President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that an agreement had been reached on sending 200 Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq through Turkey to help defend the Syrian border town of Kobani against Islamic State.
A senior official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region told Reuters the peshmerga would be equipped with heavier weapons than those being used by Kurdish fighters in Kobani, who say they need armor-piercing weapons to fend off Islamic State.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers on Wednesday approved sending the fighters, marking the semiautonomous region’s first military foray into Syria’s war.
“I have learned that they finally reached agreement on a figure of 200 [fighters],” Erdogan told a news conference in the Latvian capital, Riga.
Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hikmat said preparations to deploy to Kobani were going on, but it would not happen on Thursday.
Islamic State, keen to consolidate territorial gains in northern Syria, has pressed an offensive on Kobani even as US-led forces continue bombing the Islamists’ positions.
The United States has air-dropped weapons and medical supplies to Kurds in Kobani provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Erdogan on Thursday renewed criticism of the move, describing the main Kurdish force defending the town as a terrorist group.
“Did Turkey view this business positively? No, it didn’t. America did this in spite of Turkey and I told him Kobani is not currently a strategic place for you, if anything it is strategic for us,” he said of a telephone call with US President Barack Obama over the weekend.
The Istanbul-based Today’s Zaman newspaper further quoted Erdogan as saying, “I have told him [Obama] that the Democratic Union Party [PYD] and the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] are the same. Therefore, assistance to the PYD goes to the terrorist group [the PKK],” Erdogan said.
“The US did this despite Turkey’s objection.”
On Wednesday, Erdogan told a news conference in the Turkish capital, “What was done here on this subject turned out to be wrong. Why did it turn out wrong? Because some of the weapons they dropped from those C-130s [cargo planes] were seized by ISIL [Islamic State].”
“I have difficulty understanding why Kobani is so strategic for them because there are no civilians there, just around 2,000 fighters,” Erdogan said. “At first they didn’t say yes to peshmergas, but then they gave a partial yes and we said we would help.”
US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf rejected Erdogan’s criticism that the airdrop on Wednesday was “wrong.”
“They [fighters in Kobani] are responding to repeated ISIL [Islamic State] attacks on their city.
And we’ll let the Turkish government speak for itself, but allowing ISIL to seize more territory along the border with Turkey could endanger more Syrian communities and threaten our shared interest with Turkey in defeating ISIL and strengthening the moderate opposition,” she said.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday the vast majority of the US supplies dropped on Sunday had reached the Kurdish fighters despite an online video showing Islamic State jihadists with a bundle.
Although Turkey’s relations with the KRG are close, officials view those defending Kobani with suspicion because of their links with the PKK, outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group after fighting a three-decade long insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that Washington supports the idea of the Iraqi Kurds fighting with the Syrian Kurds to defend Kobani, but was surprised by how slow the process took to get Turkey on board.
“The peshmerga have some appeal in the easternmost Kurdish ‘canton’ in Syria, namely Jazeera, but very little support in Kobani and Afrin ‘cantons’ to the west,” explained Cagaptay.
The main Iraqi Kurdish movement, the KDP, led by KRG President Masoud Barzani, may create some kind of base inside Jazeera, “but the same cannot be said for Kobani or Afrin even if the KDP sends fighters to help the Kurds there,” he said.
This is because the Iraqi KDP is a conservative movement, while the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish rights inside Turkey since 1984, and the PYD are socialist in orientation.
Recently, said Cagaptay, Ankara has improved relations with the Iraqi Kurds, especially with the KDP.
“Though, Turkey’s conservative AKP government would rather have KRG dominate among the Syrian Kurds, that may be a tall order for Ankara’s Kurdish policy,” argued Cagaptay.
Turkey’s opposition have been reporting that Turkey’s AKP government are mainly seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurdish forces there, and “replace it with an Islamist regime like itself,” according to a report released this week by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“We know of the clear aid and support that the AKP government provides ISIS [Islamic State].
We are giving arms, money and moral support to the very organization that wants to kill our own relatives there [i.e. in Kobani],” said the main opposition Republican People’s Party head, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, earlier this month.
“Turkey must be ready to demonstrate its strength at the right time and the right place and must protect those who are harmed by ISIS. There cannot be a massacre there. If our neighbors and relatives are massacred and the AKP government watches it happening, they will pay a high price for this,” he said according to the report.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish factions have signed a deal to share power and set their rivalries aside to capitalize on growing international support for their fight against Islamic State terrorists.
The agreement was reached late on Wednesday after nine days of talks and coincided with a decision by Iraqi Kurdistan to send its own peshmerga forces to relieve fellow Kurds in Kobani.
Early this year, the dominant PYD established three “cantons” in northern Syria and declared self-rule, but other Kurdish parties rejected the move.
Wednesday’s deal, which was signed in Iraqi Kurdistan under the auspices of Barzani, puts decision-making in the hands of a new body in which all parties will be represented.