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editorial

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, March 3, 2015.Umit Bektas/Reuters

For more than a year, Turkey has been unwilling to support the coalition forces battling Islamic State fighters in Syria and Northern Iraq. And then, all of a sudden, in the space of a week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends jets to bomb IS positions and makes two key airbases available to American and NATO bombers.

This is a dramatic turnaround on Mr. Erdogan's part. While welcome on one level, there is good reason to question the decision.

The Turkish president has been reluctant to take part in the battle against IS because the coalition's main regional allies are Kurds. The United States, which is leading the coalition, is close to the Kurdish regional government in Northern Iraq – as is Canada's government and military mission – and has been building bridges with a Kurdish militia inside Syria called the People's Defence Units (YPG).

But the YPG is allied with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organization that has waged war with the Turkish government for decades. Since 2013, Turkey and the PKK have held a fragile ceasefire. In 2014, PKK fighters began taking on IS fighters in Syria and Iraq. The international community, which labels the PKK a terrorist organization, has begun to see the group in a new light. And meanwhile in Turkey, the growing popularity of the pro-Kurdish HDP party was a big part of the reason Mr. Erdogan lost his majority in parliamentary elections last month.

These developments prompted Mr. Erdogan to become engaged in the battle against IS. Turkish jets didn't bomb only IS positions last week – they also attacked the PKK. Mr. Erdogan publicly equates the two groups, which is unfair but suits his purposes. Observers believe he is trying to stir up anti-Kurdish sentiments and exploit a wedge issue in Turkish politics, so that he can call a snap election this fall.

NATO, including Canada, should be wary of Mr. Erdogan's intentions. Yes, Turkey deserves support for taking in two million Syrian refugees: Mr. Erdogan's deal with the allies includes a plan to create a 100-kilometre wide safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, to which refugees can return.

But he should not be allowed to leverage the battle against Islamic State as a means of prosecuting a campaign against the region's Kurds. Keep Mr. Erdogan as an ally, and keep him in check.