Germany says it is talking to Syrian Kurds, risking Turkey’s anger

Sunday 09/10/2016
Pro-Kurdish demonstrators carry a flag showing Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, as they protest against Turkish authorities during the spring festival of Newroz celebrations in downtown Hanover, last March.

Washington - As Turkey and the United States squabble about Washington’s support for a Kurdish faction in Syria that Ankara re­gards as a terrorist organisation, Germany disclosed it is in contact with the same group, a develop­ment that could increase tensions between Turkey and its Western partners.
A leading German deputy, speak­ing in Washington, said that Berlin was conducting discreet talks with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s main Kurdish party, whose armed wing, the People’s Protec­tion Units (YPG), has carved out Kurdish-ruled regions in northern Syria.
“We are trying to use our diplo­matic channels to talk to our Turk­ish friends but also to use low-level contacts we have with the political representatives of the PYD,” said Niels Annen, foreign policy spokes­man for Germany’s Social Demo­crats in the Bundestag. It was the first time a senior German politi­cian publicly mentioned the talks.
Turkey claims that the PYD and the YPG are subgroups of the Kurd­istan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for more than 30 years and declared a terrorist organisa­tion by Turkey and the West. Wash­ington regards the PYD and the YPG as the only forces strong and deter­mined enough to push back against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria and has supported them. The United States and Germany say they do not regard the PYD or the YPG as terrorist outfits.
Annen admitted that Berlin’s ap­proach was ambivalent given that the PYD’s “mother organisation, the PKK, is a banned terrorist or­ganisation in Germany”. Still, the Syrian Kurds were the only efficient fighting force confronting ISIS, he said, adding: “We believe that in that circumstance fighting ISIS should be our common interest.”
The talks with the PYD were de­signed to calm tensions between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey, An­nen added. Germany was very concerned about “an additional conflict” in northern Syria. “It is certainly necessary for both sides to engage in political discussions,” he said.
A German source said Berlin was using the contacts with the PYD to ask the Kurds to refrain from adver­tising their self-declared autonomy in northern Syria too loudly. “We are telling them to tone it down” because of Ankara’s angry reaction, said the source, who declined to be named because he was comment­ing on confidential talks conducted by intelligence agencies.
The Kurds have declared what they call autonomous cantons along the border with Turkey. One Kurdish region stretches from the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east to the Euphrates in the west with an­other enclave further west near Afrin. Turkey is concerned that Kurdish gains in Syria could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state that could stir up un­rest among Turkey’s Kurdish mi­nority. One of the goals of Ankara’s military intervention in Syria that started in late August is to prevent the two Kurdish regions in northern Syria from uniting.
Berlin’s talks with the PYD are among efforts by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to prevent additional tensions in the Turkish-Syrian border region that could trigger a new wave of refu­gees.
Germany, which last year took in about 1 million refugees, many of them from Syria, however, has to tread carefully. It is in conflict with Turkey because it gave per­mission for Syrian Kurds to open an office in Berlin, a step condemned by Turkish politicians. Ankara also criticised a visit by PYD leader Salih Muslim to Germany last month.
This development comes at a time of deepening distrust between Turkey and its Western partners. A deal between the European Un­ion and Turkey to stop the refugee flow to Europe, which has been hailed by Merkel as a key reason why refugee numbers have fallen sharply since March, could unravel over a dispute concerning Ankara’s demand for visa-free travel to the European Union. At the same time, US President Barack Obama is look­ing into a proposal by US Defense Department to send American mili­tary supplies directly to the YPG.
“Our position is clear,” a Turkish diplomatic source told The Arab Weekly. “For us, the YPG is a PKK offshoot organisation.” The source said Ankara’s principal argument against US support for the YPG is that it is unacceptable to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorist groups. The source also stressed that Turkey had noth­ing against Syrian Kurds in general but was opposed to what it sees as Kurdish terrorist groups there.
“The YPG has set its goals,” the Turkish source said in reference to the Kurdish drive for autonomy in northern Syria. “For us, it is not ac­ceptable that [the YPG] takes part in the alliance against [ISIS].”
Germany also is supporting Iraqi Kurds in their fight against ISIS, sending tens of thousands of as­sault rifles, pistols and heavy ma­chine guns as well as millions of rounds of ammunition and hun­dreds of portable anti-tank missile systems to Kurdish government forces in northern Iraq.
Turkey has warned that Western weapons could end up with the YPG or the PKK and be used against Turkish security forces. According to unconfirmed Turkish news re­ports, several Western-made arms have been spotted being used by YPG and PKK fighters.