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Turkish Airstrikes Target U.S.-Backed Kurds in Christian, Yazidi Territory of Syria and Iraq

The Turkish military has launched a series of airstrikes against the U.S.-allied Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the U.S.-designated terrorist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, which Ankara considers the same organization.

According to reports on the ground, Turkish airstrikes targeted Christian and Yazidi communities in Syria and Iraq, alleging the regions were aiding and abetting PKK terrorists. The attacks also killed soldiers belonging to the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s military, which is allied with both the United States and Turkey.

A press release from the European Syriac Union, a group representing Assyrian/Syriac political and cultural organizations, the Turkish airstrikes targeted the town of Derek, Syria, and the Sinjar region of Iraq. “Derek is a Christian town, which is part of the Federation of Northern Syria where Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians live and govern together and defend together themselves against ISIS,” the group notes. “The Syriac Christians in [Derek] have been part of the fierce resistance against ISIS. They now live in freedom thanks to the freedom of religion in the Federation of Northern Syria that is defended by the Syrian Democratic Forces – SDF.”

“We urge President [Donald] Trump and the European Council to end the genocide against our people and the Yazidi’s [sic],” the release concludes.

The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias largely consisting of YPG soldiers. Reports Wednesday morning suggest that the YPG have already begun a counter-attack on the Turkish military. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports, citing the Turkish military, that the YPG have begun to fire mortars into Turkish military posts in Syria.

The YPG are considered among the most successful militias against the Islamic State, and American forces have relied on them for years to provide ground intelligence in airstrikes against ISIS.

Turkish officials told reporters that they alerted both the American and Russian militaries of their plans to strike in both Derek and Sinjar. “We informed the U.S., one of our allies, that we would carry out an air operation in this region soon and requested that they withdraw their armies to 20-30 kilometers south out of our border,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday. “Under the agreement, two hours before the operation started, we shared information that we would carry out an operation in that region with the U.S. and Russia. We also shared the same information with the air coordination center of the coalition located in Qatar.” Çavuşoğlu also reportedly held a phone call with American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday to discuss the operations.

Tillerson’s State Department issued a statement saying America was “deeply concerned” about the strikes and has “expressed those concerns with the government of Turkey directly.”

“These air strikes were not approved by the coalition and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.

The U.S. Department of Defense, meanwhile, warned Turkey and the YPG to keep the pressure on the Islamic State, not each other. “We encourage all forces to remain focused on the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security and concentrate their efforts on ISIS and not toward objectives that may cause the Coalition to divert energy and resources away from the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” spokeswoman Laura M. Seal told the Kurdish outlet Rudaw.

Rudaw reported that the airstrikes killed at least 20 Kurdish fighters in both Syria and Iraq, including both YPG and Peshmerga fighters. To highlight their displeasure at the strikes, American forces joined Kurdish militia leaders on a tour of the wreckage following the strikes.

While the YPG and Turkish government are openly antagonistic, Turkey has long maintained an alliance with the KRG and its Peshmerga, who have demanded the PKK leave their territory. Turkish airstrikes on the PKK in Sinjar killed five Peshmerga, however, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called “a source of sadness for us.” He clarified, “The Turkish military’s operation is absolutely not against Peshmerga forces.” A report in the Kurdish Bas News agency claims the Turkish government has flown into its territory Peshmerga who were injured in the attack to receive treatment and recovery.

The KRG, nonetheless, called the attacks “a surprise” to them and said they demanded “clarification” from Ankara in private. In comments to the New York Times, Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, blamed the PKK for the attacks. “The PKK is the reason for all of these problems. They are the reason the Turks are bombing,” he argued. “It is not a matter of whether we like it or not. The PKK is dragging the Turks in.”

A Yazidi group based in Germany has also demanded the PKK leave the Sinjar area, which lies in northern Iraq near KRG territory and is home to most of the nation’s Yazidi minority. The Yazidi Lalish Temple demanded in a statement that both the PKK and Turkey “not use Sinjar as a battlefield for cleansing each other, especially now, after the [Yazadi] residents have suffered from regular genocides and cannot resist further wounds and demise.”

The PKK’s presence in Sinjar, far from its operating base in Turkey, has been a source of controversy since the Islamic State was eradicated from the area in 2015. PKK supporters in the region say the Peshmerga fled the battle with ISIS, leaving Yazidis stranded and facing genocide, liberated thanks to the PKK’s resilience. The PKK claims they are indispensable to the security of the region.

“The PKK assists the [Yazidis] to create a self-defense force and administrative institutions,” the PKK said in a statement in January. “Once the [Yazidis] have their own protection force and independent administration, then the PKK’s ambitions will be fulfilled in Shingal.”

The Peshmerga and Yazidi militia leaders argue, however, that the PKK is attempting to colonize the region for itself and establish a Marxist system there. Qasim Shesho, the head of a local Yazidi militia, complained in 2015 that the PKK’s presence hindered his fighters’ ability to attack the Islamic State. “Let them go and save the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, but we will never let them gain power over Shingal,” he asserted.

The mayor of Sinjar, Mahma Khalil, lamented in January that the PKK’s presence will “deepen the crisis and wounds of the [Yazidi] people” so long as they insist on staying in the area.

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