by Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik
Turkey and the US share certain common interests in the Syrian civil war, from defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and checking Iran’s influence to calling for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power. Yet Ankara and Washington are not on the same page in terms of strategies for achieving their objectives. Syria’s unresolved “Kurdish question” is the main source of tension between these two NATO allies. The Trump administration backs the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the dominant Kurdish militia in Syria, as a vital ally in Washington’s struggle to eradicate IS, just as Barack Obama’s administration did. Washington also supports the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella of militias of which the YPG is the strongest one. Yet, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government perceive this Syrian Kurdish faction as a terrorist threat to Turkey’s national security and finds US support for the group to be unacceptable.
Ankara and Washington’s failure to see eye-to-eye on the YPG is not new. The US position on the YPG has strained Washington’s alliance with its key NATO ally for several years. However, the situation has recently become increasingly dangerous. Ankara stepped up its military action against YPG forces on April 25 with airstrikes that left 25 of the militia’s members dead in Mount Karachock, near Derik.
US military forces, deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border, are tasked with preventing Turkish-YPG clashes. Given the Syrian Kurdish militia’s important contributions to the fight against IS, Washington sees the Turkish military killing its fighters as highly problematic. From NATO’s perspective in maintaining cohesion, the worst-case scenario could involve the Turkish military unintentionally bombing US forces, which would obviously disrupt Trump’s relationship with Erdogan.
Private citizens from America, Germany, and other Western countries have also joined the YPG’s ranks to fight IS. Some of these Westerners include former US troops who previously deployed to Iraq and fought a pre-existing version of IS during the occupation (2003-2011) and feel personally obligated to continue the fight. Others are more ideologically attached to the YPG’s left-wing/Marxist doctrine.
This issue will be on the agenda when Erdogan visits the White House on May 16. If Ankara and Washington fail to reach an agreement on the YPG, these two NATO allies might find themselves on a collision course. This comes at a delicate time in Washington’s campaign to defeat IS and restore US credibility as well as historic alliances in the tumultuous Middle East.
Trump’s talk of safe zones in Syria has enjoyed a positive response in Turkey and Russia. In talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, which began on May 3 in Sochi, the Turkish president told his Russian counterpart that their two countries could “change the destiny of the whole region” as Putin pressed forward with his plans for safe zones in Syria. The Russian president raised this issue with Erdogan only one day after he discussed the topic with Trump in what the White House later called a “very good” phone conversation. Yet without resolving the issue of the YPG, which Russia also backs, such tension could easily undermine the prospects for trilateral cooperation between Ankara, Moscow, and Washington in support of safe zones in parts of Syria.
Although the US joins Turkey in designating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization, the Obama and Trump administrations have distinguished between the PKK and the YPG. Ankara makes no such distinction, understanding the YPG to represent the PKK’s Syria-based offshoot and identifying links between the two. The Turkish government and nationalist-leaning Turks see the YPG’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region/governorate in northeastern Syria as dangerous for two main reasons. First, this territory, directly south of the Turkish-Syrian border, could become a safe haven for the PKK. Second, independence or autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan could easily embolden the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, largely concentrated in the country’s southeast.
With the exception of the highly limited US military strike on a Syrian Arab Army (SAA) airbase near Homs on April 7, which did virtually nothing to weaken the regime’s position in the ongoing civil war, all of the Trump administration’s military action in Syria has targeted Salafist-Jihadist forces, chiefly IS. Turkey, however, maintains that the terrorist threat stemming from Syria comes in the form of IS, al-Qaeda, and other militant Sunni fundamentalist actors in addition to the YPG. Neither Ankara nor Washington will likely change each other’s perception of the YPG, either as an ally in the “global war on terrorism” or as a terrorist threat itself. This fundamental disagreement even threatens the NATO alliance.
The difficulties of enhancing cooperation with Turkey is illustrative of a greater challenge that the White House will face as Washington seeks to collaborate with regional allies in the struggle against what Trump identifies as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Focused on chasing IS from Raqqa and Mosul, the Trump administration is dealing with partners in the Middle East who share a similar vision of a post-IS Middle East but have major disagreements about who will rule Raqqa and other parts of Syria after the so-called caliphate evaporates.
Convincing Turkey and other regional allies to put such concerns about Kurds off to the side for the short-term and shift substantially more attention toward fighting IS will be no easy task for the Trump administration. With Erdogan visiting the White House this month, Trump will most likely try to achieve with the Turkish president what he has sought to do with other world leaders since entering the Oval Office four-and-a-half months ago. He is likely to establish a personal relationship with Erdogan, building on the recent phone call in which Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Turkey’s president on the April 16 constitutional referendum’s outcome.
It is difficult, however, to imagine Trump successfully assuaging Erdogan’s concerns about Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish group. Beyond the YPG, other sensitive and charged issues include the Turkish government’s allegations of US involvement in the July 2016 coup plot and the US government’s denial of Ankara’s Fethullah Gülen extradition requests. Emboldened by his watershed political victory last month, Erdogan will try to pressure Trump into caving on the YPG and pushing these other issues as well.
With extremely low approval ratings for his first 100 days, Trump is hoping for a major victory against IS in Raqqa so that he can claim an achievement that eluded the previous administration. Severing America’s support for the SDF or PYD at this sensitive period is highly unlikely. Expect, therefore, continued friction in US-Turkey relations, despite the affinity Trump has for his friend in Ankara.
Theodore Karasik is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Photo of YPG fighters courtesy of Kurdishstruggle via Flickr.