Turkey’s dilemma in Syria as ISIL faces defeat
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel and Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti were due in Ankara on Dec. 11, as this piece was being written, for talks with Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar.
According to press reports the main topic of discussion during this surprise visit would be the question of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the U.S. supports in Syria in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington have down as a terrorist organization. Although the U.S. refuses to sever its ties with the YPG, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said recently that President Donald Trump promised him Washington would stop arming this group in due course.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. military officials continue to say that while their cooperation with the YPG will continue, the weapons they gave to this group will be reclaimed once ISIL is defeated.
Turkey has no confidence in any of these promises. It is understandably concerned that the arms supplied to the YPG will end up in PKK hands and be used against Turkish security forces. Ankara says it has evidence to show that this has already happened.
Ankara also remains unhappy about Washington’s ties with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the umbrella organization that the YPG operates under. While the concern regarding U.S. arms to the YPG will remain, the real problem for Ankara - as the endgame in Syria in terms of defeating ISIL approaches – will be the political support the PYD gets from Washington.
The PYD holds a large swathe of territory in northern Syria, where the YPG defeated ISIL with U.S. support. It has already been setting up local governments there. Any indication that the Syrian Kurds - whether they operate under the PYD banner or some other name - will gain some degree of self-rule, even if this is within a unified Syria, remains unacceptable to Ankara.
The problem for Ankara is even more complicated given the fact that the PYD and the YPG also have the support of Moscow, not just Washington. What’s more, Russia has made it clear that the Kurds, which in this case means the PYD, should have a voice in efforts to establish the post-war Syria.
Turkey is unhappy about this but is not hitting out at Russia the way it hits out at the U.S. over this issue. There was no official response from Ankara, for example, to a photograph last week showing senior YPG commanders with a Russian general posing in front of the group’s banner and a Russian flag. If it had been an American general in the photo, Erdoğan and his supporters would have raised hell.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to visit Ankara on Dec. 11, following a surprise meeting with Bashar al - Assad in Syria. No doubt Erdoğan brought this matter up in their talks. Nevertheless, Erdoğan continues to refuse to criticize Russia publicly over its support for the YPG because he needs his growing ties with Putin to counterbalance his deteriorating ties with the U.S. and Europe.
What makes matters worse for Ankara, however, is the fact that the U.S. and Russia appear to be in agreement on some basics with regard to how to proceed when trying to establish the new Syria. This includes an agreement that there should be a place for the Kurds under the Syrian sun.
Until Turkey is prepared to move to a realistic and holistic approach to the Kurdish question, it will continue to face serious obstacles in Syria in this regard, as long as the Kurds have the support of two superpowers that are unlikely to dump them.
The bottom line is that the defeat of ISIL in Syria will rapidly focus attention on the next stage in Syria. This is unlikely to unfold the way Ankara wants, unless it comes up with a different and more productive approach to the Kurdish question.