Turkey’s Syria plans face setbacks as Kurds see more US support
Ankara - Turkey has lost momentum in the war in northern Syria as the United States draws on Kurdish allies in the assault on Islamic State-held Raqqa. Ankara, however, is still pressing Washington for a deal that allays its fears of Kurdish ascendancy.
Syrian Kurdish groups, though, sense Washington is more firmly behind them than before, a shift they hope will aid their ambitions for autonomy after years of persecution by the Syrian government.
One of the most complicated theatres in the multisided Syrian conflict, the war in the north has played out at lightning pace in recent weeks with Islamic State (ISIS) fighters losing territory.
The Russian-backed Syrian Army has benefited from this, creating a corridor to the Euphrates river that secures Aleppo’s water supplies and suggests at least tacit coordination with US-allied Kurdish militia — at Turkey’s expense.
In a swipe at Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said it was unfortunate that some of Turkey’s allies had chosen the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unions (YPG) militia as a partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
“Such a harsh step in completely excluding Turkey there will cause a problem for relations between the countries,” a senior Turkish official said. “Hence a share point must be found. Talks are still continuing.”
Turkey has seized a pocket of Syrian land on its southern borders since launching Euphrates Shield operation in August. Its main aim was to prevent a contiguous Kurdish-held corridor it fears could threaten its security.
The rise of Kurdish power in northern Syria has alarmed Ankara, which views the Kurdish groups there as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting Turkey for 32 years.
Turkey’s military chief has discussed Syria with his US and Russian counterparts.
Ankara had hoped to advance its strategy in northern Syria by persuading Washington to abandon its Kurdish allies and switch support to Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels for the final assault on Raqqa, a northern Syrian city that is the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Such hopes, however, have faded. Conflicting US and Turkish agendas have surfaced over Manbij, a city controlled by Kurdish-allied militia since its 2016 capture from ISIS. A deployment of US forces there recently deterred a threatened Turkish attack.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made clear Turkish sensitivities about the presence of the YPG militia, which is associated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), in Manbij.
“We will not allow the YPG’s canton dreams (to come true),” NTV television cited Cavusoglu as saying. “If we go to Manbij and the PYD is there, we will hit them.”
The YPG says it withdrew from Manbij after helping capture it last year, leaving it in the control of allied militia of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an alliance that includes the YPG and Arab fighters. Washington has built its strategy around the SDF.
The Pentagon said the aim of its Manbij deployment was to ensure parties in the area did not attack each other.
A top US commander has given an unusually robust defence of the YPG, saying he had seen no evidence linking it to attacks on Turkey and signalling a role for it in the final push for Raqqa — a predominantly Arab city.
With US-led coalition air support and special forces backing on the ground, the SDF has gradually encircled Raqqa since November. It has cut the last main road from Raqqa to the jihadists’ stronghold of Deir ez-Zor.
Apart from the pocket of territory held by Turkey, the YPG controls the northern Syrian border.
Senior Syrian Kurdish official Aldar Xelil said recent events showed Washington was telling Ankara: “Look, these are your limits… It appears that the Americans have made up their minds”, he said by telephone from the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli in north-eastern Syria.
Xelil said he foresaw eventual US political engagement with Syrian Kurdish groups — something Washington has largely avoided. In line with Turkish wishes, the PYD has been consistently left out of UN-led peace talks on Syria.
“Let’s say tomorrow Daesh (ISIS) is finished — and it will be — what about the political solution?” Xelil asked. “Won’t they ask what is the solution? It needs a plan and the most reasonable one is a federal one based not on ethnicity or religion, but geography.”
Turkey still hopes Washington will be forced to draw on its support in one way or another.
Away from the battlefield, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot afford to appear to have been sidelined. He faces an April referendum on sweeping new powers he deems vital to a country facing spillover of violence from Syria.