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