Turkey warns the US over northern Syria

Sunday 05/06/2016
Armed men in uniform identified by Syrian Democratic Forces as US special operations forces ride in the back of a pickup truck in the village of Fatisah in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa on May 25th.

Istanbul - Increasingly at odds with the United States over the fight­ing in northern Syria, Turkey is mulling unilateral military action to stop a Kurdish auton­omy drive across the border.

US support for Syrian-Kurdish groups, the Democratic Union Par­ty (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been a source of tensions between Ankara and Washington for years. While Turkey sees PYD and YPG as off-shoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self-rule within Turkey; Washington regards the Syrian Kurds as important allies in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The simmering row gave way to public complaints by Turkey’s leaders after pictures taken by an Agence France-Presse photogra­pher showed members of US spe­cial operations forces in Syria with YPG insignia on their uniforms. “I condemn America’s support for the PYD and the YPG,” Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech on May 28th. “This is not the promise that was given to us.”

While Erdogan expressed his anger, PYD leader Saleh Muslim thanked the US soldiers for wearing YPG patches. American forces were helping the Kurds and were act­ing like a “sharp knife” in the fight against ISIS, news reports quoted Muslim as saying.

Conflicting interests in the Syr­ian battle have caused cracks to appear between Turkey and the United States, strategic allies since the Cold War and partners in NATO. Ankara says the expansion of terri­tory under the PYD’s control along the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria could be a step towards creat­ing an independent Kurdish state and a threat to Turkish national se­curity.

Turkey’s concerns clash with the US top priority in Syria of stopping and weakening ISIS without a ma­jor deployment of American com­bat troops, because Washington has been closely cooperating with the PYD, seen as an efficient and pow­erful ally in battling ISIS.

Military offensives near the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate, and near Falluja in Iraq have increased pressure on the jihadist group. In Raqqa, ISIS is un­der attack from the Syrian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters dominat­ed by the YPG.

In Turkey, a country where many see the United States as a power-hungry and egoistical player in Middle Eastern affairs, Erdogan is not alone in his criticism of the US approach to Syria.

A Twitter campaign demanding that the southern Turkish air base of Incirlik be closed for US fighter jets attracted thousands of com­ments, with statements such as “Get out, USA” and “Incirlik has be­come a centre for imperialism and massacres” among the opinions expressed. Incirlik has been used as a base by the US-led international coalition for attacks on ISIS in Syria.

Turkish public opinion has also been angered by reports that the United States has shielded PYD members from Turkish artillery fire in Syria. Turkish howitzers and mis­sile launchers have targeted Syrian- Kurdish positions inside Syria sev­eral times in recent months, but Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for the Hurriyet daily known to often reflect government stances, wrote on May 31st that the United States asked Turkey to pause the bom­bardment to give PYD members the chance to vacate the area under fire.

According to Selvi, Ankara is preparing to strike PYD and YPG in Syria again if PKK suicide bombers were to perpetrate more attacks in­side Turkey. Scores of people died in February when Kurdish militants drove car bombs into a military convoy and into a crowded square in Ankara.

“If suicide attacks continue, de­stroy Daesh and YPG targets inside Syria, no matter what the interna­tional coalition says,” Selvi wrote, describing the focus of government preparations and using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. He said the Turk­ish military had completed prepa­rations for limited cross-border raids, which would be ordered by Turkey’s political leaders “no mat­ter what the international coalition says”.

Meanwhile, the Turkish govern­ment has offered its troops for joint operations in Syria to weaken the PYD’s central position in US strat­egy there. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu proposed joint Turkish-American interventions in northern Syria without involv­ing the PYD and the YPG. “If we join forces, they (the United States) have their own special forces and we have our special forces,” Cavu­soglu said. He added such a force could easily advance on Raqqa. There has been no response by the United States to the proposal.

Cavusoglu also accused the Unit­ed States of operating with a “dou­ble standard”. Washington was helping the PYD but at the same time delaying the delivery of mod­ern rocket launchers to Turkey, he said. The launchers would enable Turkish troops to fire up to 90km into Syria, as opposed to the 40km range of Turkey’s howitzers at the border.

Cavusoglu said while Turkey was ready to receive the US weapons, Washington had not honoured its promise to send the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) in May. The minister said the weap­ons were expected to arrive in Au­gust.

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