Terrorists for Turkey, heroes for US and Russia
When the insignia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a red star on a yellow triangle – a version of the symbol of many left-wing militant organizations around the world – first appeared as badges on the arms of the U.S. Special Forces in Syria in May 2016, the Turkish government was furious about it.
The speculation then was that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) had deliberately allowed those photos to be leaked to the press so that the Turkish army would not hit the YPG militants who were collaborating with U.S. forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DEASH in Arabic.
That was before the Syria town of Manbij was taken from the hands of ISIL in August 2016, with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a front organization whose spine is made up by the YPG. That was a month after the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, which temporarily paralyzed the Turkish army and 10 days before Turkey started its own operation in Syria, backing Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels under the auspices of the Euphrates Shield Operation.
The YPG is the military wing of the Syria-based Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is actually the Syrian sister (“cousin” is the word used by former CIA chief David Petraeus) of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed campaign since 1984 against Turkey, which is a NATO member like the U.S.
The U.S. designates the PKK as a terrorist organization and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was arrested in Kenya in 1999 thanks to a joint operation by the CIA and Turkish intelligence, MİT.
Turkey has been asking the U.S. to drop the YPG as a partner so that Ankara and Washington can take Raqqa together with the help of rebel Arab forces.
U.S. officials have said they were aware of the organic relations between the YPG and the PKK but they do not consider the YPG as a terrorist organization; they need the YPG as foot soldiers against ISIL.
Early in March, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the Turkish army would march on Manbij and hit any YPG militants they saw there, the “don’t” answer came from Russia. The Russian army announced that the YPG militia would leave Manbij and the area to Syria regime forces under the oversight of Russian special forces.
Last week, Russian special forces established a “cease-fire monitoring station” in Afrin, in Syria’s northwest. The area is very close to the Turkish border and has been under the control of the YPG for at least the last four years. The move was tantamount to telling Turkey not to do anything against the YPG if they do not want to take the risk of hitting any Russian soldiers.
On March 22, photos of Russian special forces with YPG badges appeared in the international media.
The Russian Foreign Ministry took the Turkish protests carefully and said they were ready to discuss it during a separate meeting in Moscow on March 29.
In practical terms, the YPG, which is a terrorist to Turkey, can be considered to be under the protection of both the U.S. and Russia.
Like adding insult to injury for President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, the Pentagon announced on March 22, the same day that the Russians appeared with YPG badges, that they had parachuted some SDF forces behind ISIL lines near Raqqa with the support of artillery and helicopters.
The Pentagon said “Syrian Arab forces” but the YPG shared photos of their militants in parachute outfits, saying they had been dropped in by the Americans.
Therefore, the YPG which shares the same command and control, budget, human resources and arsenal with the PKK, has the ability to conduct airdrop operations thanks to the U.S.
Seasoned U.S. Senator John McCain said on the same day that the Donald Trump administration was in a dilemma. It will be very difficult for U.S. forces to execute the Raqqa plan without the YPG after having collaborated for the last three years, he said, but noted that NATO ally Turkey would also be very upset by that.
Will that mean the U.S. can find a way to calm down Turkey, for example, by taking some steps regarding some kind of legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who is accused by Ankara of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt? There is no indication to comment on that. But if anything happens, it is not likely to take place before the April 16 referendum, in which Erdoğan is seeking approval for the consolidation of all executive power in his presidential hands.
But this issue is likely to be another headache for Erdoğan as he heads for the crucial referendum.