On Oct. 19, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it had conducted multiple airdrops near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which has remained under siege by Islamic State (IS) fighters for more than a month. CENTCOM said US C-13 cargo planes had made multiple drops of arms, ammunition, and medical supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq. The move is set to have a profound effect on regional balances between Turkey, the Kurds and the United States that will likely reverberate in Tehran and in Damascus as well.
For several weeks now, the US and its allies have been bombing IS positions around Kobani. But the delivery of weapons takes the de facto alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the United States to a new level.
Turkey, which borders Kobani, is best positioned to help the Syrian Kurds. But the country’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party has spurned repeated Syrian Kurdish demands to allow weapons and fighters to cross through Turkey into the Syrian Kurdish enclave. On Oct. 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is battling IS in Kobani, were “the same as the PKK. “It’s a terrorist organization. It would be very, very wrong to expect us to openly say ‘yes’ to our NATO ally America to give this kind of [armed] support [to the PYD],” Erdogan declared.
Erdogan was referring to the PYD’s close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting on and off for self-rule inside Turkey since 1984. The PKK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, and until last month successive US administrations refused to have any contact either with the PKK or the PYD. But the PKK and the YPG’s effectiveness against IS both in Iraq and Syria has triggered a paradigm shift in US strategic thinking. The US and the Syrian Kurds are now allies in the war against IS.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia that while the Obama administration understood Turkey’s concerns, it would have been “irresponsible” and “morally difficult” not to support the Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS.
Kerry said IS had chosen to “make this a ground battle, attacking a small group of people there who, while they are an offshoot group of the folks that our friends the Turks oppose, they are valiantly fighting ISIL and we cannot take our eye off the prize here.” Kerry stressed, however, that it was “a momentary effort” and that the US had “made it very clear” to Turkey that it “is not a shift in the policy of the United States.”
Kerry’s words came hours after US President Barack Obama spoke over the telephone with Erdogan about Kobani. News emerged soon after that Turkey would be allowing Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross through Turkey into Kobani carrying fresh weapons for the YPG. How in the space of 48 hours did Turkey go from calling the PYD terrorists to opening an arms corridor for them?
As analysts ponder these dizzying changes, here a few immediate factors to consider:
Turkey could have led the effort to support anti-IS forces in Kobani by letting arms and fighters through its borders weeks ago. This would have bolstered the peace process between Turkey and its own Kurds, while averting the public relations disaster caused by images of Turkish tanks and soldiers looking on as the Syrian Kurds battled IS in Kobani, thereby reinforcing claims that “Turkey supports IS.
The fact that Turkey was forced into opening a corridor to Kobani only after the US informed Ankara that it would go ahead with the airdrops anyway only increases doubts about Turkey’s commitment to working with its Western partners. It also plays into the hands of Erdogan’s domestic rivals, who will now say he is America’s poodle and that the US is using the PKK to tame Turkey.
One big question is whether the recent days’ events mean that the PYD will move away from the PKK. The likely answer is that the PKK will seek to move closer to the US. The PKK has already established a channel of communication with the US via the PYD in Syria, and is also fighting alongside US-supported Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq. Any attempt to drive a wedge between the PYD and the PKK is doomed to fail. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder and leader of their PKK, commands the loyalty of Syrian and Turkish Kurds alike.
Any US-PKK dialogue would make the PKK less likely to resume violence against the Turkish army, as this would tarnish its burgeoning legitimacy. Turkey could yet turn the situation to its advantage and make goodwill gestures to the Syrian Kurds. These could include opening the sealed border with the PYD-controlled town of Serkaniye (Ras al Ain). The fact that US drones flew drone reconnaissance missions over Kobani out of the Incirlik air base has gone largely unnoticed in the media. So Turkey actually has helped, but chose not to advertise this.
The Kurds adeptly used the media and global public opinion — which depicted them as the region’s secular, pro-Western force, a space formerly occupied by Turkey — to draw the US into the battle for Kobani. The battle for Kobani then became a symbol of the contest between IS and the coalition, one that the US could no longer afford to lose. Moreover, the concentration of IS forces around Kobani allowed the US to inflict heavy losses on IS fighters.
Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is probably unhappy about US engagement with the PYD/PKK, which he views as rivals. But, unlike Turkey, he has turned the situation to his own advantage by projecting himself as a benevolent leader who has aided fellow Kurds in their time of need.
The US will use its new leverage over the PYD to push the Kurds to engage with factions opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, particularly the Free Syrian Army. The YPG’s existing battleground alliance with various rebel factions will, therefore, probably expand.
Is the de facto non-aggression pact between the Syrian regime and the Kurds coming unstuck? It’s too early to say, because the US insists that its military intervention in Syria is limited to countering IS. The Kurds are likely to continue to hedge their bets for as long as they can.
And what of the PYD’s other primary benefactor, Iran? Will its friendship with the Americans anger the clerics? Much will depend on whether the US and Iran can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Should the talks fail, the PKK may become an instrument of US policy to be used against Iran.
Any alliance in the Middle East should never be taken for granted.
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