A deep cleavage of distrust resurrected at Al-Naim Square
When the U.S. Embassy in Ankara two weeks ago announced that they suspended non-immigrant visa services in Turkey as a reaction to the arrest of a locally employed staff member, Turks started wondering what could be worse. Indeed they did not have to wait long to witness yet another grand symbol of a deep cleavage of distrust between the two countries. Kurds fighting for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who last week captured Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, appeared in front of a giant poster of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), dedicating their victory to him.
In fact, members of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who stood in front of that poster at the iconic Al-Naim Square did a great service to Ankara, which has been going above and beyond to stop Washington arming and assisting the PKK. At first, the U.S. argument was “the YPG is not the same thing as the PKK.” When the organic bond between the two groups became too obvious to deny, the U.S. had to find a new excuse. American officials started telling their Turkish counterparts that YPG elements will be wiped off from the SDF once the fight for Raqqa is over.
Only hours after the YPJ’s deliberate show-off in Raqqa in front of Öcalan’s poster, I was at the press briefing room of the Pentagon trying to ask two spokespeople at the podium if they had a problem with their fighting partners openly praising an organization designated as “terrorist” by the U.S. law. The only comment we could get from Dana White, who serves as the Pentagon Chief Spokesperson for both the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, was that they would continue to work with the SDF.
Amid outrage from Turkey, the U.S. had to clarify its position two days later by declaring “PKK leader Öcalan is not worthy of respect.” This was unfortunately too little, too late. This was something Americans needed to take into account before empowering the YPG as a key player in Syria. At a panel in Washington last week, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara and Baghdad James Jeffrey criticized Americans who encouraged Iraqi Kurds for an independence referendum, saying, “I do not know what they were smoking.” It feels like his words are a perfect fit for the U.S. and the YPG relationship as well. Today, anyone in Washington who thinks they would be able to put the genie back into the bottle is simply delusional.
The cheer by the U.S. for the military victories of the YPG/Democratic Union Party (PYD) does not necessarily mean this would be a free ticket for Kurdish independence in Syria. Kurds recently experienced in Iraq that they could be an easy sell for the U.S. when it comes to ultimate American interests in the Middle East. However, it is highly unlikely that the PYD will back down from the self-governing cantons of Rojava. Another factor that should not be forgotten is that the Syrian Kurds have won great sympathy in the West by proposing a secular project for the region, which is shattered by jihadist ideologies.
What makes this picture much more gloomy for Ankara are the reports which suggest Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov meeting PKK leader Murat Karayılan and Ali Mamlouk, the head of Bashar al-Assad’s national security bureau, in Rojava’s capital Qamishli. Since the war broke out in Syria, Ankara insisted the Assad regime shouldered the YPG whenever necessary. Thus, negotiations between Rojava and Damascus for a post-ISIL Syria shall not be a shocker for Turkey. Yet Russia’s eagerness to broker a political solution for Syrian Kurds is probably very distressing for Ankara, especially after a year of cozying up with Moscow on key issues including the Astana process.
The war in Syria has been a litmus test for the alliance between Turkey and the U.S. who had already lost “the reason d’etre” of their relations by the end of the Cold War. The Barack Obama administration’s support to the Gezi protests, Fetullah Gülen and key members of his network still residing in the U.S., as well as Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab’s case in New York pushed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government further away from what was once defined as “a strategic alliance.” With new disputes on the horizon for both in terms of Syria, Metin Topuz and the Zarrab cases, the relations are drifting toward a catastrophe. Meanwhile, Turkey’s alternative alliances with Russia and Iran have not proven to be much robust either.