Istanbul and Suruç, Reuters—War against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in Syria and Iraq threatened to spill into Turkey on Tuesday, where reports emerged that the air force had bombed Kurdish fighters furious at Ankara’s refusal to help protect their kin in Syria.
At least 35 people were killed in riots last week when members of Turkey’s 15-million-strong Kurdish minority rose up in anger at the government for refusing to help defend the Syrian border town of Kobani from an ISIS assault.
Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has threatened to call off talks to end a decades-old insurgency in Turkey if no progress is made by Wednesday.
The Hürriyet newspaper’s website said Turkish warplanes had hit PKK targets in Turkey on Sunday, the first such strikes since a peace process began in Turkey two years ago. The strikes were also reported by media sympathetic to the PKK.
A US-led coalition is launching airstrikes against ISIS fighters who control swaths of Syria and seized much of northern Iraq in recent months. The turmoil in Turkey shows the danger of spillover from two complex wars in which every country in the Middle East has a stake.
Ankara has refused to join the US-led military coalition against ISIS unless it also confronts Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. On Monday it denied US assertions that it had agreed to let American planes take off from its air bases.
Meanwhile, ISIS fighters have been fighting their way into the mainly Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobani, where the United Nations says thousands could be massacred within full view of Turkish tanks that have done nothing to intervene.
The fate of Kobani could wreck efforts by the Turkish government to end a three-decades-long insurgency by PKK militants, a conflict that killed 40,000 people but largely ended with the start of a peace process in 2012.
There was no immediate comment from the military on the report that it bombed Kurdish positions, once a regular occurrence in southeast Turkey but something that had not taken place for two years.
Hürriyet said the airstrikes on Sunday caused “major damage” to the PKK. They were launched after three days of PKK attacks on a military outpost in Hakkâri province near the Iraqi border, it added.
“F-16 and F-4 warplanes which took off from [bases in the southeastern provinces of] Diyarbakır and Malatya rained down bombs on PKK targets after they attacked a military outpost in the Dağlıca region,” Hürriyet said.
It said the PKK had attacked the outpost for three days with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. The general staff said in a statement it had “opened fired immediately in retaliation in the strongest terms” after PKK attacks in the area, but did not mention airstrikes.
Jailed PKK co-founder Öcalan has said peace talks between his group and the Turkish state could come to an end by Wednesday. After visiting him in jail last week, Öcalan’s brother Mehmet told reporters the PKK leader had said: “We will wait until October 15. We will convey to the visiting delegations our thoughts. After that there will be nothing we can do.”
The peace process with the Kurds is one of the main initiatives of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decade in power, and its potential collapse shows the difficulty Turkey has had in designing a Syria policy. Turkey has already taken in some 1.2 million refugees from Syria’s three-year conflict, including 200,000 Kurds who fled the area around Kobani in recent weeks.
US officials have expressed frustration at Erdoğan’s refusal to help them fight against ISIS.
The battle for Kobani has grinded on for nearly a month, with ISIS slowly advancing and now in control of much of the town. Kurdish fighters known as Popular Protection Units (YPG), allies of the PKK, are demanding Turkey allow arms across the border to help them resupply.
“There are fierce clashes, with no retreat or progress [by ISIS]. Yesterday, [ISIS] detonated three suicide car bombs in eastern Kobani,” said Öcalan Iso, deputy head of the Kobani Defense Council.
In the Turkish town of Suruç, 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the Syrian frontier, a funeral for four female YPG fighters was being held. Hundreds at the cemetery chanted “Murderer Erdoğan” in Turkish and also “long live YPG” in Kurdish.
Sehahmed, 42, at the cemetery to visit the grave of his son who was a YPG fighter and died only a few days ago, said if Turkey had intervened in Kobani, the town would have been saved.
“For days now they are just watching our people get killed. [US President Barack] Obama is too late too. [ISIS] is now inside the city, they’re on the streets. The airstrikes won’t work, it will only delay the inevitable. It’s too late for us. Our poor people, we face one disaster after another.”
The US-led coalition has hit ISIS positions in and around the town but failed to halt the advance. At least six airstrikes were heard from the Turkish side of the border on Tuesday. Gunfire and shelling were audible from the Turkish side, where Kurds, many with relatives fighting in Kobani, have maintained a vigil, watching the fighting from hillsides.
“I hear that people say [ISIS] controls the east and southeast but in fact they are scattered all across the city. That is why clashes are taking place pretty much everywhere,” Adil Selmo, 28, said as he stood on the Turkish said.
He said his brother-in-law was still in Kobani and no weapons or ammunition had made it into the town.
Obama will discuss a strategy to counter ISIS on Tuesday with military leaders from 20 countries, including Turkey, Arab states and Western allies, amid growing pressure to do more to stop the militants’ advance.
Kurds in neighboring Iraq, who are also fighting hard against ISIS, said they had sent ammunition to help their brethren in Syria make their stand in Kobani. Alan Othman, a Syrian Kurdish media official, said the shipment was trapped in another part of Syria and could not get to Kobani without help from Turkey opening a supply corridor.
In Iraq, Kurdish forces and government troops have rolled back some ISIS gains in the north of the country in recent weeks, but the fighters have advanced in the west, seizing territory in the Euphrates Valley within striking distance of the capital Baghdad.
The United States used helicopter gunships against the militants last week for the first time to prevent what Washington described as a threat to Baghdad’s airport.
The White House says it will not send US forces back into ground combat in Iraq, where Obama withdrew all troops in 2011 after an eight-year occupation. US commanders have spoken of increasing US advice and support for Iraqi ground forces.