Turkey’s relationship with the US and Iraq could be harmed after Ankara was blamed for an attack on an airport in northern Iraq while American military personnel were nearby, analysts told The Media Line.
Iraq told Turkey on Saturday it should issue a formal apology for an attack the previous day on the Sulaymaniyah International Airport and accused Ankara of intimidating civilians.
There was no damage to the airport and no fatalities were reported, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Ankara denied that its forces were involved in the attack, Reuters reported.
Last week Turkey announced that it had closed its airspace to planes using the airport through June 3.
Turkey claims Kurdish groups increasing activity near Sulaymaniyah
Turkey’s foreign ministry said that the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, considered a terrorist group in Turkey for its insurgency calling for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey, had increased its activities in the area and infiltrated the airport.
The convoy of the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, reportedly was the target of the attack; the convoy included US military personnel.
The US has worked with Kurdish fighters in neighboring Syria in its fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, angering NATO ally Turkey.
Turkey, the US and the European Union categorize the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The PKK’s decades-long insurgency in Turkey has involved 40,000 deaths and Ankara asserts that Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq are part of the same group.
Ozgur Ünlühisarcıklı, the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office director, told The Media Line that the incident will add to tension between Turkey and Iraq, as well as with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party that controls the territory where the airport is located.
“Turkey has lately been increasing pressure on the PUK to not accommodate PKK presence in its territory and if Turkey conducted the attack it could be seen as part of this pressure,” according to Ünlühisarcıklı.
He added that Washington also would be concerned if someone being accompanied by its military personnel was the target of an attack.
Abdi accused Turkey of targeting the airport and said he would continue relations with allies in the area.
US military personnel faced strike at airport
Washington, which is allied with the SDF, said it had personnel in a convoy that faced a strike in Sulaymaniyah.
“I can confirm that there was a strike on a convoy in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan Region. That convoy included US military personnel. There were no casualties,” US Central Command Spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino told the Wall Street Journal.
On Wednesday, two days before the attack on the airport, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesperson said that Ankara respects Iraq’s territorial integrity but that it will take steps if terrorist organizations in the country threaten the republic, Turkey’s state news agency reported.
"We know that the PKK has a very serious establishment in Sulaymaniyah," Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, according to Anadolu Agency.
"No matter where the PKK exists, we will never allow it to nest there and become a threat to our country,” he also said.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst for the risk intelligence company RANE, says the incident could cause “turbulence” in Turkey’s relationship with Iraq.
He says that Ankara believes that while there may be diplomatic tension with Washington, it will not suffer major consequences, such as sanctions from the US, over its fight with Kurdish armed groups, because it is too valuable as a member of NATO.
“If US troops are caught up in any of these strikes, then we will probably be looking at a more significant, if still temporary, break between the two,” Bohl told The Media Line.
Turkey has carried out military operations in Syria and Iraq against Kurdish fighters for years.
Last year, Erdogan said his country was planning another offensive in Syria although analysts believe that would require acceptance from Russia and the US.
Attacks against Kurdish fighters near Turkey’s borders have had widespread support within the country.
Such operations would especially appeal to nationalist voters who make up Erdogan’s base. Turkish citizens are set to go to the polls on May 14 for presidential and parliamentary elections.
They are expected to be the opposition’s best chance at beating Erdogan after 20 years in office, with several surveys putting the president behind the main opposition alliance’s candidate.