the new lows to which distrust between the two NATO allies has sunk, asserting that US-manufactured bombs dropped by the Turkish air force on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets were duds.

“Unfortunately the bombs that our planes are dropping are fakes,” the commander, who is reportedly stationed in the mainly Kurdish southeast region, told Sozcu columnist Saygi Ozturk. The commander cited two incidents that took place over the past month near the provinces of Van, Sirnak and Bitlis, where the PKK is active.

“Three bombs are dropped on a group of seven [PKK] terrorists. Although the bombs land within 25-30 meters [of the targets’ position], one of the terrorists survives. In the other affair, the bomb is dropped within 8 meters of two terrorists sitting under a tree, but they get up and go as if nothing happened. How is this possible? Normally a single bomb kills anything that is within 300 meters of its target.” The commander then dropped his own bomb: “It is an American company that manufactures the bombs.”

He did not identify the company.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who specializes in security issues and has written extensively about Turkey. He termed the Turkish commander’s assertions “ludicrous and dumb” in comments emailed to Al-Monitor.

If anything, the United States has helped Turkey combat the PKK for decades, providing precision bomb kits, attack helicopters and real time intelligence on rebel targets. The CIA is believed to have played a critical role in the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

Last year, the industry publication Defense News reported that the Pentagon had awarded Ellwood National Forge, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems a $682.9 million contract to sell Turkey an unspecified number of smart bombs through a Foreign Military Sales scheme.

The sale of the BLU-109 bunker-buster bombs system would be a first to Turkey and their likely target would be the PKK’s mountain hideouts along the Iran-Iraq border. The bombs are meant to be delivered by 2020 and Turkish officials believe they could have a game-changing effect in the battle against the Kurdish rebels.

Yet, none of this has ever assuaged long-nursed Turkish paranoia, not least amid the country's top brass, about the United States’ purported plans to carve an independent Kurdish state out of Turkey.

But little has poisoned the well as much as the Pentagon’s decision to arm and train the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which was birthed and is mentored by the PKK. Turkey insists with some merit that the two are one and the same.

The Turkish commander who spoke to Sozcu appeared to suggest that the United States was hoping to see Turkey get bogged down against the YPG in Afrin, a mainly Kurdish enclave facing Turkey. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to invade Afrin and other YPG-controlled towns along its borders with Syria, telling a recent rally they need to be “expunged of terrorists.”

The commander apparently believes this is a poor idea. He cautioned, “Our army is being deliberately drawn into a war with [jets carrying fake] bombs. This plan is a plan to massacre [our soldiers].”

The administration continues to send conflicting messages about its relationship with the YPG. At a recent panel discussion, Jonathan Cohen, the US deputy assistant secretary of state who covers Turkey, told a Washington audience for the second time this year that these ties are “transactional, tactical and temporary.” Yet Pentagon officials on the ground in Syria assure the YPG of the opposite.

Nicholas Danforth, a senior analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center and respected Turkey expert, told Al-Monitor, “When US policy is fundamentally incoherent it’s easy to understand how Turks might resort to conspiracy theories to make sense of it. The mystery is why people believed in these theories before we started actually helping the PKK.”

In private conversations, administration officials freely acknowledge the close links between the PKK and the YPG. But in public they continue to emphasize the fact that the latter is not officially classified as a terror group, hence it’s perfectly in order to deal with them as partners against the Islamic State in Syria. And some continue to entertain fantasies about the YPG distancing itself from Ocalan and his group and becoming an “all Syrian” force.

In the meantime, the panacea as Washington sees it is to increase cooperation with Ankara against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.

The Pentagon has even mulled plans to help Turkey take out Cemil Bayik, a top PKK commander based in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Danforth observed, “At one level it's completely coherent. We want the Kurds to kill [the Islamic State] and we want to keep Turkey happy.” But he concluded, “It's just the result of that logic that’s incoherent. At the point we’re supporting the YPG, giving Turkey fake bombs would almost make more sense than actually helping them against the PKK.”

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