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Turkey carries out airstrikes, claims to hit 17 Kurdish militant targets

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Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

(Read caption) A plain clothes policeman holds his weapon during investigations after an attack on a police station in Istanbul, Turkey, August 10, 2015. Four Turkish police officers were confirmed dead and one wounded by roadside explosives in an attack by Kurdish militants, the governor's office in the southeast Sirnak province said on Monday.

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The Turkish Air Force launched a new wave of strikes against Kurdish separatists overnight, as the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK group worsens.

The Turkish military says that it struck 17 PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) targets overnight in Hakkâri Province, Turkey's southeastern tip bordering Iran and Iraq. The Associated Press reports that PKK forces also attacked a Turkish infantry brigade in nearby Sirnak Province, killing one soldier.

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Fighting between Turkey and the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and other Western nations, has surged in recent weeks as Turkey has begun military operations in support of the US-led fight against the self-declared Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But Turkey has "largely ignored Islamic State targets" in favor of targeting the PKK, Politico writes – "so far three air strikes have been launched against ISIS, compared to hundreds against the PKK."

The Pentagon is reliant on Kurdish paramilitaries in Syria, known as YPG, to engage IS targets on the ground as US-led forces strike from the air. Fox News reports that "Senior U.S. military leaders have privately expressed frustration that the recent Turkish air strikes against the Kurds could jeopardize the entire anti-ISIS operation," and that Turkey has so far ignored US complaints.

Analysts say that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the conflict with the PKK for political gains. His ruling Justice and Development Party failed to win a majority in June's parliamentary election. Now Mr. Erdogan is linking the outlawed PKK to the upstart People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13 percent of the vote and thwarted his plans to create a more powerful presidency, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month in an analysis of Erdogan's power play.

“There is a political convenience in Turkey escalating violence against the PKK in that you can pressure HDP into having to pick a side,” says Erik Meyersson, an assistant professor at the Stockholm School of Economics. “The HDP would either have to denounce the PKK – and risk losing their Kurdish base – or adopt a more pro-Kurdish rhetoric, which would alienate Turkish voters and risk the ire of the judiciary, which could ban the HDP.”

Moreover, the campaign against the PKK might bolster his own party, the Monitor adds.

“Erdogan views the pro-Kurdish HDP as the main barrier to his aims of amending the constitution to bring about a powerful executive presidential system of government,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The current military campaign against the Islamic State and the PKK may burnish his nationalist credentials among Turkish voters and enable the ruling AKP to reclaim its simple parliamentary majority.”

Dov Friedman, an independent analyst specializing in Turkey and the Northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan, tells Politico that it is difficult to see Erdogan backing down from his current path, given how much is at stake for him politically.

“Erdoğan has shifted tactics unpredictably before, but this anti-Kurdish activity is so new, so flagrant, that imagining an about face is difficult right now.”

However, Friedman argues that the U.S. may have some useful role to play in applying pressure on Turkey to stop its attacks on the Kurds via the Incirlik deal.

“A U.S. condemnation of the crackdown on HDP — and Kurds more generally — could carry considerable weight. The U.S. holds significant leverage in terms of Turkey’s forays across international borders. The U.S. doesn’t have to back Turkey strikes in Qandil. It can insist that if Turkey won’t participate in the anti-ISIS coalition under U.S. direction, that it better not strike Syrian Kurdistan, even inadvertently.”