WASHINGTON (AP) — Turkey's dramatic air campaign against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces has created a bit of a conundrum for President Barack Obama, who is leading the fight against one of Turkey's targets while relying heavily on the other target.
In a dizzying array of alliances, Obama has been pleading with Turkey for nearly a year to fight the Islamic State more aggressively and allow the U.S. military to launch airstrikes from its Incirlik air base. Finally Turkey agreed, in a deal announced last week, and days later, the U.S. said it would help Turkey oust Islamic State from a 68-mile stretch in Syria along the Turkish border.
But in an unexpected twist, Turkey abruptly began bombing Kurdish rebels in Iraq, where Kurds have proven unusually capable of wresting back territory from the extremist Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic.
"Knowingly or not, the U.S. is going to end up having to choose between the Turks and the Kurds," said Blaise Misztal, national security director at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
So far, it appears to be siding with Turkey, a NATO ally.
Obama administration officials said Turkey has the right to defend itself against recent terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a long insurgency in Turkey. The U.S. considers the PKK a terrorist group, but is supporting and equipping other Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria that share its goal of routing the Islamic State.
The White House has rejected claims that Obama agreed to look the other way to secure Turkey's help against IS. Although Turkey began shelling Islamic State and Kurdish targets on the same day, the administration insists there's no connection.
"I understand the coincidence of all of this, but it is just that," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Likewise, senior U.S. officials said Turkey agreed two weeks ago to let the U.S. launch airstrikes from Incirlik and elsewhere in Turkey. That was before the PKK killed two policemen in Turkey and took credit for it, which the officials said was the reason Turkey struck the Kurds.
But Turkey isn't drawing any such distinction.
"There is no difference between PKK and Daesh," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. And Turkey specifically referenced its strikes against Kurdish rebels when it called an urgent NATO session Tuesday under the alliance's Article 4, which allows member states to request a meeting if they feel their security is under threat.
While defending Turkey publicly, the U.S. has been urging Turkey to be "judicious" in its retaliation against the PKK, said the U.S. officials, who weren't authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity. Already the PKK has declared the end of its cease-fire with Turkey, raising the specter of yet another complex conflict in a region the U.S. and its coalition partners are working to calm.
Turkish jets pounded PKK rebels on Tuesday after soldiers were fired on with heavy weaponry in Sirnak province, in an escalation of the fighting. Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Turkish Kurds' main political party, said Turkey's prime minister was "step by step taking Turkey toward a war."
Obama's strategy against the Islamic State depends on local forces in Iraq and Syria fighting the militants on the ground while the U.S-led coalition provides cover from the air. Despite U.S. training, Iraq's military has been slow to take the advantage. The Kurds, an ethnic group with their own language with populations in Syria and Iraq, have helped loosen the Islamic State's hold on key sections of both countries.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday that his council of ministers views Turkish airstrikes in his country as "a dangerous escalation and a violation of Iraq's sovereignty."
Until he shifted course last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been primarily focused on opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad in the brutal Syrian civil war — putting him at odds with Obama, who has said fighting Islamic State is the priority. But recent attacks blamed on Islamic State inside Turkey drew alarm from Turkey's government, leading to its decision to step up its role in Obama's coalition.
"The price Turkey wants for cooperation is a free hand against the Kurds," said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official who runs the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Granting a longstanding Turkish request, the U.S. agreed to work with Turkey to create an "Islamic State-free zone" along the Turkey-Syria border, although the U.S. stopped short of agreeing to a no-fly zone.
Yet senior U.S. officials said they still hadn't determined which Syrian rebels will do the fighting on the ground.
The main Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, is affiliated with the PKK, and claimed Monday that it had been shelled by Turkish troops. Turkey said it isn't targeting the YPG, but promised an investigation. The other potent force there that opposes Islamic State in Syria, the Nusra Front, is linked to al-Qaida. And the U.S. acknowledged recently it has only managed to train 60 so-called moderate Syrian rebels to fight IS.