Why are Turkey and US risking their ties over a Syrian town?
Two NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey, which fought together during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, are now seemingly on a collision course, with heavy Russian involvement, because of a Syrian town held by a group that Ankara deems a terrorist organization.
The name of the town is Afrin. It is so close to Turkish border that it is within firing range of Turkish border artillery units both from its north and west. The group holding it since shortly after the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 is the Kurdish secessionist Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been in a fight with Turkey for more than three decades and is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has been using the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as its ground force since 2014 against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in eastern Syria, despite strong objections from the Turkish government. In order to bypass Ankara’s objections, the U.S. administration under Barack Obama and now Donald Trump prefer not to mention the names of the YPG or the PKK, because of their organic ties. Instead they preferred a CENTCOM-backed front organization called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). President Tayyip Erdoğan said recently that the Americans “could not fool” Turkey with this cosmetic name change.
But why is Afrin so important for both Turkey and the U.S. that they are willing to risk their alliance?
There are two main reasons for Turkey. The first goes back to pre-Syria civil war era. The PKK had used Afrin and the Amanos mountains along the north-west section of the Turkish Syrian border as one of the main stepping stones and infiltration points for its acts of terror in Turkey. In 2010 the PKK raided a naval post in İskenderun, killing seven soldiers, and raided a station in nearby Dörtyol, killing four policemen. The suspects were arrested in 2012 in the Mediterranean port of Mersin.
Turkish security sources say that following the start of U.S.-YPG collaboration in the east of Syria, bordering Turkey and Iraq, the PKK started to transfer trained militants from its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq to Syria. According to information in Ankara, some 500 of them have been deployed in the Afrin region, (which the PKK calls the Afrin Canton), over the last 12-18 months in order to give better training to YPG militants there using weaponry delivered through both American and Russian forces in Syria.
Turkish police arrested three PKK operatives in the summer of 2017 in the Aegean provinces of Aydın and Muğla in preparation for attacks on tourism resorts there. The police unveiled their route as originating from Afrin, infiltrating into Turkey via the forested mountains around the towns of Samandağ and Yayladağ, taking boats to the relatively quiet shores around the town of Silifke in Mersin province and then heading west. Another sea route used by the PKK militants is reported to be Afrin-Latakia-Mersin.
Ankara is concerned that a stronger Kurdish enclave in the Afrin and Idlib areas under YPG/PKK control poses a great threat to Turkey’s security and economic interests, also harming its struggle against acts of terror.
The other reason is concern over the formation of a continuous corridor under PKK control from the Qandil Mountains on the Iraq-Iran border to Afrin near to the Mediterranean Sea, all along Turkish borders. Suffering from its own long-running terrorism problems, with the PKK being the prime actor, Turkey does not want this at any cost. Erdoğan has called such a corridor a “terror corridor” and does not hide his anger that all this has been occurring under the protection of Turkey’s NATO ally, the U.S.
But why is the U.S. objecting to Turkish actions against the YPG so strongly, aware that it could hurt its relations “irreversibly,” as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently said after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?
One of the answers lies in Tillerson’s Jan. 17 speech about U.S. strategy in Syria. In order not to “repeat the mistakes of Iraq,” the U.S. wants to stay in Syria for a while longer, saying it wants to make sure an “ISIL 2.0 does not emerge.”
Turkey and the U.S. are on the same page on that. But in order to prevent U.S. soldiers from being killed in Syrian deserts, Washington is collaborating with the YPG, under the name of SDF, despite earlier offers from Ankara to work together with the Turkish military and the Turkey-backed rebel group the Free Syria Army (FSA).
One of the key points here is a kind of blackmailing by the PKK on the Americans. Whenever the U.S. administration, especially the State Department, makes statements showing sympathy for the Turks on Syria issues, the PKK starts giving signals that it could return to working with the Syrian government, which is currently under the protection of Russia. After all, the PKK was based in Syria between 1982 and 1998 until Turkish pressure (with the help of Iran, Egypt and the U.S.) forced Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, to send the PKK’s founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, out of the country. Öcalan was ultimately arrested as he left the Greek Embassy in Kenya in 1999 by the Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT), thanks to the help of the CIA.
There is another aspect: The Russians want the Syrian war to end as soon as possible, at least reaching some kind of agreement before Russia’s April elections, which are very important for President Vladimir Putin. The Americans are in no such hurry. As Tillerson said, they want to stay in Syria for some time longer, also in order to sooth Israel’s worries by creating a non-Arab, non-Islamist buffer zone between Iran and the western part of Syria. They need the PYD/PKK to reach this goal too.
The outlook is very complicated, but this is roughly why Turkey and the U.S. seem willing to risk their alliance over a small Syrian town.