In a blistering Jan. 11 editorial in The Washington Post, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu didn’t mince words: “Turkey has been expected to endure the morally bankrupt cooperation between our strategic ally and the YPG/PYD. As the PKK is ever emboldened to continue its terrorist campaign, the Turkish people are justifiably asking some hard questions,” he wrote.
Cavusoglu was referring to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militia fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
That same day, Turkey and the United States elevated their row over the Syrian Kurds to the Twittersphere when US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the US-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, took the unusual step of retweeting a Jan. 10 statement by its Kurdish-led allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which they denied any links to the PKK.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin summed up his government’s ire a few hours later in a counter-tweet: “Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group.”
Turkey wants Washington to sever its ties to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) because the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the dominant militia in the SDF, and the PYD are closely allied with the PKK. The latter is waging a bloody campaign inside Turkey and escalated its attacks in recent months after a 2½-year cease-fire collapsed in August 2015, with plenty of prodding from the Turkish side.
Washington has turned a deaf ear to Turkish carping on the issue, and CENTCOM’s retweet is being treated by Ankara as an ominous sign that the United States will press ahead with plans to arm and train the SDF ahead of a planned offensive to retake Raqqa from the IS jihadis. While the prevailing consensus holds that the SDF is the only force capable of capturing Raqqa, US President Barack Obama will likely leave the formal decision on training and equipping its fighters to the incoming Donald Trump administration.
Signs are that the new administration will continue to do business with the Kurds while sufficiently placating Turkey to avoid endangering its access to the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey until the job is done. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, signaled as much in comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jan. 11, saying that he backed the plan. Tillerson described the Syrian Kurds as “great US allies” and spoke of the need to “recommit to them” and to provide them with “new capabilities” to advance on Raqqa.
In a sop to Ankara, Tilllerson also said, “We have to re-engage with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, this is a long-standing NATO ally. Due to the absence of US leadership, he got pretty nervous about the situation. He has turned to his next available ally, he has turned to Russia. To make it clear to him, this is not a sustainable ally. Your sustainable alliance is with the United States.”
Without a doubt, in private conversations, US officials tell their Turkish counterparts that Washington’s alliance with the Syrian Kurds is purely tactical, and once IS is defeated, it will end. There is growing acknowledgement in Washington that the YPG and the PKK are intertwined, but that said, Turkish officials continue to huff at statements that belie the assurances given. They were particularly incensed Jan. 11 by State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner’s comments that the Syrian Kurds need to be at the negotiating table in talks on Syria’s future.
The prevailing distrust has been amplified by Turkey’s claims that the United States is spurning its demands to help Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces take the IS-held town of al-Bab. The two-month-old campaign has gotten bogged down in the face of fierce IS resistance, as graphically reported in a recent roundup by The Associated Press.
US officials have retorted that Turkey is not permitting them to fly surveillance drones to gather enemy intelligence in the area. Yet Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis seemed to contradict that claim in a statement to Ragip Soylu, Washington correspondent of the pro-government Daily Sabah. Soylu reported that Davis had conveyed to him, “The US wouldn’t ask permission of any country when it wants to conduct intelligence and surveillance operations in Syria.”
Turkish officials insist that US prevarication, as they see it, is likely linked to efforts to keep Turkish forces bogged down in al-Bab and therefore away from the YPG. Turkey has vowed to dislodge the Syrian Kurds from the town of Manbij once they take al-Bab, all part of a campaign to roll back the Syrian Kurds’ dizzying territorial gains that were secured largely with US-coalition air support.
Meanwhile, a YPG official contacted in northern Syria told Al-Monitor that clashes erupted Jan. 12, at 12:30 local Syrian time, between Turkish-backed FSA forces and YPG-allied Manbij military council fighters south of Jarablus, around the Sajur stream, the dividing line between the two groups.
The official said fighters on both sides had been wounded, but he could not confirm how many. The official contended that the foray was intended to distract the YPG and the SDF from their ongoing campaign to clear and hold the Raqqa countryside and deflect attention from Turkey's difficulties in al-Bab. The YPG's claims could not be independently confirmed.
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