Relations between two major NATO allies, the United States and Turkey, have suddenly assumed a new dimension over Kobani. The last phase of the Kobani crisis has been tragic for Turkey. While Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave the impression that he was in favor of heeding the Kurds who were demanding a corridor for military and humanitarian assistance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to rattle them by alleging that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Kurdish Syrian political actor, and its military arm, the People's Defense Units (YPG), were terrorist organizations.
On Oct. 18, on his way back from Afghanistan, Erdogan told journalists accompanying him, “Something is going around nowadays. To give weapons support to PYD and with those arms open a new front against [the Islamic State] there? OK, fine, but for us at the moment, the PYD is the same as the [Kurdistan Workers Party] PKK. It, too, is a terror organization. Support for it from our NATO ally America would be very, very wrong. We cannot say yes to such a move.”
For the president, the situation was clear. The PYD was a terror organization and one could never give it weapons. But very recently, Turkish officials received Salih Muslim, co-chair of the organization that Erdogan defines as terrorist, and discussed the situation with him. Meanwhile, the US approach was totally contrary to Turkey’s position. Muslim, who met with US Special Envoy to Syria Daniel Rubinstein in Paris on Oct. 12 and on Oct. 18 in Dahuk, met with US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and his delegation. Muslim told the Americans that the PYD was ready to fight the Islamic State (IS) beyond Kobani. This was an important commitment for the United States, which is still searching for a ground force to fight IS.
Erdogan learned about this change in the US approach 20 minutes after his plane landed in Istanbul, in a phone call from President Barack Obama. Obama informed Erdogan about the weapons assistance to Kobani. Erdogan’s press adviser said, “Erdogan and Obama have agreed to continue with their close cooperation to reinforce the joint struggle against IS.” Shortly after the call, at dawn, three US C-13s airdropped 27 loads of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies west of Kobani. A few hours after the US Central Command confirmed the operation, Turkey’s intransigence cracked at another point. Kurdish Rudaw TV reported that the Turkish government had agreed to the request of Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani to open a corridor and send peshmerga forces to Kobani. This was followed by a statement from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who said, "We are helping to support the transfer of peshmerga forces to Kobani."
US Secretary of State John Kerry said that it would be "irresponsible" not to help those fighting IS in Kobani in what was interpreted as an allusion to the discord with Turkey.
Turkey’s reservations over support for Kobani's Kurds are based on their links to the PKK and the government’s condition that the international coalition expand its anti-IS operations to the Syrian regime. But developments are not permitting Turkey to hold onto its conditions.
The government is under pressure from four quarters to change its position:
- Discord with an ally: In its struggle against IS, the US administration expects Turkey to contribute at levels commensurate with its regional stature while the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is stalling by making equivalencies between the PYD and PKK and between the PKK and IS. Of course, those who remember Libya expected Turkey to step back. The United States did not hesitate to coordinate operations with the YPG, Erdogan's terror group. The declaration by YPG spokesman Polat Can that the group was already cooperating with the international coalition and that there was a YPG representative posted at the coalition's joint operations center shocked many in Turkey. This was yet another indication that Turkey was not going to be able to influence anything with its “PYD/YPG equals PKK” narrative.
- International perceptions: The international perception that Turkey is supporting IS gained credence with the AKP government's Kobani policy. To remove that damaging perception, the government has been trying to create the impression that Kobani was being helped despite Erdogan's rough rhetoric, which is being attributed to his desire to appease his nationalist supporters' strong Kurdish phobia.
- Domestic peace: Kurds who have linked the fate of the peace process in Turkey to Kobani are experiencing a psychological rupture from Turkey. The street violence in which 48 people have been killed has shown how events in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) can influence Turkish society. The government has to soothe its own Kurds as well. It can’t do that by allowing IS to wipe out Kurds in Rojava and watching Kobani's fall from the dozens of tanks lined up at the border, by detaining 273 people from Kobani on charges of being YPG members and resisting Barzani’s request to open a corridor, which the PKK has linked to the fate of the peace process. This is why Turkey opted to take some symbolic steps that would not make much difference but could help change perceptions.
- The futility of using the Kurdish card against Kurds: Since 2012, Turkey has used the influence of the Barzani administration to keep pressure on Rojava's Kurds. But this ploy has been losing value as Barzani himself faces extreme pressure over the weakness of his peshmerga against IS in Kurdish regions, especially Shengal; the remarkable resistance of the PKK/YPG at Kobani and the transformation of Kobani into a Kurdish "Stalingrad."
On Oct. 15, Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament approved a bill recognizing Rojava and extending all possible assistance to it. This bill, introduced by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Goran Movement, was a firm call for Barzani to put aside his traditional animosities.
Although it is not yet known whether the corridor will be used, Turkey’s agreeing to such a plan could be interpreted as a move to influence the Kurdish front. Ankara seeing the Syrian Kurdish National Council get closer to Barzani, as a political instrument that could be used as pressure on the PYD, is now hoping that the peshmerga at Kobani could constitute a military balance with the YPG. The peshmerga’s appearance on the Rojava stage would make things a bit easier for Turkey, which could see such a presence as a means to counterbalance the PKK/PYD.
Such back steps could help alleviate some of the tension, but they might not be enough for the AKP government, with its vacillations and obsessions, to win over the Kurds and change the international perceptions.
It won’t be surprising if there is no follow-up to the corridor declaration. Deputy Foreign Minister of Kobani canton Idriss Nassan told Al-Monitor, "There has been no shipment of weapons or transfer of peshmerga from the corridor. All that happened was the US airdrop of ammunition.”
Turkey’s symbolic steps backward do not mean the end of its conflict with the United States. Erdogan, who of late has frequently linked the United States' Iraq-Syria policy with oil, said Oct. 21, “You are so worried about Kobani, but you don’t have the slightest concern for other cities. There is nobody left in Kobani now. If Kobani is strategic, then it is strategic for us, not for the United States. That is why the measures we take are important.”
It was US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf who, in her Oct. 20 news briefing, made it clear that the United States doesn’t share Ankara’s view of the PYD. When reminded of Erdogan’s remarks equating the PYD with the PKK as a terror organization, she said, "The PYD is a different group than the PKK legally, under United States law.”
“So you believe the PYD is not the same as the PKK?” she was asked again. Harf replied: "They are not the same under United States law. No."
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