The U.S. military in October 2014, ceased providing drone surveillance and reconnaissance support on PKK targets in northern Iraq for the Turkish military amid the siege on the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria, a senior Turkish official told Daily Sabah.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington and Ankara had differences at the time over the level of threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the PKK against Turkey. Turkish officials perceived the PKK as another immediate threat while the United States wanted to focus more on ISIS's siege of Kobani, and began to use its two Predator drones, stationed at İncirlik Air Base in Adana since 2011, to locate ISIS targets. "The Americans said they don't have time for PKK targets since they wanted to take ISIS down in Syria. But the coordination between the parties was not very good at the beginning in 2013," the Turkish official said. Such cooperation had been ongoing since 2007.
A former senior Turkish military official also confirmed that the U.S. stopped providing intelligence on PKK hideouts in northern Iraq by the beginning of November 2014. Metin Gurcan, the former communications coordinator for the General Staff until January 2015 and now an independent analyst, said that the U.S. never embraced Turkey's equal treatment of ISIS and the PKK. "November 2014 is a milestone in Turkish-American relations. The drones kept flying but the intel was gone," he said.
Turkey had been troubled with Washington's recognition of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a separate entity from the PKK, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strongly opposed the U.S.'s decision to airdrop weapons to the PYD's armed People's Protection Units (YPG) to replenish their military resources last year in October. Despite the PKK leadership's previous statements, PKK militants' testimonies proving the existence of organic links between the two groups, the U.S. recognized the PYD as an independent organization. This week State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. government does not perceive the PYD as a terrorist group, which significantly helped U.S. efforts to push ISIS back in Syria for the last year. This divergence of opinion regarding the PYD and PKK also complicated the two countries' mutual strategy against the extremist group, leading one-sided U.S. decisions such as the stopping reconnaissance cooperation with Turkey in the backdrop of the Kobani siege and urban unrest in Turkey sparked by PKK-linked, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş's announcement that cost more than 50 lives in October.
However, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's administration's change of priorities, such military-to-military engagement had comprised long-standing cooperation for the last two U.S. administrations.
The U.S. decided to aid Turkey in terms of military intelligence on PKK bases in northern Iraq in 2007 following a meeting between Erdoğan – then as prime minister – and then U.S. President George W. Bush. The U.S. was touched by the October 2007 PKK attack on the Turkish Army outpost in Dağlıca near the Iraqi border in which 12 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight were taken prisoner. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, but coordination on PKK targets in Iraq was not the best. A WikiLeaks cable dated February 2010 and signed by U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey, said "subsequent [the Dağlıca] attack, the [U.S. government] began providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to Turkish military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq."
Another WikiLeaks cable dated January 2010 said the intelligence coordination continued with the Obama administration and the cooperation had helped to improve bilateral relations across the board.
A former U.S. diplomat said by 2014 the reconnaissance flights were conducted and even then U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone acknowledged to the press on the record that the U.S. was supporting Turkey with reconnaissance missions.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the Turkish-American intelligence cooperation against PKK targets in northern Iraq. Major James Brindle reiterated the U.S.'s view on the PKK and said Washington recognizes Turkey's right to self-defense and called on the PKK to stop its attacks in Turkey and return to the negotiating table.
A senior Turkish official said overall Turkish-American intelligence cooperation on the PKK was still continuing. "Even though there are some problems, you can't say that the U.S. stopped providing intelligence," the official said, but declined to comment when asked about the specific area of cooperation in northern Iraq.
A second U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, also refused to specifically comment on drone surveillance. He said both countries cooperate closely on intelligence sharing and counterterrorism efforts across the board, including against ISIS and the PKK. "Such cooperation is long-standing, ongoing and uninterrupted" he added.
Ceren Kenar contributed to this report.