And the message gets to Biden

And the message gets to Biden

Days after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey was announced for Aug. 24, a major attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) shook the Turkish city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border.

Some 54 have been killed in the attack so far and there are still critically wounded people. Twenty-nine of those killed at a wedding ceremony were children, and tragically the attack was carried out by a boy of “12-14 years old,” as revealed by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. 

The attack was on a Kurdish family, so some commentators were quick to draw a conclusion that it might have had two aims: One, to warn Turkey against further military operations against ISIL; two, to retaliate against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because of the role played by their Syria branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in taking the city of Manbij from ISIL hands on Aug. 10.

If those messages are correct, the first one has backfired. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Aug. 22 that Turkey would support all efforts to clear ISIL from the border with Syria. His statement coincided with reports that Turkish security forces had started to let thousands of Free Syria Army (FSA) militants cross into Syria in order to take Jarabulus, which lies very near the border, from ISIL. 

That would be a big blow to ISIL, since it is the only important point left in its hands along the Turkish border. When ISIL had to retreat, the only exit it had from U.S.-led coalition was to Jarabulus. 

The FSA taking Jarablus will also be a preemptive strategic move, in order to not let the PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take the town.

No Turkish troops are expected to enter Syrian soil, but heavy artillery support is expected. Turkey wants to give aerial support as well. Sources say both the American and Russian governments are informed about that. 

Ironically, Ankara is more worried about the response of the U.S., a NATO ally, than that of Russia. That is because Washington is worried that if the PYD/PKK forces get in the way of the Turkey-backed FSA, the Turkish forces would not hesitate for a second to strike them. When the Syrian regime forces hit PYD positions in the oil rich town of Haseke for the first time, the U.S. warned Syria and Russia against any repetition, as the Obama administration does not want G.I. Joes to die on Syrian soil. It still needs the PYD/PKK forces to do the fighting against ISIL.

All these developments are of key importance for the U.S. fight against ISIL in Syria. Following U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s visit on Aug. 19 to Turkey’s strategic İncirlik Air Base, which is used by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, the head of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, arrived in Ankara on Aug. 22 to discuss the Syria operation. 

The crucial detail here is that the American operation in Syria and Iraq, in cooperation with the PYD/PKK militia, is under Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), while the American forces on the Turkish side of the border are linked to EUCOM. 

The PKK, meanwhile, has escalated its terror acts inside Turkey after a silence of three weeks following the failed coup attempt of July 15. The resumption of their attacks coincided with Erdoğan’s visit to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 9 and the taking of Manbij from ISIL on Aug. 10.

The latest PKK attack came a day after the ISIL attack in Gaziantep, against the town of Nazımiye in the eastern province of Tunceli. It is a small town with no significant strategic importance, but it is the hometown of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The PKK attack came two days after Kılıçdaroğlu pledged support to the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım against terrorism.

To further complicate the picture, there is the problem of Turkey’s extradition demand for Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher whom was accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt. U.S. officials so far have said the extradition was not a political issue but a legal one, but Yıldırım told reporters on Aug. 20 that according to the 1981 agreement between the two countries, if an arrest warrant is issued against a person, the other country has to arrest him or her “temporarily” for 60 days. 

“When our American friends ask as to make such an arrest, we don’t ask for any further evidence. We do it. We think that the enemy of our friends is our enemy too,” Yıldırım said.” 

Then he said something very interesting that had not been heard before: “What we ask of them is to make a temporary arrest. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to a person [Gülen] who is so closely involved in these matters.” 

That message from Yıldırım would have got to Biden ahead of his visit to Turkey.