Can the US provide autonomy for Kurds in Syria?
The rift between Turkey and its biggest military ally the U.S. is continuing over two major issues. One is the ongoing activities of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of being behind the military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The other is Washington’s decision to collaborate in Syria with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as the ground force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The YPG is considered the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been involved in a three-decade fight against NATO member Turkey and is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
In an Aug. 1 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised the efforts of President Donald Trump’s anti-ISIL coalition envoy Brett McGurk, despite Turkish protests against McGurk’s statements on July 29 accusing Turkey of turning a blind eye to al-Qaeda members using the Turkish border to cross into Syria, particularly to the town of Idlib, as well as sending tens of thousands of arms there, which is not helping U.S. efforts. In the same statement, Tillerson also praised U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass for his efforts to keep relations with Turkey on track against all odds.
He has a point there, but that is not the main issue. The main issue is the U.S.’s strategy in Syria to defeat ISIL not by not sending GI Joes but by using the PKK militia as a ground force through the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and coordinated by McGurk.
As one of the world’s most resilient illegal organizations, the PKK - which was established in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization aiming to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – has agreed to mobilize all of its forces to act as infantry for the U.S., which they used to claim was an “imperialist” power until a few years ago. Indeed, it was the CIA that helped Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) arrest PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan as he left the Greek Embassy in Kenya back in 1999.
The PKK sees a golden opportunity in the Syria civil war to establish the first autonomous Kurdish region under its own control. The other one is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which is under the control of traditionalist Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. This is the reason why the PKK abandoned the proxy dialogue with the Turkish government carried out under - then prime minister, now president - Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan was not too happy with the dialogue either, and it collapsed in 2015 with the resumption of the PKK’s acts of terror in Turkey after a pause of nearly three years. At almost the same time as the collapse of the dialogue process, Turkey opened its strategic İncirlik Air Base to the flights of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. Indeed, Ankara is also an active member of the anti-ISIL coalition, with its military officers taking part in the coalition’s operations center in Doha, Qatar.
In the hope of avoiding Turkish objections, the Americans established the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) front with the participation of some Arab tribes, but the main body in the SDF remained the YPG.
The question is whether the U.S. can help provide autonomy for Kurds in Syria once ISIL is defeated. The answer is no, because ultimately the territory does not belong to the U.S. In the end, it will still be Syrian territory. The decision will therefore be up to the Syrian government, which currently owes its survival to the support of Russia and Iran.
The PKK itself knows this. When the time comes, the PKK’s chiefs in their headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq, near the Iranian and Turkish borders, know who they have to agree with for autonomy. When the time comes, the Americans can only suggest such a move to the Russians and to the Syria government.
So in the end, all that the U.S. is doing now is empowering the PKK against its NATO ally Turkey, whether it be for the good cause of defeating ISIL without getting American soldiers killed.