By Joe Dyke and Noah Blaser

Late last month, Turkey launched airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in what the United States welcomed as a major moment in developing a joint strategy to tackle the Islamist militants.

But one day later, Ankara also renewed its military campaign against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), mostly by bombing rebel bases across the border in the mountains of northern Iraq. Turkey fought a bloody 30-year civil war with the PKK separatists until an historic ceasefire in 2013.

The United States considers the PKK a terrorist group, but its sister organisation in Syria has been a key US ally in the fight against ISIS. US President Barack Obama warned Turkey not to use ISIS as an excuse to bomb the Kurdish rebels, but the PKK leadership says this is exactly what it is doing.

Does the evidence stack up? IRIN ran the numbers.


Since the initial days (when there were three airstrikes), Turkey has carried out no more attacks against ISIS. In Iraq and far eastern Turkey, however, there have been dozens. The Turkish government does not release exact numbers or locations, but Metin Gurcan, a former member of the Turkish special forces and now an analyst tracking the crisis, says there have been five waves of attacks against the PKK. In total, he estimates around 300 strikes – including a large number from storm howitzers based near the Turkey-Iraq border.

Likewise, the number of fighters killed is almost incomparable – just nine ISIS militants, compared with nearly 400 Kurdish fighters.

The two conflict sites are hardly close. As the map below shows, the areas they are bombing are some 600 kilometres apart. 

The map shows just a fraction of the attacks as Turkey does not release full data. Zoom in and out using the toggle in the top left and click on a dot to reveal more.

On this evidence alone, it would appear that Turkey is vastly prioritising the fight against PKK over ISIS. "The airstrikes against the PKK have been much more comprehensive and strategic. Against ISIS it was only 3 strikes and only 5 munitions used," Gurcan said.

However, Turkey has also permitted the United States to use a key base to target the Islamists and has promised to scale up its own assault. “Turkey has every right to fight against an internationally-recognised terrorist group which has launched hundreds of attacks in recent days,” a Turkish official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with protocol, told IRIN. The official said that airstrikes against the PKK began after the group claimed credit for the 22 July murder of two Turkish police officers. The PKK claimed that the officers had assisted an ISIS suicide bomber in killing 32 pro-Kurdish activists in the border town of Suruc on 20 July.


Two months before the campaign began, Turkey held inconclusive parliamentary elections. For the first time in over a decade (see chart right), the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was left without a majority, while the predominately Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) made major gains. The four parties in parliament have been unable to form a coalition and so another election looks likely.

Critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP's most prominent figure, accuse him of restarting the war with the Kurds in order to bolster his electoral support. The HDP estimates that more than 1,000 of its members have been detained as Erdogan has cracked down since the Suruc bombing, which targeted its supporters but was widely blamed on ISIS.

Ege Seckin, Turkey analyst at the IHS think-tank, said Erdogan and the AKP were trying to play a double game to keep international support and strengthen their prospects for a potential snap election.

“They have an interest to play down the airstrikes on the PKK in the eyes of the international community, while highlighting them to Turkey’s nationalist electorate at home”.


The threat

Obama was keen to stress to Ankara that they should not forget that ISIS poses the largest threat to world peace. But, from where Erdogan sits, is the PKK the bigger danger to the territorial integrity of Turkey?

In contrast to the newly-emergent ISIS, the PKK is Turkey's long established foe. The recent revival in attacks recalls the bitter decades-long struggle that cost more than 30,000 lives since 1984. Following on from the 2013 ceasefire, there was hope of a historic peace deal earlier this year, but such optimism evaporated over the past month as the PKK launched deadly attacks once again, bringing the swift and large-scale Turkish response.

Many in Turkey, therefore, feel it is the PKK, rather than ISIS, that poses a more fundamental threat. 

To support their argument, they could point to the number of attacks carried out since June 1 inside Turkish territory. The PKK have conducted dozens of operations across the south and most recently in the largest city Istanbul. ISIS, in contrast, have carried out just three attacks.

The number of casualties caused by both groups is similar, largely due to the 32 civilians killed in the Suruc attack, but the targets chosen are vastly different. Whereas the PKK has picked largely state targets - the military and the police - ISIS has attacked civilians (see chart below left).


Those that claim that Turkey is more focussed on fighting the PKK than ISIS certainly have plenty of evidence - from the huge disparity in air strikes to the number of arrests.

With elections looming, political calculations certainly play a part, but while the United States and other Western country may see the Islamic State as the most immediate threat for Turkey, those in power in Ankara seem to disagree.