The story of the US giving a medal to a Turkish general on Syria
On Jan. 26, when combined Kurdish ground troops supported by U.S. air forces, regained control over the Syrian town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) near the Turkish border after the retreat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces, Turkish Land Forces Commander General Hulusi Akar landed in the U.S.
The same day, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, officially thanked Turkey for allowing the KRG's Peshmerga forces to use Turkish territory to cross into Kobane as reinforcements to the other Kurdish fighters resisting ISIL's advance.
The resisting Kurdish forces were the militia People’s Defense Forces (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Forces (YPJ) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which is in line with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK had also mobilized its militants in Turkey and Iraq in Kobane.
The Peshmerga forces were allowed to use Turkish territory following a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Oct. 19 (Oct. 18 in DC). Then, on Oct. 20, the U.S. Air Force started to drop weapons and ammunition to Kurdish forces against ISIL.
Before Barzani’s praise, one of his close aides reminded the press that the KRG appreciated Turkey’s move to open its territory for the Peshmerga, which Ankara had denied back in 2003 for U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, the U.S. had planned the opening of a “Northern Front” if Turkey permitted the use of its territory. But the Turkish parliament ended up turning down a government motion on March 1, 2003. The 4th Infantry Division, which was waiting off the Turkish Mediterranean coast, therefore had to be deployed to Iraq through Kuwait and the north. But the Turkish border was kept open by collaborating with Kurdish forces, which has made them a favored American partner in the region ever since.
Turkish-American relations hit a bottom when Turkish Special Forces based in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region in Iraq, as a part of an international deal, were arrested on July 4, 2003. They were arrested in a particularly humiliating way, with hoods being put over their heads, over alleged reports about their “terrorist activities.”
The credit of Kurdish forces is currently on the rise in American eyes since the emergence of ISIL in Iraq, (especially after their capture of Mosul on June 10, 2014) and Syria. This is largely because they (together with the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shiite militia) have been fighting and pushing back against ISIL, together with the armed wing of the PKK, which is officially on the “terrorism” list of the U.S.
The Turkish government has been talking to the PKK in pursuit of a political settlement for the country's long running Kurdish problem. But Ankara knows that the Kobane advance of the combined Kurdish forces has boosted the psychology of the PKK and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish problem-focused party in the Turkish parliament that is also involved in the talks.
On Jan. 27, 2015, 10 HDP parliamentary deputies were in Kobane to celebrate the “victory” together with the Kurdish fighters there. Meanwhile, PKK militants held a military parade in İdil, in eastern Turkey, watched by state security forces and the rest of the people. At the same time, Akar was receiving a Legion of Merit medal in a Pentagon facility in Virginia for his “outstanding contributions to NATO.”
The medal was presented to him by General Raymond Odierno, who was the commander of the 4th Infantry Division back in 2003 and was denied passage through Turkish territory, despite Turkey being a member of NATO. He was the commander who later captured Mosul and Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and who captured Saddam later on. The unit that had arrested the Turkish Special Forces members in Sulaymaniyah was also under Odierno’s command.
Now, the world is small and Akar, who is expected to be promoted to become the Chief of General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces in August 2015, was presented a medal by the same Odierno.
Tolga Tanış, Hürriyet's correspondent in Washington D.C., reported that the justification for the medal, according to his sources was Akar’s military leadership in the Syrian theater and enabling close cooperation between Turkish and American Special Forces, which was not public knowledge in Turkey. Akar therefore becomes the second ranking general to receive the U.S. Department of Defense’s Legion of Merit, after former Chief of General Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt in 2005.