Turkey said Friday that it will reach out to the Syrian Kurdish militia that it previously has condemned in hopes of establishing a working relationship that would prevent the Islamic State from seizing areas north of Aleppo.
But the conditions suggested for better relations seemed unlikely to be greeted warmly by the militia. They include the removal of the militia’s flag from Tal Abyad, a Syrian town across the border from Turkey’s Akcakale that the militia captured from the Islamic State last month with the aid of U.S. airstrikes.
A spokesman for the militia, Redur Xalil, declined to comment.
In a briefing for Turkish reporters, a senior Turkish government official said the outreach would come in hopes of countering an Islamic State offensive that captured several towns north of Aleppo in recent weeks, a development that worries Turkey because Islamic State control of the area would cut supply lines to rebel groups inside Aleppo.
Turkey’s hostility toward the Kurdish militia has helped feed worsening relations with the United States.
The Turkish official said that the Syrian government had agreed at a meeting in late May in Syria’s Hasakah province to allow the Islamic State to take over the region north of Aleppo now largely under the control of moderate rebel forces and to provide air cover for the Islamic State to fight the rebels.
Officials would not say how the Turkish government knew of the meeting. They said Syrian government forces have limited control in the region and had bombed rebel positions as the Islamic State launched its operation.
Moderate rebels made similar assertions last month, telling McClatchy that Syrian government aircraft had bombed moderate rebel positions as Islamic State forces advanced on the towns of Marea and Soran.
Since then, the U.S.-led coalition has opened a new front in northern Syria and carried out 11 airstrikes in June. The official said the raids may have blunted the Islamic State offensive, but other officials interviewed by McClatchy said the airstrikes were not sufficient.
An Islamist force that included al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate on Friday mounted a major assault on government positions in Aleppo.
McClatchy was not present at the briefing but obtained the content from others who were. McClatchy agreed not to identify the official in return for information about what he had said.
Turkey’s hostility toward the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG by it Kurdish-language initials, has added to tensions with the United States. The United States has cooperated with the YPG for months, starting with the battle for Kobani last year in which Kurdish forces, aided by hundreds of U.S. air strikes, beat back an Islamic State offensive.
Since then, the YPG has captured dozens of villages in northern Syria from the Islamic State, often coordinating with the United States. A Pentagon official acknowledged earlier this week that Kurdish forces in Syria telephone a joint operations center in Iraq when they need air support against the Islamic State.
Turkey, however, views the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK by its initials, which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish government. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.
Turkey still won’t let the United States use the Incirlik air base for such strikes on the Islamic State.
The official provided no details on how the Turkish government intended to reach out to the YPG. But another official who spoke to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said Turkey was using both public and private channels. Both officials said the outreach would convey a number of demands, including that the YPG allow the return of Arab residents to Tal Abyad and that it give up on its plans to establish an autonomous Kurdish government in the towns it controls.
The YPG “can be a rational actor in the future of Syria, but it depends on how they act,” the official said, according to those present.
The official said Turkey is talking to the United States about joint operations against the Islamic State in northern Syria, including Turkish air strikes, but that there was still no agreement on allowing the United States to use the Incirlik air base in Turkey for such strikes. The official said Turkey will continue to refuse to allow the use of Incirlik unless the United States agrees to the establishment of a safe zone inside Syria, something the U.S. was declined to do for years.
The Turkish briefing comes after a week of speculation about whether Turkey would send military forces into Syria in a move that some analysts said would be intended primarily to prevent the YPG from capturing the Syrian town of Jarablus. Turkey now considers a YPG move on Jarablus unlikely because its forces are stretched thin, two Turkish officials said.
Meanwhile, an Islamist force that included al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate on Friday mounted a major assault on government positions inside Aleppo in what may be the biggest offensive in two years. The new rebel coalition, which appeared to exclude U.S.-backed rebels, said its aim was to liberate the city and establish a government under Islamic law.
Special correspondents Duygu Guvenc in Ankara and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc