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US, Russia mum as Turkey escalates attacks against Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq

Both the White House and the State Department remain silent as Turkey's military campaign against the PKK continues "full blast."
Relatives mourn over the caskets of 11 people killed in Turkish airstrikes.

Turkey’s military campaign against alleged Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in Syria and Iraq is continuing full blast with at least four fighters of the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and four others from the outlawed PKK killed in drone strikes in northeast Syria and Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, Kurdish-led armed groups and Iraqi Kurdish security officials said. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and Northeast Syria on Sunday denounced Russia and the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS) in a statement over their silence in the face of the attacks.

The assaults continued throughout the weekend when three civilians were injured as a result of Turkish shelling that targeted a village located south of Tell Tamar in northeast Syria, Kurdish media reported. That attack came after Turkish forces carried out 40 artillery strikes against the Kurdish majority enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, which was occupied by Turkey in 2018, Kurdish media said. The claims could not be independently verified; however, a low-intensity conflict between the SDF and Turkish-allied groups has been bubbling since Turkey’s wresting of Afrin from the Syrian Kurds. Dozens of civilians, including women and children, have perished in Turkish drone and air strikes, as previously documented by Al-Monitor

The United States and Russia are guarantors of separate cease-fire agreements struck in the wake of Turkey’s 2019 Operation Peace Spring in which it occupied large chunks of SDF-controlled territory and permanently displaced over 200,000 civilians who continue to languish in ramshackle camps. Both wish to pull Turkey to their side as Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on. They have, in turn, grown even more hesitant to rebuke Ankara over its aggression toward PKK-linked Kurdish groups, least of all as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to weigh granting final approval to Sweden’s accession to NATO and despite the fact that Washington rejects Turkey’s characterization of the SDF as “terrorists."

Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Unity Party that shares power in the Autonomous Administration, said they had no contact with either Russia or the Syrian regime and that “our allies in the coalition say there is nothing they can do to stop Turkey’s attacks.”

“Their silence is nothing new, and we do not know what is going on behind closed doors,” Muslim told Al-Monitor.

The Autonomous Administration said that Turkey’s actions compromised ongoing efforts to degrade and destroy IS and further destabilized the conflict-wracked region.

Ankara remains oblivious to the critiques, saying the SDF and the PKK are two arms of the same organization that threaten Turkey’s national security. In April, a Turkish drone targeted a convoy carrying SDF commander-in-chief Mazlum Kobane and two US military officials on its way to the Sulaimaniyah airport in northern Iraq. Nobody was injured, but the attack was a clear signal of an emboldened Ankara’s desire to convey its disapproval of the Pentagon’s alliance with the SDF.

Though the US Central Command condemned the attack, both the White House and the State Department remained silent. To be sure, Washington’s diplomatic engagement with the Autonomous Administration has declined since Russia’s occupation of Ukraine in February 2022. Senior Syrian Kurdish officials were told to put off a planned trip to Washington in February even after being issued visas for it, Al-Monitor previously reported.

This was likely to head off potential Turkish fury ahead of a NATO summit that was held earlier this month in Vilnius and where it was hoped Ankara would approve Sweden’s formal admittance into the alliance. Instead, Erdogan agreed to tell the Turkish parliament to ratify Swedish membership but then went on to say that parliament was going into summer recess until October. Hence, the issue remains unresolved.

“The United States only pays attention to North and East Syria and the wider Kurdish issue when there’s a crisis, and by then it’s often too late for the most meaningful strategic action,” observed Meghan Bodette, director of research at the Washington-based Kurdish Peace Institute.

“Fear of antagonizing Turkey during the NATO accession process is not helping here. Maintaining the status quo while US adversaries are moving their strategies forward isn’t enough. Washington should consolidate a proactive, pro-peace position on Turkey, North and East Syria, and the Kurdish question before the next inevitable crisis occurs,” Bodette told Al-Monitor.

In June, the PKK ended a unilateral truce it had called in the wake of twin earthquakes in February that killed over 50,000 people and devastated large swathes of southern Turkey.

It has since been picking off a steady trickle of Turkish soldiers, mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Turkey’s drones are putting pressure on the PKK as never before. There are no signs that Erdogan is interested in reviving peace talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan that were abandoned in 2015.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project indicates that there have been at least 665 Turkish airstrikes and drone strikes in northern Iraq and northern Syria in the first half of 2023. And as Bodette noted in a recent policy brief, the attacks have picked up since Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections, which were held in May. “June was the most violent month of 2023 yet. It saw the fifth-highest number of Turkish strikes in Iraq and the fourth-highest number of Turkish strikes in Syria of any month in the past two and a half years,” Bodette wrote.

The UK’s Guardian reported today that Turkish airstrikes that hit a civilian hospital and killed eight people in 2021 in Yazidi-dominated Sinjar have been made the subject of a formal complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the first such petition of its kind by the Yazidis against Turkey. The complaint was submitted last week by four claimants who were either survivors of or witnesses to the strikes that were carried out on Aug. 17. Turkey claims it was targeting PKK militants. The claimants say that all eight victims were hospital staff.

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