US plan for Kurdish force in Syria pushes alliance with Turkey to breaking point

The escalating row over Syria could have long-term consequences for Turkish-American ties.
Sunday 21/01/2018
A fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) monitors the area of Afrin along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, last June

Washington - Turkey’s ties with the United States are strained to a breaking point over US plans to maintain a Kurdish force in northern Syria and amid preparations by An­kara to send its soldiers across the border into a Syrian-Kurdish area.

Ankara warned that damage to bilateral relations could be far-reaching. Turkey Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told US Secre­tary of State Rex Tillerson that the developments could hurt Turkish- American ties “in an irreversible manner.”

The row erupted over reported US plans to build a “border force” of up to 30,000 fighters dominated by Syrian Kurds to secure north­ern Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a US-led “terror army” that had to be crushed be­fore it could do any harm.

At the same time, the Turkish Army shelled positions of Kurdish fighters near the north-western Syrian city of Afrin, close to the Turkish border. Reports in Turkey said the military sent tank units and troops to the border near Afrin, which has been under Kurdish con­trol since 2012. An armed interven­tion by his country in Afrin could start “at any moment,” Erdogan said.

A senior US State Department of­ficial said Washington did not be­lieve “a military operation serves the cause of regional stability, Syr­ian stability or indeed Turkish con­cerns about the security of their border.” The official called Turkey’s moves “destabilising.”

Tillerson tried to calm the issue by saying some US officials “mis­spoke” when talking about the Kurdish force. The unit was not a “border force” but was there to “ensure that local elements are pro­viding security to liberated areas.” That explanation failed to satisfy Turkey, however. Ankara sees any US-backed Kurdish fighting force of any significance as a national secu­rity threat.

Observers said the dispute dem­onstrates that US goals in Syria are incompatible with Turkey’s pri­orities. “The problem for Turkey is that America has sided with Kurd­ish nationalism” in Syria, said Josh­ua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the Uni­versity of Oklahoma. He added that Washington was unlikely to change course because the administration was determined to use its alliance with Syrian Kurds to block Iranian influence in Syria. “Turkey is col­lateral damage,” Landis said.

Turkey and the United States, two NATO countries whose alli­ance goes back decades, have been at odds over Syria and other issues for years but have succeeded in preventing their differences from poisoning their overall relation­ship. That seems to be changing. The Erdogan government and the pro-government media increas­ingly describe the United States as an adversary determined to follow policies that harm Turkey.

“A country — which we call our ally — is insisting on having an army of terror along our border de­spite our objections, warnings and well-meaning advice,” Erdogan said.

The Turkish leader called on the United States not to position itself between Turkey and a “gang of murderers,” a reference to the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG). “Other­wise we will not be responsible for any unwanted incidents that could emerge later,” Erdogan said.

Washington sees the YPG as the most effective fighting force in northern Syria and as an indis­pensable partner in battling the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey warns that the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been fight­ing for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984 and is listed as a terror­ist organisation by both Ankara and Washington.

The escalating row over Syria could have long-term consequenc­es for Turkish-American ties. How­ard Eissenstat, associate professor at St Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fel­low at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said one group of policymakers in the United States was convinced that the relationship with Turkey was “worth protecting” but hawks in US political circles, especially in Congress, were determined to teach Ankara a lesson.

“They feel that Turkey has need­lessly endangered the relationship and needs to be shown that this has costs,” Eissenstat said in e-mailed remarks. The risk was “that mis­calculation or miscommunication on either side risks throwing the whole relationship into a spiral that neither side really wants and could be costly for both.”

Erdogan has been fanning the flames with belligerent rhetoric. Talking about what would be the third military intervention into Syria since 2016, the Turkish leader said Turkey would “get rid of terror nests one by one in Syria starting with Afrin and Manbij,” a city east of Afrin. An intervention could lead to clashes between the Turkish Army, NATO’s second largest fight­ing force after the US military, and America’s YPG allies.

Turkey has accused the United States of sending thousands of lor­ries full of arms and ammunition to the YPG. Ankara had hoped for a long time that American sup­port for the Kurds would end with the military defeat of ISIS but a speech by Tillerson on January 17, in which the secretary of state spoke of a continued US military presence and the existence of the Kurdish force in northern Syria, in­dicated that Kurdish fighters there will continue to be equipped and backed by the United States.

Erdogan’s tough talk came de­spite the fact that any ground in­tervention into Afrin would require a nod by Russia, the most powerful actor in the Syrian drama. Approxi­mately 100 Russian soldiers are de­ployed in Afrin, the state-run Turk­ish news agency Anadolu reported.

Moscow has been trying to por­tray itself as a peace broker in Syria more than two years after it sent its air force to support President Bashar Assad. A new Turkish in­tervention into Syria would be a blow for Russia’s efforts to paint a picture of a country where the war is coming to an end. It is unclear whether the Kremlin would agree to a limited Turkish operation that would not endanger Russian ser­vicemen.

YPG chief Sipan Hemo told the Kurdish news agency ANF his forces were determined to defend Afrin and Manbij. “Our forces will be able to cleanse the area from Erdogan’s scourges, just as we were able to cleanse it from Daesh,” Hemo said, using the Ara­bic acronym for ISIS. Anadolu, in a reference to the YPG, put the number of “terrorists” in Afrin at 8,000-10,000.