ISTANBUL, WASHINGTON (The Wall Street Journal)—Turkish jets bombed U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds battling Islamic State, as Ankara and Washington’s competing priorities in the multisided Syria conflict strain ties between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
There were conflicting reports on Thursday about who was hit in the overnight attack, and the death tolls varied significantly.
As many as 200 Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, fighters were killed in 26 strikes on 18 targets, the Turkish military said, in what would appear to be Turkey’s deadliest strike yet on Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The U.S. is working to assemble a force to retake Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. The goal is to limit the militants’ ability to aid comrades in other strongholds in Syria and Iraq, and to seal off escape routes for fighters who might try to flee to Europe. Read More
However, the Syrian Democratic Forces—which includes Arab and Turkmen fighters but is made up mostly of YPG members—contested Turkey’s claim, with spokesman Ahmad Hisso Araj putting the casualties at 15 people, including civilians.
The death toll couldn’t be independently verified.
A U.S. official said the Turkish strikes hit Kurdish positions in and around the northern Syria region of Afrin. The Afrin Kurds are allied with Kurdish forces further east whom the U.S. is arming and advising, but they are not direct U.S. partners, the official said.
Still, the Turkish strikes elicited dismay in Washington by upsetting Kurdish allies the U.S. is preparing directly to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State and make other gains against the extremist group in northern Syria, the official said.
Turkey’s attack comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming increasingly assertive in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, sparring with Baghdad and NATO allies while threatening to act unilaterally if the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State fails to address Ankara’s concerns.
“We will not wait for troubles to come knocking on our door,” Mr. Erdogan said Wednesday in Ankara, citing threats to Turkey’s security from Syria and Iraq. “We will see to it that the threats are destroyed, resolved at their source.”
Yet the strikes come at a particularly sensitive time for the Pentagon. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is due to meet with Turkish officials in the coming days in Turkey and elsewhere to discuss the fight against Islamic State. Mr. Carter declined to comment on the Turkish strikes against the Kurds on Thursday.
Washington wants to see all use of coalition force in the area focused on defeating Islamic State, the U.S. official said.
Fighting a three-pronged war in Syria, Turkey wants to topple President Bashar al-Assad, quash Islamic State, and prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomy on its southern border.
Ankara’s Arab allies—led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia—back the effort against Mr. Assad, and Turkey is part of the international campaign against Islamic State, which has killed more than 250 people in attacks inside Turkey.
But in the fight against the Syrian Kurdish YPG, Turkey is largely alone.
The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that his killed more than 40,000 people. While Turkey and its NATO allies list the PKK as a terrorist organization, only Ankara extends that designation to the YPG, which enjoys Western support.
Erdogan has repeatedly slammed the U.S. for partnering with the YPG in the fight against Islamic State, saying Washington is choosing a terrorist organization over its NATO ally. On Monday, he said Turkey will take matters into its own hands unless the U.S. convinces Syrian Kurds to halt their westward push to link their territories in northeastern Syria with the Afrin region they control in the northwest.
Vice President Joe Biden said during an August visit to Ankara that the YPG must withdraw from Manbij, which Syrian Kurds had liberated from Islamic State, if it wants continued U.S. support. While Syrian Kurdish forces claim to have evacuated the frontier town bordering areas controlled by Islamic State to the south and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to the north, Turkey contends the YPG maintains a presence.
The Turkish airstrikes late Wednesday came as Syrian Democratic Forces pushed east from Afrin into Islamic State territory toward Manbij, according to SDF’s Mr. Araj and Turkey’s military. The attack highlights Ankara’s determination to prevent Syrian Kurds from consolidating their territory while Turkey pushes to establish a de facto safe zone for Syrian rebels on its southern border.