Trump walks tightrope between Turkish, Kurdish allies

The confrontation in north-eastern Syria seems on tipping edge, as Erdogan plans to launch a new offensive, completely ignoring US requests for self-restraint.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Conflicting agendas.  Turkish  Defence  Minister Hulusi Akar (L) speaks with US Secretary of Defence James Mattis during a NATO meeting in Brussels, on October 4. (Reuters)
Conflicting agendas. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (L) speaks with US Secretary of Defence James Mattis during a NATO meeting in Brussels, on October 4. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - US President Donald Trump is trying hard to walk the tightrope between the Turks, his country’s historic NATO allies and Kurdish beneficiaries on the Syrian battlefield.

On a personal level, Trump seems to sincerely believe in Kurdish nationalist aspirations and sees them as vital allies in the war on terror, often praising their battle acumen against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Kurds are the only militias on the Syrian battlefield still receiving US arms and money, with $300 million allocated for their armament in 2019 and $290 million set aside for their brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga.

Trump also realises, however, that if the Turks are crossed once too often, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would gladly and swiftly let his country slip into the Russian orbit. Erdogan already gravely mistrusts the Trump administration and seems to get along perfectly well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his partner in the Syrian peace process in Astana.

Today, the confrontation in north-eastern Syria seems on tipping edge, as Erdogan plans to launch a new offensive against Kurdish separatists in the area, completely ignoring US requests for self-restraint.

Those militias are a threat to Turkish national security, Erdogan claims, all affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led a military insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. In 2016, Erdogan’s troops marched across the border, eradicating Kurdish presence and that of ISIS in Syrian towns Azaz, Jarabulus and al-Bab.

Last February, they marched into Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, deep within Russia’s sphere of influence, overrunning the city and expelling its Kurdish inhabitants to the north of Aleppo.

Erdogan claims that they will not rest until the remaining Kurds are eradicated in Manbij, also west of the Euphrates, al-Hasakah and Qamishli.

More than 1,200 Syrian fighters have been shipped into Turkish training camps from the countryside of Aleppo, tasked with preparing for a “big battle” with “Kurdish terrorists” before Christmas.

This puts Trump in a particularly difficult position with very few options to pick from. He can either convince his Turkish counterpart to delay the operation, perhaps even put if off completely, or he can look the other way as the Turkish Army pounds Kurdish militias carrying American weapons, armed and trained by the CIA since 2016.

The US president initially tried the first option, as US forces set up joint patrols with the Turkish Army around Manbij this month with observation points along the northern border. He then put a $12 million bounty on the head of three “wanted” Kurdish separatists, hoping that this would please Erdogan.

Undaunted, the Turkish leader snapped: “We know very well how those who declare the PKK terrorists and place bounties on their leaders work together with them.”

He wants the United States to blacklist Kurdish militias in Syria and to stop doing business with them. US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey made it clear that this won’t happen, saying: “Our position on the PKK is clear, but we don’t classify the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as a terrorist organisation. We have never done that.”

The maverick Turkish president is still upset with the United States giving Kurdish militias rather than the Turkish Army the honours of liberating Raqqa, the former self-proclaimed capital of ISIS. He also had his eyes on Manbij, but it too was brought under Kurdish rule in mid-2016.

Syrian Kurds are also cautious about dealing with the unpredictable Trump, feeling that he might abandon them any minute, despite all assurances to the contrary.

Trump has already hinted that he wants to withdraw US troops from Syria but is only keeping them to counterbalance Iran’s presence. If he puts his words into action, it would spell disaster for the Kurds.

They have been told by various US visitors that the president is upset with their mediocre resistance in Afrin, appalled by the fact that despite all training and assistance, they were unable to repel last February’s Turkish operation. The Americans failed to pull through with their backing for total Kurdish independence in Iraq and failed to bring about an autonomous entity for them in Syria

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reached out to Damascus earlier this year, requesting military assistance to fight off the Turkish assault. Syrian officialdom conditioned full surrender of al-Hasakah and Qamishli and the return of government agencies to all Kurdish cities. The SDF said no, suggesting instead that they retake war-torn Raqqa only.

An SDF delegation visited the Syrian capital earlier this summer, also seeking joint action against the Turks. Those talks collapsed after Turkish militias attacked and killed 18 government troops in Qamishli last September.

Syrian assistance to the Kurds would require a go-ahead by the Russians, who would never approve such action today, certainly not when the Putin-Erdogan relationship is going so well.

This leaves the Kurds with one option, to fight until the curtain falls, waiting for the Americans to impose a ceasefire or truce while hoping that the upcoming battle only strengthens them, rather than bringing them down completely.